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.
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.)
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.
This blog started out by providing technical analysis of the proposed Ashland third rail. The intent was to show that trying to squeeze a third rail through town — whether at grade or in a trench — is not feasible from an engineering point of view.
But what has happened in the two years that we have been blogging is that it is becoming increasingly obvious (a) that the transportation business is in turmoil as new technology advances very quickly, and (b) authorities such as DRPT and the CTB have not considered how these changes could apply to their proposed high-speed rail project.
As an example of how fast things are changing, just a few days ago a small company called Fisker announced that it has filed for patents for solid-state batteries. Here is what they claim.
They have an energy density 2.5 times that found in batteries used in current electric cars, such as Tesla. This would give an automobile a range of 500 miles.
The batteries can be recharged in as little as a minute.
They are much safer than conventional batteries.
Evidently, Toyota is working on similar technology and hopes to release it by the year 2022.
Are these claims realistic or are they hype? Well, there is certainly some hype. For example, if they really did try to recharge the battery in a minute they would need huge cables and the heat created would probably melt down everything in sight. But the essential point is that our transportation agencies and the railroad companies need to be paying very close attention to all these changes in technology. It is all happening very quickly.
The company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has worked with Munich Re to create the first Hyperloop Technologies Risk Report. Their web page states the following.
Munich Re is of the opinion that the Hyperloop technology developed by HTT is both feasible and insurable in the medium term and that delivering the system demands a model represented by HTT’s innovative approach.
In my own preliminary analyses I identify three categories of risk (I exclude grade crossings because no new high speed transportation system will incorporate them.)
Air leak into the tubes.
Electrical power failure.
The first two do not appear to prevent a significant safety risk — in both cases the pods in the tube would simply glide to a halt. The third item, instability, is, however, something to be concerned about, as can be seen from this video to do with the high speed rail derailment that occurred in Santiago, Spain in the year 2013.
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.
The trench option includes a new and unusual feature — one that could pose unacceptable risk to the construction workers.
CSX needs to maintain two tracks in operation — after all this is a two to four year project and they have a business to run. In other projects, such the Alameda trench the existing rail system was kept in operation while the trench was being dug. Hence operations were not affected during the construction phase. (It would see the same were the western bypass to be selected — CSX would run trains in the normal manner on the existing tracks. They would then connect the new and the old tracks in a very short period of time.)
However, given that CSX is not able to build a third, temporary track through Ashland they have proposed that a temporary wall be placed longitudinally along the trench. There would be fill on one side of the wall, with two tracks on it. The other side would consist of the gradually growing trench.
When digging trenches for pipelines, if there is not sufficient space for sloping walls construction managers often make use of a trench box — as shown in the picture at the top of this post. In our case the box would be enormous and would have to have cross supports stretching all the way across the digging area. It is difficult to visualize how this can be done safely. And the box would have to grow down as the trench became deeper.
Note: A trench box is no good at all if, as shown in the picture, workers don’t use it.
The DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) has released their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public comment period ends November 7th 2017. I intend to submit a series of comments — of which this is the third.
Please take the time and trouble to submit your comments. Remember the DRPT will not respond to comments made in any other forum, including social media sites and blogs.
As best I can tell the comment software does not allow for embedded hyperlinks. Therefore I suggest that you spell out internet addresses, as shown below. Also, the comment software does not appear to allow for file or picture attachments.
Comment #4: Trench Cave In
One of the most serious risks to do with the digging of trenches is cave in. This is a particular concern with regard to the proposed trench through Ashland for the following reasons.
There is very little “elbow room” to the side of the trench walls. This will make it very difficult to ensure that the walls are properly shored up.
Based on what we heard at the recent Ashland Town Council meeting it is our understanding that they are considering a temporary wall running longitudinally along the trench. One side will be filled with dirt on top of which will be full size freight trains. Workers will be on the other side. Has this ever been done before? Can the DRPT ensure the safety of the workers?
Were there to be a cave in it would most likely take buildings and people with it, as shown in the picture below.
Please demonstrate that the trench option can be carried out safely — considering both workers and people in the neighborhood.
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,
Spacing between tracks.
Spacing between the outer edge of the tracks and the first public access point.
Whether modern standards will be applied to the existing tracks.
Based on data from the Basis of Design provided by the Department of Rail & Public Transportation (DRPT) we have estimated the impact of the Third Rail on the Town of Ashland. We have presented reports to the Hanover Board of Supervisors, the DRPT itself and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).
We have also flown a drone down Center St. and superimposed the calculated impact of the project on the town. This has led to the creation of a series of images, some of which are shown in this post.
