The Tunnel Option

Ashland is not the only locality that does not have the space for expansion of existing transportation systems. In fact, such problems are pretty much universal in any urban or suburban area.

Elon Musk’s response to this problem is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to build a network of tunnels below the surface infrastructure.

Now there is nothing original in his insight — after all, cities around the world have been building subway systems for decades. But what Musk is claiming is that he can build tunnels much more quickly and economically than has been possible in the past. Is he correct? Well, only time will tell. But, when we look at his Tesla electric cars we see that, regardless of whether his company will eventually be financially successful, his initiative has become a ‘forcing function’ for other, more traditional automobile companies, to develop electric cars.

Maybe something similar will happen to tunnel construction. Musk has put the companies that build tunnels on notice that there is a new type of competitor in town, and that they need to look at upping their game.

So what does this have to do with the proposed “high speed” rail project? Well, the natural solution to the problem of adding capacity to the existing railroad in the Ashland area is to go underground, i.e., to build a tunnel for the new trains, and to keep the existing tracks for slow freight trains and local passenger service.

The traditional response to this suggestion has been that building a tunnel would be much more expensive than adding new surface tracks. But maybe Musk’s challenge will prove that assumption to be wrong — maybe tunnel options will turn out to be not only environmentally friendly, but also be a more sound financial investment.

Here are three examples of new tunnel projects. The first is the City of Chicago, which has just announced that it will be working with Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between downtown and O’Hare airport. Second, as we have previously reported, the State of Maryland is looking at a similar system to connect Baltimore with D.C. Finally, something similar is underway in Los Angeles. Projects such as these tell us that we should not summarily reject a tunnel option on the grounds that it is too expensive. Maybe it is, and — there again — maybe it isn’t.

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Hyperloop Safety Study

 

Location of Hyperloop Conference, 2018
Kerckhoff Hall, UCLA

As we have discussed many times at this blog, the world of transportation technology is undergoing radical and wrenching changes. Almost daily there is news about electric cars, autonomous (driverless) vehicles, drones and even space rocket transportation.

One of the new technologies — and one that we have discussed frequently at this site — is hyperloop. This technology is still in the early development phase, but has the following essential features.

  • “Trains” travel along tubes from which the air has been removed. Hence, there is very little air resistance.
  • The “trains” are magnetically levitated — they do not actually touch anything — there are no tracks. Hence there is no wheel/rail friction loss.
  • The maglev system incorporates linear motors that propel the modules. Hence there are very few moving parts and so there are few internal friction losses.

But, before this new technology can be adopted for general use, we must address the two questions that engineers always ask when starting a new project. They are:

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe?

In order to address the second question we will be presenting a paper at the ‘LoopTransPort’ conference at the University of California in July of this year. The title of the paper is ‘Hyperloop Safety Study’. Details to do with the two day program are available here.

The theme of the paper is that the safety  challenges that the hyperloop industry is facing are similar to challenges faced at one time or another by other industries. These include the nuclear power industry, the offshore oil and gas industry and the chemical industries. In spite of the very different nature of the technologies between them, many lessons can be learned from these other industries. The reason for this is that safety is basically a management topic, not a technology issue. Therefore, the safety management practices developed in one industry can often be successfully used in another area.

Alexandria Derailment and Bridge Destruction

Derailment in Alexandria, VA

One of the reasons that we should not try to dig a trench through Ashland is that a derailment involving tank cars carrying highly hazardous chemicals could have very serious consequences. (An example is the 2014 derailment in Lynchburg, VA). Another serious accident, once more involving tank cars, has taken place — and once more in Virginia. This incident took place in Alexandria, near the Floyd St./Wheel Ave. intersection on May 19th 2018.

The NTSB has not yet issued a report, but the following facts have been reported.

  • 30 cars out of a total of 167 derailed.
  • There were no injuries, either to the train crew or to the public.
  • Firefighters say that the train was not carrying hazardous cargo.
  • The cause of the derailment was a failure with the rail or railbed. (Some of the rail ballast was missing.)
  • The rolling cars “took out” the bridge that collapsed.
  • There has been no major disruption to passenger train service.

Informal discussion suggests that the rebuilding of the bridge could cause a serious delay in the High Speed Rail project.

From the pictures that are available it appears as if CSX was lucky — this event could have had much more serious consequences.

Alexandria-Derailment-2
Alexandria Fire Dept.

