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.

Impact of the Third Rail

Impact of Third Rail on Ashland VA

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  • The existing tracks.
  • Case A.
  • Case B.
existing
Existing Tracks
Case A — Third Rail Ashland VA
Case A
Case B Third Rail Ashland VA
Case B

Board of Supervisors Meeting

Hyperloop train RVA to DC
Hyperloop train from RVA approaching DC

Citizens’ Time

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.

  1. DRPT and CSX provide the public with a plan for coordinating their projects.
  2. DRPT provides a thorough analysis as to why the I-95 option was rejected.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Third Rail

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.

3-2-3

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.

Hanover County

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.

Two Projects

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

commuter-1

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

Acela train Ashland High Speed Rail
Acela Train

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Freight

Two mile train
Two mile train

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.
  • Trains of two miles in length are on the horizon.
  • 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.

Conclusions

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.

In summary:

  1. High Speed Rail — in some form — is coming.
  2. The current ‘High Speed Rail’ project is actually a ‘More Reliable Rail’ project.
  3. It is likely that we will see much more freight traffic along the eastern corridor in coming years — although details are frustratingly hazy.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

3-2-3: A Code Violation

Third track through Ashland
Third track through Ashland

Let me start with a short anecdote.

Early in my career I was appointed lead engineer on a project for a chemical plant in Texas. The project was to take a small unit operation consisting of a distillation column, two heat exchangers and a pump and to adapt it for a new service. Here are the parameters:

  • The equipment had been built and installed in the 1940s.
  • Since then it had operated safely and efficiently with no incidents.
  • The equipment did not comply with the latest pressure vessel and heat exchanger code.
  • The new service for this equipment was less stringent, i.e., pressures and temperatures were lower than before and the new chemicals being processed were no more hazardous than the old ones.
  • Nevertheless we had to cancel the project because a fundamental change in service meant that the “grandfather clauses” that had allowed us to keep operating were no longer usable and we could not justify the cost of a major upgrade to the equipment.

Now fast forward to Ashland’s railroad.

In the posts to do with the proposed “High Speed Rail” project we have repeatedly pointed out that the Third Rail option is a code violation. Let us summarize the logic.

  • The existing tracks were laid down in the years 1843 and 1903, long before the introduction of codes to do with track beds.
  • The existing tracks are in violation of modern code in two regards. First the spacing between the tracks is too narrow. Second, there is insufficient space between the edge of the tracks and the public highway (see DRPT Basis of Design).
  • Current operation of the tracks is permitted under the concept of a “grandfather clause”.
  • Adding a third rail means that all the tracks, not just the new one, have to be upgraded to modern code.
  • The fact that there has been only one major derailment in the Ashland area in recent years is immaterial. The codes’ requirements have to be followed.
  • Based on the maps published by DRPT the proposed expansion is in violation of code.
  • Hence the Third Rail option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
  • Hence the Third Rail option cannot go forward.

Let us apply the same logic to the 3-2-3 option.

  • The project has two justifications. The first is to provide High Speed Passenger train capability. The second is to allow for a 95% increase in freight traffic and a 71% increase in the number of tank cars carrying Highly Hazardous Chemicals following the expansion of the east coast ports.
  • Both of these rationales constitute a fundamental change in the operation of the tracks. This is analogous to the engineering analogy which started this post.
  • Hence the grandfather clauses that apply to the existing tracks no longer hold.
  • Hence the 3-2-3 option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
  • Hence the 3-2-3 option cannot go forward.

Two final thoughts.

  1. It is possible for the project team to ask for a variance from a safety code. But few regulators or engineers will ever do so for what should be self-evident reasons. That option was never on the table as we decided what to do with regard to our little engineering project.
  2. The project may be able to meet code by destroying and existing homes and businesses. But doing so is not part of the published option. If the project team changes the scope of work then there are many more new options to be considered.

To close out the anecdote that started this post; when I presented the results of the engineering analysis to the project manager I was not exactly the most popular person in the room because it resulted in cancellation of the project. But never at any time was there any question that we had made the right decision.

Safety first.

Car Widths

Passenger and freight car dimensions
There has been considerable publicity in recent days to do with the proposed new Ashland station. Most of the discussion has been to do with the appearance of the station and its impact on the college’s activities. But there may be some engineering issues to consider also. For example, one commenter noted that freight cars are wider than passenger cars. Therefore freight traffic will not be able to travel through the station.

I took a quick look at this issue. Regarding the width of cars the following dimensions apply.