I have stressed many times that we are working with inadequate and sometimes ambiguous data to do with codes and standards. But it is unlikely that our estimates are drastically wrong.
Here is some background.
The existing tracks were laid down in 1843 (some say 1834) and 1903 respectively — long before there were any standards to do with spacing between tracks and, more important, standards to do with the spacing between the tracks and the first public highway or footpath.
The preliminary plan shows a new third rail to be located on the eastern side of Center St. The existing tracks would, it is assumed, remain where they are.
The new third rail would have to meet modern code regarding its distance from the existing eastern track. There would then be a space (“no man’s land”) between the outer edge of the new track and a new fence. There is then a space between the fence and the first public footpath or road.
We are referring to this as Case A. Its impact is shown in the image at the top of this post and in the images shown below. Basically it would take out many buildings in the business district, quite a few homes, it would remove all the frontage from virtually all the other homes and from buildings such as the library. It would also create the odd situation that the east side of the tracks would be built to 21st century standards of safety but that the west side would remain in the 19th century.
In my judgment Case A is not be acceptable regarding codes and standards. If they touch the existing tracks then all the historical exclusion that they have enjoyed for a century and half would disappear. This means that the existing tracks would also have to be upgraded. We refer to this as Case B. We have not created images of the impact of Case B on Center St. but it would be quite similar to what is shown for the east side. All frontages on both sides would be lost and all buildings north of the Arts Center up to and including the existing train station would be gone.
The reality is that either Case A or Case B would tear the heart out of Ashland.
Shown below are the engineering sketches that we prepared based on the DRPT Basis of Design to calculate the pertinent distances. They are respectively:
I plan of speaking at the Board of Supervisors Citizens’ Time on July 27th. Since my input is quite detailed I have prepared a White Paper to provide background. Its title is High Speed Rail Options, Hanover County, Virginia; it can be downloaded here. It has already been sent to the members of the Board.
The White Paper makes the following recommendations.
DRPT and CSX provide the public with a plan for coordinating their projects.
DRPT provides a thorough analysis as to why the I-95 option was rejected.
DRPT demonstrates that they have studied the on-going challenges of the California project and that they have a plan to ensure that their own project will not suffer similar difficulties.
DRPT demonstrates that they have thoroughly evaluated new technologies such as hyperloop trains.
I also suggest that the Board of Supervisors set up a task force of specialists to provide objective advice and analysis.
Third Rail, 3-2-3 and Hanover
I started blogging about the High Speed Rail project last year (my first post was on Christmas Eve 2015). Since then I have published 66 posts. My principal goal has been to demonstrate the folly of putting a third rail through the Town of Ashland.
Trying to squeeze a third rail through the already congested Ashland corridor is unacceptable for the following reasons:
The plan as proposed by DRPT is in violation of code. Not only does the new track have to meet modern code, so do the existing tracks. There is insufficient space to insert a third track while meeting those requirements.
We already have 50 freight trains moving through town every day. Approximately 6% of the cars are carrying “Highly Hazardous Chemicals’, i.e., chemicals which, were they to be released, could explode, burn or form a toxic vapor plume. Adding a third rail and increasing freight traffic would cross a safety threshold.
The loss of irreplaceable historical buildings and the impact of the college campus would be immense.
The project would be highly disruptive to the town’s economy.
About five months ago the DRPT added a new option: 3-2-3. It would have three tracks to the north and south of Ashland but would retain two tracks through town. For reasons similar to those just discussed this option would also appear to be in violation of code. It is also unsafe and destructive.
At this point there is not much more that I can do challenge the Third Rail and 3-2-3 options. I am seeking legal help regarding the interpretation of code and regulations and I am also chatting to seasoned railroad people, including CSX management, regarding changes in railroad freight traffic.
Many organizations in Hanover County, including the Supervisors, the Town Council and the Main St. organization have expressed a desire to come up with options that address the concerns of the broader Ashland community. I have been asked to help develop those options. My response is the White Paper referenced above.
One of the difficulties that we have had in following the High Speed Rail project is that there are actually two projects: High Speed Rail and Increased Freight Capacity. Each has its own goals, budgets and schedules but, because they are happening at the same time and same place, they have become entangled with one another, leading to confusion. (We are all on a learning curve as to what is going on. Communications from both DRPT and CSX could have been better.)
It is vital to stress that these two projects are going to happen. Merely wishing that they will not take place is not an effective response. This means that it behooves the citizens of Hanover to understand what the goals of both DRPT and CSX are, and to help those organizations achieve their goals, while protecting our community.