The Boring Company in Los Angeles

The problem that almost all rail expansion projects face — Ashland is no exception — is that new tracks destroy property or attractive open areas of land. This means that the best solution is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to construct a tunnel.

Elon Musk receives a lot of publicity to do with his new technologies such as hyperloop, space transportation and electric cars. But it could be that, in the long run, his greatest contribution will be the new technologies that he is developing with his Boring Company.

When various options for the Ashland area were under consideration last year, the idea of constructing a tunnel was summarily dismissed as being too expensive. It could be that Musk will change that way of thinking. As noted in our post The Baltimore/D.C. Project, he claims that current technology is such that the machines for drilling tunnels move at one fourteenth the speed of a snail. He aims to increase tunnel-drilling speeds to equal that of a snail.

The Baltimore/D.C. post described the project that is under way to build a tunnel between those two cities. The “trains” running through it are likely to be some form of hyperloop. Now we learn that the City of Los Angeles has entered into an agreement with the Boring Company that could result in the creation of a network of tunnels underneath that city.

Let’s revisit the idea of a tunnel under Hanover/Ashland. It could be used for high speed trains and other non-stop traffic. The existing rail could be used for non-express trains and selected freight trains.

HARP Meeting (April 2018)

HARP-Panel.jpg

Background

For those of you who are new to this blog here is some background.

  • For almost three years the citizens of Ashland have been resisting the proposal to run a third track through town.
  • The resistance has been on many fronts, including public meetings with the authorities and reviewing legal issues.
  • I have concentrated on technology. After all, the last major technological change to the tracks took place in the early 1950s; it was the transition from steam to diesel-electric. That’s two generations ago.
  • The transportation industry in the United States is currently undergoing massive, wrenching and exciting changes. It seems that hardly a day goes by without there being news to do with autonomous vehicles, Space-X, electric trucks and other new technologies.
  • One of those changes is the technology known as “hyperloop”. (A brief overview of what this word means is provided below).
  • So the question is, “Can hyperloop technology perform an end run around this whole 3rd track controversy?”

Hyperloop

Hyperloop train Richmond to Washington
The technology associated with hyperloop is still being developed so it lacks standardization. (This is analogous to what happened in the early days of railroading. Initially many, many companies built and operated “short lines” — often using different track gauges. Only later did those short lines merge into large systems such as Pennsylvania Railroad.)

Regardless of how the technology shakes out, the key feature of any hyperloop system is that it virtually removes the three sources of friction that are a feature of current trains. They are:

  1. Friction between the rails and the rail;
  2. Internal friction due to the multiplicity of moving parts; and
  3. Air resistance — particularly when speeds go above 60 mph.

Hyperloop removes the wheel/rail friction because there are no wheels or rails. It has virtually no moving parts (it is driven by linear induction motors). And the pods run through tubes from which most of the air has been evacuated so there is negligible air resistance

The upshot is that the pods (carrying either freight or passengers) can travel at airplane speeds and they are very efficient. Moreover, there will probably not be trains or timetables as we know them now.

HARP

About a year ago a non-profit called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership was formed. (I am a member.) The organization tries to pull tother all the threads to do with this new technology. The first conference that I attended was in New York last year.

They had another meeting this week in D.C. My overall impression is that both the technology and the business models are maturing. Hyperloop is happening. There are currently about 10 companies competing for work.

The following are my notes from the meeting in no particular order of priority.

The Baltimore/D.C. Project

HARP-1.jpg

The keynote speaker was Mr. Pete Rahn, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Maryland. He described the project that is underway to connect D.C. with Baltimore with an underground hyperloop system. The D.C. “station” will be on New York Avenue. He stated that, “Amtrak should be very worried”.

They plan on placing concrete tubes below grade; the tunnels will be built by Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which claims that they can dramatically reduce the time and cost it takes to make a tunnel, just as they have done with space travel. (The Boring Company keeps a snail in their office as a permanent challenge. They claim that snails move 14 times more quickly than current boring machines). One of the key justifications for going underground is that they get around most of the challenges to do with taking and demolishing property.

I asked Mr. Rahn if the tubes are of sufficient diameter to handle the 53 ft. containers that we see trundling through town all the time. Also, are the curves of sufficiently long radius to handle those contaners. He did not know the answer to either question.

Regulations

The European experience is that regulations will be developed a land-based agency, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.

