CSX Traffic

Switching Yard Decatur Illinois

My study overlooks the tracks running through Ashland. A subjective observation is that the number of intermodal/container freight trains is declining. Moreover, the trains seem to be shorter, on average, and we see very few of the double-stacked containers that were introduced a couple of years ago.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (it is behind a paywall) shows how the freight carriers, including CSX, have introduced Just in Time (JIT) techniques for minimizing the amount of time that freight cars spend in switching yards. The railroads are moving toward a passenger-style system in which it is the responsibility of the customer to get his goods to the train depot to meet a schedule rather than have the railroad assemble trains based on what the customer sends to them.

Such a system such as this could create shorter trains — the railroad managers may create such trains just to get cars out of the switching yards and to “declutter” the system. But JIT would not change the overall amount of traffic. If anything, it may increase the number of cars as customers respond to the more efficient service.

Data to do with traffic is available from the Surface Transportation Board. As time permits, it would be good to dig into this information to determine if the subjective impression to do with reduced traffic is borne out by hard numbers.


Alexandria Derailment and Bridge Destruction

Derailment in Alexandria, VA

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.

Alexandria Fire Dept.

Draft EIS. Comment #8: Operations

Map of CSX operations
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.

Draft EIS. Comment #3: Highly Hazardous Chemicals

Draft EIS DRPT – Trench deficiencies

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.

Here is the address: http://dc2rvarail.com/contact-us/

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

Lynchburg derailment and fire 2014
The Lynchburg derailment

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.

Risk Matrix

The simple 2×2 matrix shown below divides the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals into four groups.

2x2 matrix showing danger of highly hazardous chemicals in the trench option

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

Sulfur Pile
A Sulfur Pile

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.

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.

Florida Crash

CSX Florida Train Crash 2016

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.existing
Therefore, were an event such as this to take place in Ashland, it would impact many homes and businesses.


Traffic Growth

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) traffic growth

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.

Growth in Amtrak traffic


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.

Growth in intermodal traffic


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.

To quote,

. . . 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.

CSX Locomotive Fire: Ashland 9/16

CSX Train Fire Ashland VA

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.

If anyone can provide further information on these or other events that are pertinent to the safety of trains through Ashland, please let us know.

Thank you.