Draft EIS. Comment #9: Time Out

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

The following comment has been submitted to the DRPT.
I recognize that the scope of the draft EIS does not include consideration of new technologies. Yet, if there is one industry in the United Sates that is undergoing radical change it is the transportation industry. In my view it would be irresponsible for the DRPT to make a recommendation to do with the future of passenger and freight transportation along the east coast corridor without considering these profound changes.

There are many aspects to the new technologies — these include drones, autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles. But the one that will have the greatest impact on the rail industry is what is known as ‘hyperloop’. The seminal paper on this topic was written by Elon Musk in the year 2012. He recognized that the key advantage to this technology is not speed — although traveling at 650 mph is certainly enticing — but the fact that such systems can be implemented without needing much real estate.

I am currently preparing an article with the working title, The Practicality of Hyperloop, for publication in a professional journal. In the article I address three questions:

  1. Does it (hyperloop) work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Can it be profitable?

Question #1
Hyperloop is made up of well-established and commercially proven pieces (low pressure tubes, linear induction motors, mag lev suspension), so my conditional answer to the first question is “Yes”.

Question #2
Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have spent many years analyzing the risk to do with industrial systems (the picture is of one of my books on the topic: Process Risk and Reliability Management). Based on this experience I would say that there are legitimate safety concerns, but that traveling by hyperloop is likely to be safer than flying on a commercial airplane. So the answer to the second question is also a conditional “Yes”.

Question #3
Richard Branson Virgin Hyperloop OneFinally, we look at economics. Obviously there are many unknowns but the fact that Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines has now made a substantial investment in the company known as ‘Virgin Hyperloop One’ suggests that professional investors see a real opportunity. So, once more, I respond with a conditional “Yes”.

I will mail a draft of my article to the DRPT before the November 7th comments deadline.

If DRPT management is interested in having a presentation on this topic, please let me know. I would be very willing to visit with management and discuss these issues in greater depth.


Open Letter

Open letter from Ragan Phillips; CSX subsidies
Shown below is an open letter written by Mr. Ragan Phillips to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), dated October 7th 2017. I fully support what he says.



October 7, 2017

TO: Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)

Commonwealth of Virginia


The proposed rail system between Washington and Richmond (DC2RVA), promoted by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and financially supported by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), represents devastation for farms and homes in western Hanover County or for homes and businesses in Ashland.

The CTB and the DRPT are poised to announce an unjustified “death sentence” on Hanover County and the community of Ashland.  Whenever and wherever this rail system is built, families, farms, friendships and communities will be destroyed.

Even though the execution may be years in the future, this “sentence” defines our area as a “dead man walking.”


Federal and state government officials have a strong ethical duty to protect American tax –payers from improper or improvident use of our tax dollars.

This means that our tax dollars should be expended fairly and prudently. It does not mean that one element of industry or, particularly, one entity, should be the beneficiary of Federal and Commonwealth expenditures. It does not mean these expenditures should be made at the expense of the vast majority of the citizenry who receive no direct or indirect benefit.

The beneficiary of this huge multi-billion tax-payer funded project is neither the Commonwealth nor the public.  THE REAL BENEFICIARY IS CSX.


ASSERTION:  The DRPT official web site states: “The purpose of this project is to provide a competitive transportation choice in the corridor by increasing intercity passenger rail capacity and improving travel times.”

FACT: Upwards of ninety percent (90%) of the railcars that will pass though the Commonwealth on this DC2RVA system will be CSX freight cars. Amtrak passengers would benefit by reducing the time for the Washington-Richmond trip by twenty minutes.

ASSERTION: The DRPT claims that this “public transportation” project, will be paid for by “federal, state and local sources.”

FACT: Sources? The DPRT has failed to advise the public that this “source” is us. Our tax dollars will underwrite CSX freight operations. In effect, the citizens of western Hanover and Ashland are being asked to write the checks for our own destruction.

ASSERTION: the DRPT publicizes this DC2RVA rail system as a “…segment of the Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR).”

FACT: It is, in fact, definitely not “high speed.” In actuality, DC2RVA is a huge upgrade on freight-laden rail lines primarily for the financial benefit of CSX.


To subsidize CSX, along with issuing misleading information, is certainly not an act that meets the aforementioned ethical duties of public officials.

The DC2RVA Project would allow CSX, an $11 billion revenue corporation with a $3 billion cash flow, to haul more freight at a faster pace and add to their bottom line.


The citizens of western Hanover County and the Town of Ashland must not be forced to pay for our own destruction.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has numerous essential, but under-funded, projects and institutions: affordable housing, mass public transportation, pre-school for all children, upgraded public education, and health care. Funding these needs would have a real, positive and long-term impact on the citizens of the Commonwealth.

