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.
We have received the following information to do with a DRPT meeting in the Fredericksburg area.
Spotsylvania County will hold a meeting regarding the proposed Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast High Speed Rail project on Monday, July 11 at Fredericksburg Christian High School. The meeting is scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and will include a presentation at 7 p.m., followed by a question and answer session. Spotsylvania County is holding the meeting in coordination with the City of Fredericksburg, Caroline County, and Stafford County.
As discussed in previous posts we are writing a White Paper entitled The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive and Costly. Details are available here and here. Part of that White Paper includes a review of train incidents that provide lessons learned for the Rail project. One of those incidents was the derailment and fire that occurred in the Texas Panhandle on June 28th 2014. Unlike the Lynchburg event this tragedy resulted in three fatalities and one injury.
This Panhandle incident was caused by a head-on collision between two BNSF freight trains in northwest Texas. Because the event is so recent very little authorized information as to its causes are available. As agencies such as the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) publish their reports we will update this post.
Here is what we know so far.
The event occurred on June 28th 2016 in the morning. It was daylight; weather conditions were normal.
The location was about 25 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas.
It is reported, but not confirmed, that the speed limit in the area was 70 mph.
Neither train included chemical tank cars. Nevertheless the diesel fuel in the locomotives caught fire and burned for hours. From pictures of the event it appears as if the freight cars also burned. Freight cars were scattered quite a long way from the tracks.
Each locomotive had two crew members. Three of them died, the fourth jumped from the train before the impact and survived.
It is reported that the fire fighters did not have the foam systems needed to suppress a diesel fire, which is why the fire burned for so long.
We are looking at these events to see what lessons can be applied to the proposed third rail project.
As can be seen from the pictures, the event took place in a sparsely populated area. Had it occurred in Ashland there would have been major property damage and a significant chance of injury or even fatalities to members of the public.
Although chemical tank cars present the greatest risk, fire is a major hazard to do with any train.
Clearly the existing situation in which trains travel through a densely populated area on tracks that were built long before modern codes were promulgated poses a high level of risk. Adding a third rail to this already congested area and then increasing the number of freight trains by nearly 100% over the next 30 years increased risk to an unacceptable level.
One final thought about this incident is to do with personal safety. If you yourself are close to an event such as this what should you do?
In our post Immediate Response to a Vapor Release we described what to do if you are exposed to a leak of toxic gas from a ruptured tank car (move across, not down wind). This Panhandle event provides another lesson — if an emergency is about to happen run away. The only survivor of this event was the locomotive operator who jumped out before the impact.
In general if you are involved in an event such as this get away from the scene. You can do little to help and you are a distraction to the trained emergency responders.
As discussed in previous posts we are writing a White Paper entitled The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive and Costly. Details are available here and here. Part of that White Paper includes a review of train accidents that provide lessons learned for the Rail project. One of those incidents was the derailment and fire that occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 30th 2014.
The following is a summary of some of the relevant details.
A train carrying light crude oil derailed.
The cause of the event was a broken rail.
Three tank cars rolled into the James River.
At least one of the cars exploded and caught fire.
The train was traveling at 24 mph.
The event occurred in downtown Lynchburg during the lunch hour but no one was injured.They were lucky. Had the car rolled the other way they could have impacted businesses and restaurants in the area. The incident was also close to the parking lot of a children’s museum (which was evacuated safely).
The cars were not overloaded.
The cars were operated by CSX. It took two hours for a CSX representative to reach the scene and assist the fire fighters.
A substantial amount of oil leaked into the James River.
For those analyzing the Ashland Third Rail project the following lessons can be learned from this Lynchburg incident.
To the best of our knowledge crude oil does not go through Ashland. However we do have many cars containing light hydrocarbons such as isobutane and LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). These are considerably more dangerous than crude oil because (a) they are much more likely to generate a large explosion, and (b) a fire would be very difficult to extinguish (indeed, the fire fighters may decide not to extinguish it because there could then be a second explosion).
CSX and other operators have a stringent rail inspection program. Nevertheless rail failures can occur at any time or place.
The train was being operated properly — in particular it was traveling below the speed limit.
Had this event occurred in Ashland, particularly were a third rail to be installed, it is certain that property damage would have been extensive and it is likely that there would have been injuries, possibly fatalities.
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.