  • Amtrak standard car 119.5”.
  • Freight car dimensions vary but it appears that most box cars are 128” wide.

Hence the difference between the in width between passenger and freight cars is 8.5”. Given that the extra width projects to both sides of the car it would appear that running a freight train through the new station would require that the gap between the platform’s edge and the passenger car door would have to be at least 4.25″ greater than required for just passenger service. This is a considerable distance and presumably would not meet wheelchair requirements.

Therefore my tentative conclusion is that the only way the new station would work would be for CSX to create at least two bypass lines for the freight trains. In other words the new station forces a third rail to be installed. This would do more damage to college life than would the new station.

I presume also that they could not apply a “minor upgrade” to the existing station for the reasons discussed to do with the tracks themselves — as soon as the project engineers touch the tracks and station all grandfather exemptions disappear.

If anyone has knowledge of railroad engineering standards please let me know if this conclusion is correct.

Thank you.

1969 Derailment near Ashland

1969-Accident-Ashland-3

Neighbors of ours who are long-term residents of Ashland have graciously researched the 1969 derailment that occurred just north of Ashland. Here are some of the facts to do with that event.

  • 28 cars of a freight train “jumped the tracks”.
  • The cars were loaded with steel, paper and miscellaneous freight. There is no record of a tank car containing a Highly Hazardous Chemical as being part of the consist.
  • The cars traveled up to three car-lengths away from the tracks.
  • There had been another, similar derailment in Hanover County less than a month earlier.
  • There were no injuries.
  • Both accidents were due to a “journal failure”.

The pictures show some scans from the Herald-Progress and the Times Dispatch. We have also shown a sketch and a picture of the journals used on rail cars.

1969-Accident-Ashland-1

Journal-Box-1

Journal-Box-2

Peeling the Onion

Stewart-Martha-1

I started this blog on Christmas Eve last year when I learned of the possibility that a third track may be punched through the center of the Town of Ashland. My objective then is the same as it is now,

Use objective data and rational analysis to challenge the third track through Ashland option.

My arguments fall into three major categories:

Safety
Train accidents, particularly derailments, happen surprisingly frequently. Squeezing a third track through town — and also increasing the number of trains — is unacceptably risky and probably in conflict with code. The only way of making this option safe is to wreak wholesale destruction on the town in order to provide adequate separation distances.

Cultural
The third track option would lead to the destruction of many civil war era homes and buildings.

Economic
Irreversible damage to the business heart of the town of Ashland would be caused by the project. It would also damage to Randolph-Macon College.

All that I have learned in the last five months reinforces these arguments. The third rail option is unsafe and destructive.

Background Justification

Although my focus has been on protecting the Town of Ashland I, along with many other residents, have looked into the justification for the overall project; we are becoming increasingly puzzled as to its overall rationale. Some of the possible reasons for the project are discussed below.

“High Speed Rail”

commuter-1

First we took the title of the project — “High Speed Rail” — at face value and assumed that the project would create a system of bullet trains whisking people along the north east corridor. We envisioned a business lady taking the train from Richmond to D.C., meeting her clients then back home. Since the journey time would be only one hour she would have a productive day. But if the round trip time is actually four hours — well maybe this project is not such a good idea after all.

But a few minutes of simple arithmetic demonstrated that the new system would hardly change the journey time between Richmond and Washington D.C. The new high speed, slick service that these travelers envision will continue to use the locomotives and passenger cars that trundle through our town every day. And an average speed of 52.5 mph from Richmond to D.C. is a parody of true high speed service.

So we needed to find another justification for the project.

Growth in Freight Traffic

The second justification for the increased rail capacity is that there will be a dramatic increase in the number and size of freight trains. Yet, as shown in Cognitive Dissonance publicly available data do not support this argument; rail freight traffic in recent years has hardly changed at all. Moreover, plausible economic projections indicate that freight traffic may actually go down.

Diverted Freight Traffic

A third possible reason is that freight traffic from other parts of the country will be diverted to our track.

Vision

There is an organization called Virginians for High Speed Rail. I do not pay attention to what they write, largely because some of the commenters at that site use inappropriate language. Nevertheless they do have a vision; it is,

Connecting Virginia to the rest of the east coast with reliable, safe, frequent, and fast passenger rail service.

Lord Kelvin ()
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

Fair enough. But, as an engineer, I follow the advice of Lord Kelvin

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind . . .

