Twenty Year Plan

Driverless trafficThe DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transportation) uses railroad modeling software to forecast the effect of changes to the performance of the trains. While such software is useful, and probably reasonably valid, for thinking through short-term changes, it cannot predict what is going to happen twenty years from now. Yet this is what they are attempting to do. The assume that,

 The future is a linear continuation of the present

 This assumption is particularly problematic given the profound changes that are currently taking place in the transportation industry. These include:

  • Driverless trucks that will upend the road transportation business.
  • Driverless trains.
  • Mag-lev trains in vacuum tunnels (hyperloop).
  • Great improvements to train management with the use of modern scheduling software and signaling systems.
  • Uber-like systems for both freight and passengers.

I have drafted a letter to the DRPT challenging their way of planning and urging them to include the impact of modern technology in their plans.

Fake News Comes to Ashland

We have all heard more than we want to hear about “fake news”, “factoids”, “truthiness” and “alternative facts”. Well, unfortunately, the problem has hit home.

 The Virginians for High Speed Rail (VHSR) organization recently held a rally at the Richmond Main St. station to advocate for high speed train service. They were showing “Don’t Cut Our Trains” signs. Some citizens from Ashland were also present showing their own “No Third Rail” signs. (It should be noted that Ashlanders are not opposed to high speed rail —  what we are opposed to is a third track running through town.)

Here is the picture, as presented in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (The full web address is You can see a mixture of signs.

The VHSR organization later doctored the picture to make it look like the following.


So, Fake News comes to our little town.

 P.S. One neat feature of the R T-D picture that I had not run across before is that there is a slider bar running down it: move the bar to see how the picture changes.

Letter to DRPT

Letter Ashland DRPT train safety

John Hodges and I have sent a letter/report to the DRPT expressing our concerns to do with safety and the proposed third track through Ashland. The letter, which was written on Ashland Museum letter head, has three main sections:

1. Vehicle / Train Collisions
Cars frequently drive on to the tracks. Many of these events have been recorded by the organization Virtual Railfan. In some instances the events have led to trains hitting cars. People have been injured — we are fortunate that so far there have been no fatalities. Adding an additional track and many more trains will create a safety situation that is untenable.

2. Highly Hazardous Chemicals
Approximately 6% of the freight traffic consists of tank cars carrying chemicals that are flammable, explosive or toxic. In the process industries it is normal to conduct a Formal Safety Assessment to do with such chemicals. We believe that such a study should be carried out for our community.

3. Engineering Standards
We need more detail to do with the standards for,

  1. Spacing between tracks.
  2. Spacing between the outer edge of the tracks and the first public access point.
  3. Whether modern standards will be applied to the existing tracks.

Municipal Stables

Steve Jobs High Speed Rail

In the June 8th edition of the Herald-Progress Jon Jewett, a resident of Ashland, published an editorial entitled A Closer Look at the DC2RVA Controversy. He notes that the DC2RVA project is based on an assumption that highway traffic between Richmond and Washington D.C. will continue to grow at 2% per annum, as it has done for the last 40 years. Hence the new rail service is needed to help alleviate the congestion on I-95.

But the future is not always a linear continuation of the past — step changes occur, often as a consequence of disruptive technology. Jowett suggests that we are about to experience one of those step changes with the advent of driverless trucks and cars.

Henry Ford High Speed TrainAnecdotally, Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The changes that driverless vehicles will bring about could be as disruptive as the switch from horses to the internal combustion engine. We don’t know.

In spite of the pace of technological change it appears as if the DRPT is busy, in Jowett’s words, “building new municipal stables in the early 1900’s to meet projected increases in the use of horse-drawn carriages.”

Jowett discusses the vehicle side of the issue. What about the trains? As regular readers of this blog know I have been discussing the potential for Hyperloop Trains and how they could create an end run around this whole DRPT project.

When I asked the DRPT about this concept in a formal comment I received the following response,

The 2002 Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR) Tier I Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and in subsequent studies determined that the railroad corridor would be developed incrementally parallel to the existing tracks to develop the corridor along existing track, and to rely on fossil fuel locomotives to ensure inter-operability of the infrastructure. The hyperloop concept is one that could serve the topic of future study in Virginia.

The key part of the above quotation is the number ‘2002’. We are working with a plan that was developed almost a generation ago. This appears to be, to put it mildly, short sighted.

Second CAC Meeting

The DRPT will be holding its second Community Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting at 6:00 p.m. on June 26th at Randolph-Macon College. (Notes to do with the first meeting are here. The video record is here; it’s 1:47:56 long.) Prior to the meeting John Hodges and I plan on mailing a letter/report to the DRPT covering three main heads:

  • Vehicle/Train incidents (see the post Losing Count);
  • Highly Hazardous Chemicals; and
  • Engineering Standards for Track Spacing.