Define the Customer
In earlier posts such as Controlling the Narrative and Selling Nothing we suggested that those who oppose the DRPT proposals would achieve greater success were they to express their opposition in terms of the project’s customer — the passenger traveling along the east coast corridor. We even created a fictional business lady who travels from Richmond to D.C. We expressed some of her thoughts and disappointments as she learns more about the realities of the DRPT project. It makes similar sense to understand the goals of CSX and DRPT.
The Passenger Project
To further complicate an already foggy situation there are actually two phases to the HSR project. Phase I — which is what we are seeing now — is basically an increase in capacity. Phase II is true High Speed Rail.
Phase I — Increased Capacity
The DRPT refers to its project as the ‘Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor’. And the term ‘High Speed Rail’ is widely used to describe what they are doing. But, as pointed out in our post HSR, use of these words is misleading. To summarize that post’s analysis, journey times from Staples Mill Rd. to Washington Union Station will be reduced from 2 hr 20 min to 2 hr and the train’s average speed will increase from 45.1 mph to a mere 52.5 mph. For most passengers, it will still be quicker to use I-95 — particularly if point-to-point times are considered.
The reality is that the current proposal to add a third track along the eastern corridor is not about ‘high speed’passenger service; what DRPT and Amtrak want is a more reliable service — one that will attract more travelers because those travelers are more confident that they will arrive at their destination on time. The third rail will help them achieve this goal because passenger trains will be less likely to be stuck behind a slow-moving freight.
Phase II — True High Speed
If the current project is something of a stopgap, then the question becomes, “What is the long-term goal?” We have virtually no authoritative information on this topic but we do hear that some long-term planning is going on. Clearly Amtrak would like to have a true high speed service from Boston to Miami.
They probably have a vision of something like the current Acela service running all that way. If that is their vision then we suggest that they are making a mistake. Current high speed rail technology such as Acela is old, very old. New methods of moving people far more quickly have been developed and are surprisingly mature. Moreover, if we could jump straight to these new technologies we could not only whisk our fictional business lady from RVA to D.C. in 20 minutes — we could do this with less disruption to the people of Hanover County.
In the White Paper we make the following points:
One of the new technologies — hyperloop trains — is being developed. Trains run at up to 650 mph. Hence the journey time from RVA to DC goes from 2 hr 20 min to just 20 minutes.
The new trains are much lighter than old-fashioned high speed trains (no locomotive, no track, no wheels). And there is no overhead catenary. Hence the structural and civil engineering challenges associated with building a hyperloop train along the I-95 corridor are much reduced.
There is already competition among the nations of Europe to become the leader in this technology. Currently Finland/Sweden and Hungary/Slovakia are out front. It would be great if the United States could become one of the challengers.
My favorite quotation in this context is from one of the Swedish managers,
Expanded to all of Sweden the hyperloop makes high speed railways look ridiculous.
Let’s adapt that quotation,
Expanded to all of the United States the hyperloop makes High Speed Rail look ridiculous.
Obviously these concepts are futuristic. But a key part of the technology — electromagnetic levitation — is already in commercial use in Japan. Those trains travel at at well over 300 mph.
The situation regarding freight is difficult to follow. CSX projects 2% per annum growth in its traffic over the next 30 years. (Freight traffic actually declined somewhat during the last 12 months.) Yet they are currently taking actions that would seem to lead to a much bigger increase along our east coast corridor. These actions include:
Expansion of the Virginia Avenue tunnel in D.C to two tracks. Once it is finished CSX will be able to run double-stacked container trains all the way from Chicago to the south-east. This could have a huge impact on the traffic through Hanover.
Expansion of the east coast ports in Virginia and North Carolina which will put many more containers on the eastern corridor. This growth will be fueled in part by the recent expansion of the Panama canal.
Potential closure of the C&O line due to reduced coal traffic.
We have been informed that CSX does not see themselves as a leader in our current project — they are merely picking up on the benefits that the DRPT project would offer them. Others are more skeptical. This is clearly a topic that merits further communication.
This post summarizes some of the points made in the White Paper. Other issues — including the troubled California HSR project and the lack of information to do with the I-95 option — are not discussed here.
High Speed Rail — in some form — is coming.
The current ‘High Speed Rail’ project is actually a ‘More Reliable Rail’ project.
It is likely that we will see much more freight traffic along the eastern corridor in coming years — although details are frustratingly hazy.
It makes sense for those opposed to the current project to understand the needs and goals of the passengers who will be traveling on the new trains, and of the freight companies using the tracks.
Current ‘High Speed Rail’ technology is very old. Its time is over — the trains are too slow. The use of modern technology will dramatically reduce travel times and will lessen the impact on the communities through which it travels.