Their vision needs to be quantified. In particular, they need to put a number on the word “fast”. 52.5 mph doesn’t do it. Their vision is “of a meager and unsatisfactory kind”.

My own vision is more on the following lines.

  1. A high speed passenger train corridor connecting Richmond with Washington, D.C. Straightaway speeds would be in excess of 180 mph and the journey time would be one hour. This corridor would be for dedicated high speed trains only (for engineering and operational reasons they cannot share track with freight and conventional passenger trains). This service would likely follow the I-95 corridor.
  2. Existing tracks would offer local train service similar to what we have now. Residents of Ashland would connect with the high speed train in either Richmond or D.C.
  3. The existing tracks would be used for freight. If additional freight capacity is needed then a bypass line around Ashland (either to the east or the west) would be needed.

Conclusion

What is badly needed for this project is a clear and quantified vision as to its purpose. That vision need to be supported by detailed, well-researched and defensible information. Instead, the more we peel back the onion the more surprises there seem to be.

Guest Post #3 – Details, Details

Engineer-1

The following is a guest post from Bob Brown, a resident of Ashland. Mr. Brown served as town planner for the City of Philadelphia for many years and is currently on the Board of the Main St. Association of Ashland.

Editorial Comment: It is likely that the impact of a new track through Ashland would be considerably greater than Mr. Brown has shown here due to the need to bring all tracks up to modern code (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).

******************************
April 29, 2016

Friends and Neighbors:

The call for facts about the proposed “High Speed” Rail is fundamental. The following is my (initial) list of detail questions that everyone needs to know and have answered. Note that this list relates to Ashland (I assume some similar facts could be given for the Western route alternative.)

Note that they require several sets of evaluations:

  •             Railroad Engineering,
  •             Real Estate and Business Economics,
  •             Historic Analysis,
  •             Traffic and Pedestrian Analysis,
  •             Town Planning Analysis.
  •             College Planning Analysis

This is NOT merely a Railroad Engineering and Planning process…

Answers to these questions must be given before any position vote is taken, regarding the evaluation of possible train service changes in Ashland:

ASSUMPTION 1, RE ASHLAND: THIRD RAIL IS ADDED, AND EAST SIDE OF CENTER ST./RAILROAD AVE IS REMOVED –

  •  Exactly how many homes and properties would lose any auto access (i think it is at least 12). These homes would have to be purchased and removed.
  • What will happen to the corner houses, once the East side street is closed? Will all those streets require Fire Engine turn-arounds, thus removing land from those properties?
  • Note that this assumes that the businesses on the East side of Downtown will have no front or street access. Will this not put them out of business? And, if this one side of Railroad Ave. is put out of business, and if there is only one south-bound traffic lane, how will the West side businesses survive?
  • What will be the functional (and visual) impact on the College when its main north-south frontage street is removed? (this could be a big question for Randolph Macon to consider.) Note that much of its on-street parking would also be eliminated,
  • How would Center St. & Railroad Ave. function when there is only one-way (South bound) traffic possible – in both the Downtown and residential areas (and at the College)?
  • Will fences be required – on both sides of the tracks? If so, will pedestrian crossings be eliminated, and the Town cut in half? If so, what will that do to the quality of life of the houses on the West side of Center St.? What is their future? What will the College do, since it now exists on both sides of the Tracks?
  • How can the existing Train Station continue to function when there are three rails?
  • What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • And – the biggest question of all: What will be the future of historic and economically thriving Ashland if all the properties along the tracks, and in the Downtown (and perhaps parts of the College) cease to function? Will our beloved Community no longer exist?

ASSUMPTION 2, RE ASHLAND: NO THIRD RAIL; JUST “IMPROVEMENTS” TO THE TWO EXISTING TRACKS:

  • Exactly what are the “improvements”? Exactly what changes could they impose on the operation and quality of all three parts of Center St. and Railroad Ave.: Downtown, Residences, College?
  • What construction will take place, and how long will it take?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • Will – once again – pedestrian crossings be eliminated?
  • Will – once again – fences be required? If so, the same questions apply:

Elimination of pedestrian crossings (dividing Ashland in half)?

What would be the quality of life and the property values be for the houses on both sides of the tracks?

What would be our ability to shop in Downtown on both sides of the tracks?

What must the College do if pedestrian crossings are limited, since the campus now exists on both sides of the Tracks?

  • Once again – What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?

This may just be a start. Does anyone have other questions that we need to have answered before working out our position?