If CSX wants this high cost upgrade of their rails, let them make the investment with their corporate resources of equity and from willing providers of debt.

In this case, public officials’ fiduciary duty is quite simple:

Invest our tax dollars to ensure a stronger Commonwealth…

not a better CSX freight line.



Ragan Phillips                    Phyllis Theroux

504 Duncan Street/Ashland, Virginia 23005


cc: Senator Timothy Kaine

      Senator Mark Warner

      Governor Terry McAuliffe





Draft EIS. Comment #8: Operations

Map of CSX operations
This comment is based on the earlier post Greenfield / Brownfield. It notes that the trench option will be extremely disruptive to operations for four years or more. This will not only cause many delays to passenger service along the corridor, it will also negatively impact the operations and profitability of CSX and other freight companies.

A bypass, on the other hand, can be installed without causing any disruption to on-going operations.

Faster Horses


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.



Cave In San Gabriel
The Ashland town council has published a letter that provides further detail on its opposition to the trench option. The letter is available here and at the town site. The town has also opened a new web site — http://www.savedowntownashland.org/ — that provides a convenient way for submitting comments to the DRPT (further details here).

Draft EIS. Comment #7: Laws of Physics

Book Ashland Ashland

This comment is based on the post Laws of Physics.


The third track option through Ashland cannot work, regardless of whether it is at grade or below grade. Here is why.

  1. The first track was laid down before the Civil War. Homes and businesses were built around it at a sensible spacing. We can see that sensible spacing when we look at old pictures of Ashland, such as the one at the head of this post.
  2. At a later date — the first decade of the 20th century, I believe — they decided to install a second track. There wasn’t enough room for it but they shoehorned it in anyway. This explains why so many visitors to Ashland comment on the closeness of the tracks to the homes. The reason that they seem too close is that is that they are too close. However, we have learned to live with the situation, just as someone can get used to a shoe that is too tight.
  3. But trying to add yet another track is absurd. It doesn’t matter if it is built at grade or below grade. There is no room for it. This is not an opinion — it is merely a statement of the laws of physics. If it installed at grade, some buildings, many of which are of enormous historical importance, will have to be removed to provide sufficient space for the tracks. If the track is installed below grade then many buildings will have to be demolished. In addition, some buildings (including some constructed more recently) will fail because their foundations simply do not have the integrity to handle the appalling vibrations that the digging of the trench would create. Either way the result is the same: the loss of Ashland.

Save Downtown Ashland – Public Input

Save Downtown Ashland
The Town has developed a quick and easy way for you to submit your comments to DRPT and the CBT (see below.) Please have everyone in your family, your friends and your co-workers submit a comment. It only takes a minute!!


DC2RVA Public Input

Now is the time for public input on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) as part of the DC2RVA Rail Project.  The Town has tried to make providing input as easy as possible by creating the website www.savedowntownashland.org.  It is important for those who oppose a third rail on the surface or in a trench through Ashland to comment early and often.  Your comments and input on the project are crucial to saving our Town.  Your voice matters!  

There will also be a public hearing, organized by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, on October 11, 2017 at 6 p.m. in Patrick Henry High School.  Please come share why you believe the State should oppose a third rail through Town.  

If you have any questions about the project, the Town’s position on the various alternatives, or how to help please don’t hesitate to reach out to Town Manager Joshua Farrar at (804) 798-9219 orJfarrar@ashlandva.gov. 

Visit the Website!

Hyperloop: New York to Washington

Elon Musk Boring Company Hyperloop New York to Washington

The following quotation is taken from a recent article in the New York Times.

 . . . Mr. Musk said he had been given “verbal” government “approval” for his vision, in which one of his companies, the Boring Company, would build an underground transportation system connecting New York City to Philadelphia to Baltimore and on to the nation’s capital — enabling people to make the trip in the unheard-of time of 29 minutes.

It takes New Yorkers longer than that just to travel from one end of Manhattan to the other by subway.

When I read this article I had three immediate thoughts.

  1. Why not make Richmond one of the destinations?
  2. Musk understands the constraints that two dimensional travel imposes (ask anyone in Ashland or Hanover). So he says that our systems need to be three dimensional. My initial vision for hyperloop between Richmond and D.C. was to have elevated tubes over the I-95 median. Musk is going the other way: underground.
  3. Verbal approval isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

A Hand in the Till

Herald Progress Ashland VA

The September 28th 2017 edition of the Herald-Progress published an “In My Opinion” by Ragan Phillips. It is re-published here with permission.