Projects

In addition to the Maryland project, other active programs are:

  • A 3 km test track in Toulouse, France
  • The Dubai/Abu Dhabi route
  • Quebec City/Montreal/Toronto/Chicago project

Real Estate

Any attempt to expand any type of transportation system faces the challenge of lack of real estate. So proposals to build a new airport, freeway or railroad track results in resistance from local communities. Ashland is not unique.

The most attractive solution is go underground. But, in spite of the optimism expressed, the cost would probably be very high. Another option would be to use existing rights of way (freeways and railroads) to construct an elevated system.

Cherry Blossom

In addition to attending the meeting the trip was a good opportunity to see the famous cherry blossom.

Cherry-Blossom-1.jpg

3-2-3

Trench-2
The following is from Kristin Reihl, our representative on the Citizen Committee.

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On Wednesday, December 6 the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) unanimously adopted a resolution supporting option 5A (the 3-2-3 option) through the Ashland/Hanover portion of the DC2RVA corridor. The resolution includes language intended to limit property acquisition along the tracks in Ashland and protect property and operations at Randolph-Macon College. The resolution by the CTB is a recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration who will make the ultimate decision on the track improvements throughout the 123 mile DC2RVA corridor.

Town staff have compiled a substantial resource page at http://www.ashlandva.gov/505/DC2RVA-Information where you can review video and minutes from DC2RVA related meetings as well as various resolutions, letters and studies published by interested parties. Please contact Town Manager, Joshua Farrar at (804) 798-9219 or Jfarrar@ashlandva.gov if you have questions.

HARP Hyperloop Meeting

HARP HyperloopOn December 6th the non-profit organization Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) organized a conference in New York City. The title of the conference was The Hyperloop: Promises and Challenges. There were 75 attendees  —  the meeting was sold out.

Most of the meeting, which was chaired by HARP’s President, Dane Egli, consisted of a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session. Panel members were:

  • Sebastien Gendron, CEO & Co-founder of TransPod Hyperloop
  • Rebecca Leonard, President of Hypernet Holding Corporation (HHC)
  • Bibop G. Gresta, Chairman & Co-Founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)
  • Rick Geddes, Professor of Policy Analysis, Cornell University & Director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP)

As many readers of this blog know I started to look into the feasibility of hyperloop in order to find out if this new technology could create an end run around the problems to do with our ‘High Speed Rail’ project. But I have learned that this technology has the potential to change our transportation world as much as the automobile did a hundred years ago.

I attended this particular conference to learn more about the five basic questions I am trying to answer regarding hyperloop technology. The questions are:

  1. Will it work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Is it socially acceptable?
  4. Can it be profitable?
  5. Can it meet regulatory requirements?

The panel discussion was wide-ranging; I was encouraged to find that the research that we have done so far to do with the five questions has been quite successful — there were no surprises.

The three major takeaways for myself were:

  1. The technology is quite mature and proven.
  2. Hyperloop is not just a substitute for traditional rail. It will create a new culture that will transform all forms of surface transportation.
  3. The biggest challenge is political will — do we want to step out and adopt this new technology?

Based on my own research and on what I heard at this meeting the answers to the five questions are,

  1. Yes — there is no commercial hyperloop system in service yet but pilot projects are going well and all the pieces (maglev, low pressure tubes, linear electric motors) are in service and are successful.
  2. Conditional Yes — there are some concerns that need to be addressed regarding tracking stability.
  3. Strong Yes — the fact that hyperloop takes up much less real estate than roads, railways and airports was a stressed by the panelists. The technology is also environmentally clean.
  4. Uncertain — but the fact that Sir Richard Branson, who is a very successful business person with his own rail and airline companies, has invested in the company now known as Virgin Hyperloop One is a strong indicator as to the financial potential for this technology.
  5. Yes — the regulations have yet to be written (I have volunteered to help), but there is no reason to anticipate that they will constitute a major hurdle.

Molten Sulfur Release

Sulfur car derailment Florida

As we have discussed in earlier posts, approximately 6% of the freight cars that transit Ashland carry ‘highly hazardous chemicals’. These are materials that are flammable, explosive or toxic (often a combination of these three). And many of these cars carry elemental sulfur.

Today (2017-11-27) a CSX freight train derailed in Lakeland, Florida. It is reported that several cars rolled over and that four of those cars contained molten sulfur. There was a significant release of sulfur and there appears to be considerable damage. There are no reports of injuries.