Bob (Brown)

PS: A detail: sometimes illustrations (diagrams, sketch views, sketch plans and street cross sections) help explain the issues. If Main Street, the Town, or the neighbors feel they would be a help, I would gladly do some.

Cultural Impact #2: Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad


Train-Ashland-History

The impact of the proposed third track through the Town of Ashland can be organized into the following three  categories:

  1. Safety/Environmental;
  2. Cultural — including the loss of historic buildings and sites; and
  3. Economic.

We are publishing a series of posts outlining concerns to do with all three areas. Posts to date include:

This is the second post in the Cultural series (although it could also be considered to be a safety topic).

Help Needed

I have worked as a professional engineer on large projects for much of my career. Hence I am familiar as to how such projects are organized and managed. In particular, as a result of my book-writing activities, I have a reasonable grasp as to how engineering standards are developed and implemented. However my experience has been in the process industries (oil refineries, chemical plants, offshore oil and gas platforms). This HSR Project is, of course, to do with a different industry: railways. Therefore I request that anyone who has worked on the design or construction of a railroad expansion project such as this to critique the work that I have done and correct any errors or false assumptions.

Thank you.

Basis of Design

BOD-Title-1

It is normal for project managers to create a document that summarizes the technical and engineering standards that they will be following for their project . They have to follow legal requirements, of course — of that there is no choice. But there is generally some flexibility as to which industry standards and practices are to be adopted. With regard to this proposed project the project team has published a 105 page document entitled the Basis of Design (BOD), dated February 24, 2015 (DRPT 2015).

Shown below is the first page of the BOD’s Table of Contents.

BOD-TOC
The design engineers must follow the standards that are provided in the BOD. Only in rare circumstances can the design engineers claim an exemption.

Development of Design Standards

For background it is useful to to understand how engineering codes and standards are developed and applied.

The Regulatory Processfra-logo-1

In the United States, the federal regulatory process starts when both Houses of Congress develop a law or statute. Generally, each House develops its own version. These are then sent to committee, where a compromise bill is agreed upon. This, in turn, goes to the President, who signs it (unless he chooses to use his power of veto). Once a statute becomes law, the affected agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in this case, develop specific regulations. It is the regulations, not the law itself, that companies are expected to follow. (The words “regulation” and “rule” are used synonymously in this post.)

Once the regulation has been written it is listed in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and indexed in the Federal Register. The public and other interested parties are invited to comment on this draft regulation. Following the implementation of a standard, the agency can modify it through Letters of Interpretation. If a person or organization disagrees with some part of the regulation, they can challenge it in court on the grounds that it does not meet the intent of the original Congressional statute. If the court agrees, the standard is implicitly changed.

This whole process is illustrated in the sketch below.

Regulatory-Process-1

Engineering Standards

Arema-1Rules and regulations generally do not provide sufficient detail for engineers to make detailed design decisions. Therefore all industries have standards-setting bodies that develop  detailed guidance. For example, AREMA (the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association) published the 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering, Chapter 5 of which contains a Recommended Practice entitled Track (AREMA 2016) and which is probably the most relevant to these discussions.

Usually these engineering standards are not a formal legal requirement unless they are adopted into a regulation by reference. However, even when they are not legally required, failure to follow them is hard to justify.

 Ashland, Ashland

Ashland-Ashland
On page 18 of her book Ashland, Ashland Rosanne Shalf describes the history of the railroad in Ashland.

Workers laid the first twenty miles of single track to the Hanover site in 1836 . . . Workers began to lay double lines of track along the route in 1903.

(Shalf, 1994)

The first engineering standards in the United States were developed in the early years of the 20th century with an initial focus on boiler explosions. The newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), for example, published its first first boiler code in the year 1914. This means, therefore, that when the existing Ashland tracks were installed it is very unlikely that the engineers at the time had to worry about code to do with spacing requirements between the tracks and adjacent pedestrians and buildings. And, as the picture at the head of this post shows, there simply wasn’t the density of building and road traffic in the town as we have now.

“Grandfathering”

Any project that involves upgrading an existing facility will likely face the challenge of “grandfathering” old designs. Standards generally become more stringent over time. But it is not practical to re-engineer an existing facility every time a new version of a standard is published. So it is normal for the facility to be “grandfathered”, i.e., it can remain “as is” and does not need to meet the latest code. An example in day-to-day life is to do with backup cameras on automobiles. It is likely that future rules will require that they be installed on all new cars but that old cars will not need to have them retrofitted.