We demonstrate that we already are experiencing a significant number of safety events — adding a third track and much more train traffic is untenable. Furthermore, adding fencing will have little effect, and closing crossings could actually make the safety situation worse than it is now.

There will be a public comment session so please prepare your questions and thoughts ahead of time and be prepared to speak up.

Losing Count

Amtrak car collision Ashland VA

There was yet another train/car collision today (We hear that the lady driving the car was not seriously injured.)

Thanks to Virtual Railfan for placing a video camera at the junction of England St. and Center St. A picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a thousand pictures.

There have been enough incidents in recent months that I needed to create a spreadsheet for them all. I have recorded the information that I have regarding these incidents. Some of the information is taken from memory so I would appreciate any corrections or updates that people can provide.

Can you imagine the carnage that would ensue were there to be a third track, lots more trains and ever-increasing road traffic?

Below is a snapshot of the spreadsheet. I have also posted live YouTube links (chronological order).

Ashland VA train incidents

Chinese and American High Speed Trains

High Speed Trains China America

This Business Insider article provides an intriguing and rather discouraging comparison between Chinese and American high speed trains.

The following statements caught my attention.

  • China’s Shanghai Maglev train line has been around since 2004, and is still the fastest commercial service train in the world. (Maglev technology is a key component of the hyperloop trains I keep writing about. This is not science fiction — we really can do better.)
  • Amtrak trains chug along between 100 and 150 miles per hour. (Our proposed “high speed train” will run at 70 mph max.). Bullet trains reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour. (I recall taking a high speed train in Spain. Each car had a television screen providing information on items such as the local weather conditions. The screen also showed the train’s speed. At one point we were traveling well over 300 km/hr.)
  • Amtrak’s high prices dampen its popularity. A 225-mile trip from New York to Washington, DC, on the Acela express line costs $165. China’s high speed trains are significantly cheaper. A 260-mile trip from Beijing to Jinan starts at $28.

    Chinese High Speed Train Attendant
    Carlos Barria/Reuters
  • Amtrak service attendants wear collared shirts and scarves. China’s bullet train service attendants add a hat. (The picture of the attendant on the Chinese train reminded me of my recent train journey in South Korea. Not only do the attendants dress smartly, they bow to the passengers every time they enter the car. Every time. And the passengers are equally courteous in response. Another notable feature of the Korean system was the strict separation of passenger and freight trains.)

But let’s close with the following statement from the article,

. . . last year’s (Amtrak) ridership was around 31.3 million passengers — a new record.

First CAC Meeting: Notes

High speed rail Ashland VA

The DRPT held its first Community Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting yesterday. A video recording of the meeting will be published at their site. Here are a few informal first impressions based on my notes.

  • The committee was made up of representatives from the Town of Ashland, western Hanover, Randolph-Macon College and CSX.
  • The DRPT team made a series of presentations that gave an overview of the project, why it is needed, and what the constraining parameters might be.
  • It was stressed that the purpose of the project was to improve the reliability, frequency and travel times of passenger trains along the north-eastern corridor. In particular to improve the current reliability from 66% to 90% and to roughly double the number of passenger trains.
  • A secondary goal is not to adversely impact CSX operations. (It was noted that CSX traffic is likely to increase due to the port of Virginia expansion at around 2% per annum.)
  • They are planning on double-stacked trains that could be up to 15,000 ft. (3 miles) long.
  • CSX will continue to own the existing track and will also own any new track. CSX will continue to dispatch all trains.
  • An overview of the Basis of Design was presented. It discussed curves and gradients but did not provide information to do with (1) code for spacing between tracks, (2) code for spacing from the outer edge of the tracks to the first public access, and (3) whether the existing tracks will be upgraded to modern standards. (A figure of 135 ft. for a new Right of Way was provided.)
  • The height of new bridges will be sufficient to allow for electric passenger trains in future.
  • The current speed restrictions through Ashland are 35 mph for freight and 45 mph for passenger. On other sections of the track these numbers are 59 mph and 65 mph respectively.
  • The replacement of jointed rail with welded rail will reduce noise and vibration.
  • All tracks (old and new) are to be inter-operable for both passenger and freight.
  • VA law requires that all new crossings be not at grade.
  • The various options that we have seen in previous meetings were presented. There was also discussion to do with eastern (Buckingham Branch) options. It appears as if linking BB and CSX trains in the Richmond Main St. area will be a challenge.
  • Two options for underground track were presented. One would be a cut-and-cover tunnel, the other would be a deep bore. No discussion of the impact of construction vibration on old homes with weak foundations was provided.
  • They are still carrying out operations modeling with the FRA.
  • Future meeting dates are shown below. Locations have yet to be decided upon.
    • June 26th
    • July 24th
    • August 28th
    • September 25th
    • October 16th (if needed)

To repeat: these are my first impression notes. We will be able to analyze the presentations more thoroughly when the video is published.