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.
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: