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.
The success of the new transportation systems that are going to replace conventional rail depends on their ability to carry freight at high speed. Therefore, it is encouraging to see that Virgin Hyperloop One is working on such a system.
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.
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 #3: Highly Hazardous Chemicals
During the course of this proposed project citizens have expressed concern to do with the risks associated with highly hazardous chemicals transiting our town. Approximately 6% of the freight cars that go through Ashland carry these chemicals — and accidents do occur, as evidenced by the recent event in Lynchburg, VA (fortunately no one was injured).
The current situation is that, were there to be a release of materials from a tank car, the release would be at grade and so would disperse quite quickly depending on wind conditions. Also, since all equipment would be at grade emergency response vehicles would have good access to allow them to mitigate the event quickly and effectively.
If the trench option were to be selected the risk associated with these highly hazardous chemicals appears to increase substantially for the following reasons:
They are not dispersed by normal winds. Hence the concentrations of these chemicals would be much higher than at present.
Emergency response teams would find it difficult to access the leaking or burning cars.
For a smaller leak, some method of removing fumes from the trench would be needed.
The train crews would have a harder time escaping from the scene.
At the recent Town Council meeting at which preliminary information to do with the trench option was presented the speaker stated that the risk analyses to do with other trench projects will be provided to us. We look forward to receiving those reports.
The simple 2×2 matrix shown below divides the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals into four groups.
A brief discussion to do with each square of the matrix is provided below.
Group 1.Flammable or explosive materials that stay in the liquid phase (oil products are an example).
If released, and if a source of ignition is present, these materials create a pool fire. Currently the liquid would flow away from the source of the spill and could be contained and the fire could be brought under control. Under the trench option the liquid would accumulate, the fire would spread to other cars, and control would be a challenge.
Group 2. Flammable or explosive materials that form a vapor cloud (LPG is an example).
Currently the vapor from this type of release would drift away from the release source and, assuming an ignition source, would explode. The explosion (a deflagration) would be followed by a fire.
Under the trench option it is possible that the vapor release could lead to what is known as a Confined Vapor Cloud Explosion. This is much more serious than the unconfined situation and has the potential for creating a detonation, as distinct from a deflagration. The consequences of such an event would be severe.
Group 3. Toxic materials that stay in the liquid phase (sulfuric acid is an example).
Currently these liquids flow away from the leak source into the ground and drains. Under the trench option they would presumably stay in the trench, depending on the drainage system that is installed. Removing the liquids would be challenging.
Group 4.Toxic materials that vaporize (chlorine is an example).
Currently, depending on the density of the vapor with respect to air, a release could create a cloud affecting many homes and business locations. The trench option may actually pose less of a hazard because the vapors would be partially confined, although some means of removing the vapors to a safe location would be required.
Chemicals that Solidify
There is actually another category of chemical — those that are liquid in the cars but that solidify when they are released and cooled. Easily the most important of those to us is liquid sulfur, which is a by-product of oil refining and is used to make sulfuric acid. Many sulfur cars go through our town every day. It is possible that the sulfur in the cars is in solid form and that it is heated and melted when it reaches its destination. However, if liquid sulfur is released it will set up right away because it has a melting point of 115C/239F.
Solid sulfur is not particularly hazardous, but removing it from the trench could be a chore.
This preliminary review suggests that trench option would materially increase the risks associated with highly hazardous chemicals because the materials would not disperse as they do now, and because the emergency responders would have difficulty in controlling the situation.. However, much additional analysis is required.
As noted in the Introduction to this post, we have been informed that the pertinent reports to do with other trench options will be provided to us. We look forward to receiving those reports.
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.
Two CSX trains collided today at a location in central Florida. Although this event did not involved highly hazardous chemicals it does give us an idea as to the impact of such an incident. (The first reports state that there was a 4,000 gallon fuel leak although it appears as if it did not catch fire. It is not clear if this number refers to the actual or potential size of the leak.)
Based on the pictures and movie clips that have been made available so far some of the derailed cars are at least one a car length away from the tracks. Most freight cars are around 60 ft. long (including their attachments).As the sketch below shows, currently there is a distance of 351 inches or 29.25 ft. from the outer edge of the rail to community property.
Therefore, were an event such as this to take place in Ashland, it would impact many homes and businesses.
The justification for the High Speed Rail project is growth in rail traffic. With that in mind the recent publication of the document Rail Safety by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) provides some useful insights.
The chart below shows the growth in Amtrak traffic from the year 2000 to 2014. It has gone from 22 million to 32 million — a 45% increase, roughly 3% per annum. This is not a dramatic figure, but it is greater than the growth in the overall economy.
The next chart shows the growth for intermodal (containers). It shows 3.1 million units in 1980, rising to 11 million units in 2003 — a growth rate of 11% per annum. Since then the number of units carried has been about constant.
We took a look at the change in coal traffic in our February 2016 post Freight Traffic. The chart for the last three years is shown below.
. . . coal traffic by rail in the United States decreased by 15% during 2015; from January 2015 to January 2016 it is down 31%. It is questionable if coal traffic will return to its earlier levels given environmental pressures and the economics of natural gas.
Based on the above data sets we can arrive at the following tentative conclusions.
Amtrak ridership is growing at 3% per annum. The growth rate appears to be quite steady.
Coal tonnage has fallen dramatically in the last few years and is not likely to ever return to its previous levels.
Intermodal traffic grew dramatically in the 1980-2005 period but has since flattened out. Given the overall decline in world economic activity it is likely that it will remain flat for the foreseeable future.
All of the above data is for nation-wide traffic. Regarding the traffic through Ashland, the following information can be added:
We have around 75 trains per day.
Of these about 17% are passenger.
The small growth in passenger traffic, and the relatively small number of passenger trains compared to freight, indicate that there will be little, if any, growth in the number of trains in the coming years.
Subjective observation suggests that the amount of traffic in the last few years has been steady, at best, and may actually be declining, thus supporting the above conclusion.
There seems to be little justification for spending large amounts of public funds for a small and rather dubious projected increase in rail traffic along our corridor.
On September 27th 2016 somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. a CSX locomotive caught fire in Ashland. Here is what is known so far:
The train was being hauled by three locomotives. It was the third locomotive that had the fire.
The locomotive was located in the region of West Patrick St., adjacent to the Randolph-Macon tennis courts.
The train was heading south.
The fire was extinguished and the locomotive was removed.
The train consisted of coal wagons only.
There are no reports of injuries or damage to other property.
It is possible that the cause of the event was unburned fuel caking up on the turbocharger and catching fire.
We are continuing to research this event in order to find more details.
The background is that we are analyzing safety issues to do with the proposed High Speed Rail project. The current situation with regard to safety is, in our judgment, unacceptable. Here are some basic facts.
Approximately 62 freight trains a day travel through Ashland.
6% of the cars carry Highly Hazardous Chemicals (HHCs) — chemicals that can explode, burn or release a vapor cloud of toxic gas. (“Empty” cars generally contain 3% of the original contents and can actually be more hazardous than full cars.) Some of the most severe chemicals used in American industry travel through our town.
We can analyze the effect of a leak (large or small) using EPA-authorized software.
A preliminary risk analysis indicates that we are above the threshold of “acceptable risk”. However, we live with the situation because “That’s the way it’s always been” (just as we live with the fact that the current track spacing does not meet code). However, adding more trains, many of them with many more cars, will create a safety situation that is not acceptable.
The following posts provide information on some of the safety analysis work that we have done so far.
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.
The Virginia Avenue Tunnel currently has a single track that accommodates one train at a time. The reconstruction will increase the tunnel width to install a second track and raise the height of the tunnel roof to make room for double-stack intermodal container trains.
For Ashlanders this project offers three insights.
The increased freight traffic promised for our area is not just that coming from ports to the south of us. There will also be more traffic coming from the north and north-west.
We can expect to see more double-stack trains.
CSX was able to obtain approval for this project against strong opposition, even though it goes through some of the most expensive real estate in the country. And many of the people who live there are influential.