Elemental sulfur comes from oil refineries. The crude oil that they receive contains sulfur compounds that need to be removed in the early stages of the refining process. These compounds are converted to sulfur, which is then loaded as a liquid into tank cars. These are transported to sites were the sulfur is used to manufacture many chemicals, including the sulfuric acid used in car batteries.

The melting point for sulfur is 115C/239F — and it is transported at a higher temperature than this to prevent it from solidifying in the cars. Which means that it is hot — much hotter than boiling water. (In the Bible it is referred to as Brimstone).

The image below shows the NFPA 704 Diamond for elemental sulfur.

NFPA Diamond SulfurIf there is a spill of sulfur there are three issues to consider.

Toxicity
In its solid form at room temperature sulfur is virtually non-toxic although sulfur dust is a mild irritant to some peple.

Thermal Burns
If someone is close to a sulfur spill they could be badly burned by the hot liquid.

Flammability
Sulfur is flammable. The combustion produces highly toxic sulfur dioxide gas. The following advice is given to firefighters.

If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, ISOLATE for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions; also, consider initial evacuation for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions. (ERG, 2016)

What does all this mean for the residents of Ashland?

Well, there is no such thing as a good sulfur spill. However, were there to be a release such as the one in Florida, the sulfur should solidify quite quickly, thus reducing the hazards to do with toxic gases and fire. However, were the release to be in a trench the sulfur would have nowhere to flow. This would increase the risk of fire and the associated production of highly toxic sulfur dioxide fumes. Furthermore, the emergency response teams would have a more difficult time working with a spill in a trench than they would in an open location.

Sulfur car derailment Florida

Just One Week

Tesla electric truck

A theme of this blog is that transportation technology is changing at amazing speeds yet the proposals for increasing freight capacity along the eastern corridor continue to assume the use of early 1950s technology (that was the time when locomotive power switched from steam to diesel-electric).

As an example of how technology is changing consider just three events from the past week — any of which could dramatically impact our project.

The Electric Truck

This week Elon Musk announced the Tesla electric truck. It will go from 0 to 60 mph in just 5 seconds (20 seconds while towing 80,000 lb). That’s faster than a Ford Taurus. It has a range of 500 miles at highway speeds (conventional trucks have a range up to 900 miles but many journeys are around 250 miles). It features, of course, highly sophisticated controls.

Given these figures one wonders if battery-powered trains will become feasible. If so the cost and disruption associated with overhead catenaries would be eliminated.

Solid-State Batteries

As discussed in an earlier post, the company Fisker has announced new battery technology that has an energy density 2.5 times greater than the batteries used in Musk’s cars and truck. (It needs to be stressed that there are still many technical obstacles to overcome.)

Denver

The city of Denver in Colorado has signed an agreement with the company Arrivo to install a maglev system in order to help solve that city’s serious traffic problems.

If all these changes happen in just one week, how will the industry look ten or fifteen years from now? It seems very unlikely that we will still be relying diesel-electric motive power or that the new transportation systems will still use steel wheels on steel rails.

Denver Takes the Lead

Arrivo system in Denver

The State of Colorado, working in partnership with the company Arrivo, has committed to building the nation’s first “electromagnetic super highway”. A video of the announcement is here. The Colorado executive director starts by noting that the Denver highway system was designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960s for a population of the 1980s. But since then the population of the area has doubled. The existing infrastructure cannot be expanded — they are stuck. A new type of transportation system is needed.

Here is my understanding of what they are proposing.

  • They will start construction of a test track next year. They then start a 400 day certification period around 2019/2020. If they receive certification they will move into building the first commercial track, probably between Denver and its airport.
  • This is not a full hyperloop system because the tubes are at atmospheric pressure. Consequently the the pods travel at only 200 mph.
  • The pods are powered by Linear Electric Motors (LEMs).
  • The journey time to the airport will fall from the current 90 minutes to 9 minutes.
  • A one-way ticket will cost $15.
  • The system will carry passengers, automobiles and freight and bicycles. They stress the fact that it is an auto train. This means that people will not have to give up their cars.
  • It will have a capacity ten times the current highway system. Current highways have a capacity of 2,000 to 3,500 cars per hour. They believe that the new system will be able to handle 20,000 cars per hour.
  • They will “layer” the system on to the existing infrastructure.