To quote Wendell Berry: “…political leaders do not know what we are talking about, and they are without the local affections and allegiances that would permit them to learn what we are talking about.”

The proposed new rail system between Washington and Richmond (DC2RVA) is an example of the consequences of Berry’s quote and, In My Opinion, it represents a tragedy for Hanover County and Ashland. At the end of the day, whenever and wherever this rail system is built, families, farms, friendships and communities will be destroyed.

Congress, along with federal and state governments and all public officials, has a strong ethical duty to American tax -payers. Included in these duties should be:

  • Duty of care
  • Duty of loyalty
  • Duty of impartiality
  • Duty of accountability
  • Duty to preserve the public’s trust in government
    (See Markula Center for Applied Ethics on “Public Officials as Fiduciaries”

This means that our tax dollars should be expended fairly and prudently. It does not mean that one element of industry or, particularly, one entity should be the beneficiary of Federal and Commonwealth expenditures.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) proposes to spend, at the very least, $5 billion for the 123 mile DC2RVA railroad line. The beneficiary of this huge tax-payer funded project is not the Commonwealth, nor the public. Who, then, is the primary beneficiary? The real “winner” is the railroad company, CSX.

Press releases from the DRPT state: “The purpose of this project is to provide a competitive transportation choice in the corridor by increasing intercity passenger rail capacity and improving travel times.” To wit, Amtrak passengers would benefit by reducing the time for the Washington-Richmond trip by twenty minutes. This is “fake news.”

Fact: Upwards of ninety percent (90%) of the railcars that will pass though the Commonwealth on this DC2RVA system will be CSX freight cars.

The DRPT goes on to say this “public transportation” project, will be paid for by “federal, state and local sources.” It happens that those “sources” are our tax dollars. The DPRT fails to advise the public that DC2RVA financially underwrites CSX freight operations.

Subsidizing CSX, an $11 billion revenue corporation with a $3 billion cash flow appears to be CSX’s “hand in the till” brought about by white-shoe lobbyists and elected public officials more interested in re-election than acting for the interest of the citizens whose votes put them in office.

In the meantime, while CSX hauls more freight at a faster pace and adds to their bottom line (and Amtrak passengers save that “critical” twenty minutes) the Commonwealth has numerous real problems experienced by real people whose essential needs have not been met.

Why not authorize these “CSX” railroad funds, certain to be well above the $5 billion preliminary estimate, for needed public investments in the Commonwealth, such as:

  • Affordable housing that would provide the economically disadvantaged with the opportunity for a productive life
  • Or, a real investment in public transportation enabling folks to move between home and work
  • Or, quality pre-school for all children that would offer a path toward future achievement
  • Or, targeted funding for public education, to include better pay for dedicated teachers, smaller class sizes, up-to-date technology, and safe, well-designed facilities

As one example, In the Hanover County Public School system [where the Board of Supervisors has (a) drained over $10 million (well over 10% of county funding for school operations) from the schools in the past six years and (b) removed $50 million in capital funds planned for four 75 year old elementary schools] we need an investment in public education for the 18,000 students. We do not need a multi-billion dollar subsidy for a CSX freight hauling scheme.

If CSX wants this high cost upgrade of their rails, let them make the investment with their corporate resources of equity and from willing providers of debt.
In this case, public officials’ fiduciary duty is quite simple:

Invest our tax dollars to ensure a better Commonwealth…not a better CSX freight line.

Greenfield / Brownfield


Map of CSX operations
CSX Operations

In all the discussions to do with the various options for increased rail capacity I don’t recall any that are written from the point of view of CSX operations.


The western bypass option is what is referred to as “greenfield”. It would be built as a stand-alone project that would not affect current operations. Once the bypass is built they quickly cut over to the existing tracks. This means that the managers who are running the trains while construction is taking place can continue their work as normal. Current operations would not be affected at all. The transition to the new system would be quick and seamless.

The trench option is “brownfield” — they would be building new track while attempting to maintain current train service — both freight and passenger. Doing so will be extraordinarily difficult. The concerns include the following:

  • There will be constant interruptions to existing operations as construction equipment is moved around and temporary tracks are built, relocated and removed.
  • Inevitably the operations managers will have to run a single-track system at times — they may even drop down to zero tracks occasionally.
  • It will be a huge challenge to ensure the safety of the workers. They will be working just a few feet from mainline trains that are constantly rumbling by. Given a philosophy of “safety first” this means that train operations will often have to be discontinued, often on very short notice.

The reality is that the trench operation will severely impact the reliability and profitability of CSX operations for many years whereas the bypass option which will have minimal impact.