Faster Horses

Secretariat
Secretariat

The October 5th 2017 edition of the Herald-Progress includes a letter written by myself to do with the topic of “Faster Horses”. The thesis of the letter is that transportation technology is going through enormous changes right now but that the DRPT’s thinking remains trapped in the mid 1950s.

The letter is reproduced below. A scanned copy of the printed version is available here


Henry Ford is reputed to have once said,

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

This month the DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) issued their Tier II draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). On the first page of the document is the statement,

The purpose of the DC2RVA Project is to increase capacity to deliver higher speed passenger rail, expand commuter rail, and accommodate growth of freight rail service in an efficient and reliable multimodal rail corridor.

In other words, we need faster horses.

Often better solutions to problems arise when the question is re-framed. At present the question is, “How do we increase rail capacity?” If we change the question to, “How do we reduce journey times?” then we can develop new and better answers. Maybe we can reduce journey times through the use of new technology.

Moreover, the proposed project does not address the DRPT goals listed above. Specifically,

  • It does not provide true high speed rail between Richmond and Washington D.C. High speed trains have a straight away speed of 180 mph or more. This project does not come close to achieving that target.
  • Today’s Amtrak trains are frequently quite empty. “Expanding commuter rail” will merely increase the number of empty trains. A true commuter service would have trains leaving every 20 minutes.
  • The growth in the freight capacity is an assumption that may not hold up. Data published by the Association of American Railroads shows that the number of carloads in the year 2017 to date is below the number for the years 2015 and 2016.
  • The term “multi-modal rail corridor” presumably means that both passenger and freight trains run on the same tracks as they do now. The DRPT goals would be better achieved by separating passenger and freight trains.

Over the last three decades many countries such as Japan, France, China and Spain have implemented true high speed rail networks. The DRPT project does not even get us caught up to that level of technology. They are proposing to use 1950s expertise to address the problems of the 21st century. Yet if there is one industry in the United States that is currently in a state of massive change it is the transportation industry. These changes include,

  • Autonomous/self-driving vehicles are on the horizon. Some analysts suggest that they will be in service in large numbers by the year 2025. They will be able to drive much more closely to one another than vehicles do now. Hence traffic density can safely increase.
  • The technology behind hyperloop trains is well established and is advancing quickly. Many other nations are implementing hyperloop projects. Within the United States the Hyperloop One company intends to have three routes “working in commercial capacity by 2021”. They have announced that their United States location will be in one of the following: Colorado, Illinois/Ohio/Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas. Virginia did not ask to be considered. These “trains” travel at 600 mph or more. If hyperloop tubes could be placed along the I-95 median then transportation times would decrease dramatically — without the need for additional conventional rail.
  • Commercial drones will take high value freight away from the railroads.

Currently the citizens of Ashland and Hanover county are embroiled in discussions as to where new rail tracks are to be installed. Which means that these citizens have bought into the DRPT “faster horses” paradigm that the solution to our transportation problems is to simply add more tracks. Yet were the DRPT and the Commonwealth of Virginia to pursue new technologies they could leapfrog the current high speed rail systems and become leaders in international transportation, while obviating the need for the new tracks.

Now that would put Ashland at the Center of the Universe.

 

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