In industry this concept of grandfathering only holds if the original facility is not significantly modified. If large changes are made then it is likely that the entire system will have to be upgraded to meet the latest standards. Adding a third track to two existing tracks constitutes a huge change. Hence I assume that the entire system will need to be upgraded to 2016 standards and to meet the requirements of the BOD for spacing between the tracks and pedestrians and buildings.

Minimum Separation Distances

Chapter 3 of the BOD —  “Highway” — appears to be the most pertinent to this discussion, particularly Section 3.3.6, which is entitled “Pedestrians/Bike Paths/Trails”.  Page 3-4 provides an inactive link to a document entitled Vtrans Pedestrian and Bicycle Facility Planning and Design Manual that presumably provides more detail. (I was unable to open the link or to locate the document on the internet.) The recommended minimum separation distances are provided in Figure 3-1, which is reproduced below.

separation-sketch-1

Engineering Judgment

No matter how detailed the rules and standards may be there are always gray areas that require interpretation and the application of professional judgement. For example, Page 3-5 of the BOD shows three types of rail operation.

BOD-3-5

A normal first response would be to put the town of Ashland into the first category:

“11 trains or more per day. Max Speed over 45 mph”.

But trains are not allowed to travel at 45 mph through town, so maybe the town does not fall into that category. It is not clear if the standard means,

. . . per day or Max Speed . . .

or

. . . per day and Max Speed . . .

Judgment is called for (or else the project engineering manager reviewed this document with an insufficiently sharp pencil).

Minor Upgrade

There is currently a discussion going on to do with a “Minor Upgrade” to the tracks through Ashland. (This option was removed from a recent Board of Supervisors motion.) No definition has been provided for the word “minor”, thus making the whole discussion rather vague. However, it may not be that all that important. Based on the the information in this post it is likely that any upgrade that can materially affect the capacity of the railroad will be large enough to obviate the existing exemption from code. Hence it is probable that,

All minor upgrades are actually major upgrades

Hence even a “minor” upgrade will lead to destruction of historic homes and businesses and will be enormously costly.

Conclusion

All engineering projects have to meet a plethora of codes and standards. In order to fully understand the impact of this proposed project on the town of Ashland we need to identify which of those codes apply. Based on the preliminary analysis provided here the following early conclusions are reached.

  1. The existing tracks were installed when there was little or nothing in the way of construction codes and standards.
  2. Adding a third track through the center of town means that the existing tracks would have to be upgraded to meet current code.
  3. The spacing required for this upgrade would be substantial and the impact on the town would be greater than previously anticipated.

This post started with a request. If anyone can provide insights regarding the engineering or construction of railroad tracks please let me know. In particular, I invite professional comments to do with the engineering discussions and assumptions that this post has initiated.

Next week we will probably glance at the topic of Cognitive Dissonance.

Citations

American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering. 2016.

Shalf, Roseanne Groat. Ashland, Ashland. Brunswick Publishing Corporation. 1994.

Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Basis of Design. Technical Criteria for Concept & Preliminary Engineering. Final Report. February 24, 2015.

Notes of Hanover Meeting: 2016-04-27

hanover-seal-1

At the Hanover Board of Supervisors meeting yesterday (April 27th) a motion to do with the proposed rail project was presented. The discussion to do with this motion started at 6:26 p.m. and concluded at 6: 35 p.m. All supervisors but Mr. Hazzard were present for the discussion.

The original motion read,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Hanover County Board of Supervisors after consideration of the original alternatives and the new Ashland minor upgrade alternative, rescinds the County Administrator’s January 7, 2016, letter and seeks to partner with citizens of Hanover County and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to identify an upgrade for the current tracks through Ashland which will result in the least disruption to the residents and businesses of the Town of Ashland, and accommodates the need to provide safe and efficient freight and passenger rail service.

The wording of the motion was changed during the discussion. A copy of the actual motion was not provided to the members of the public but it appears as if the following words,

an upgrade for the current tracks through Ashland which will result in the least disruption to the residents and businesses of the Town of Ashland 

were replaced with something more generic on the lines of “best alternatives”.

Ms. Prichard made the following points:

  1. The word “minor” in the original motion is not defined.
  2. She supports a united front for all of Hanover County.

It should be noted that, in reality, there can be no such thing as a “minor upgrade” to the existing tracks. Any upgrade will likely require that the entire system be modified to meet current codes. Such a modification will be far from “minor”. More on this in next week’s post Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad.