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.

 

Virginia Avenue Tunnel

VA-Avenue-Tunnel

The 110 year old Virginia Avenue tunnel that runs through Washington D.C. is used by CSX. A project to upgrade it started last year. It should be complete within the next two to three years.

The project site states,

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.

  1. 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.
  2. We can expect to see more double-stack trains.
  3. 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.

Virginia Avenue Tunnel

Fredericksburg Meeting

Fredericksburg VA Amtrak station
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.

The complete notice is here.

I am thinking of going — if anyone is interested in car-pooling let me know.

Update: the street address is:

9400 Thornton Rolling Road
Fredericksburg, VA 22408

The Texas Panhandle Derailment – 2016

Train accident Panhandle Texas 2016

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 herePart 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.

The Incident

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.

Here is a short clip of the event.

Lessons for Ashland

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.

Personal Response

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.

The Lynchburg Derailment – 2014

Train derailment Lynchburg VA

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 herePart 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.

Train derailment Lynchburg VA

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.

White Paper: Executive Summary

Train Ashland VA

As discussed in yesterday’s post we are writing a White Paper entitled, The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive, Costly.

We have prepared an Executive Summary, a copy of which is shown below. We encourage you to send this document — or your version of it — to the project managers. (Go to http://www.save-ashland.org/join/ to learn how to easily do this.)

You can also download this summary in either .docx or .pdf format.

*****************************************************

Track spacing Ashland train VA

Executive Summary

It is planned to increase the number of trains traveling along the eastern rail corridor. One option is to build a third line through the town of Ashland. This suggestion is unacceptable for the following reasons.

Safety: Toxic, Flammable, Explosive Materials

Approximately 50 freight trains pass through Ashland each day. Most of these trains include tank cars carrying ‘Highly Hazardous Chemicals’ — chemicals that are toxic, explosive and flammable. A leak from one of these cars would likely result in many fatalities and/or the destruction of homes and businesses. Squeezing a third rail through town would make an already unsafe situation much, much worse, particularly as the number of tank cars is likely to increase by over 70% and the number of cars on the roads by 80% during the 30 year life span of the project.

Congestion

The substantial increases in freight and rail traffic will result in enormous traffic congestion through the town. This congestion will be much, much worse during the time that they are actually building the track. It will also make it harder for emergency services to move quickly.

Cultural Destruction

It is not possible just to “add a third rail” to the existing two tracks. They were built long before the modern codes were introduced; they are too close to one another and have insufficient buffer space between them and the public highway. Were a third track to be installed not only would it have to meet modern code so would the existing tracks. The footprint would be so wide that many of the homes and businesses in the center of Ashland would have to be destroyed. These buildings are often of great historical value — some of them going back to the Civil War.

Economic Impact

For many years the town of Ashland has been successfully building its “Center of the Universe” economy. The number of restaurants, shops and activities such as Strawberry Faire has been steadily rising. The third rail would wipe out much of that — the town’s economy would wither.

Construction Chaos 

Any attempt to put in a third rail would lead to ceaseless chaos during the years of construction activity. Traffic flows would be endlessly disrupted, Amtrak service would be curtailed, business activities would dwindle and the chance of an accident would go up immensely.

Capital Cost

The capital cost associated with building a third rail while trying to keep existing rail traffic moving is very high.

Taxpayer Cost

The motivation for this project is to provide more capacity for freight trains (there will be no “High Speed” passenger train service — journey times will be the same as they are now). Even though the freight trains are operated by a private company the project will be funded by tax payers.

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

Letter to DRPT – Attachment A

Safety-Diamond

As discussed in earlier posts we are researching the hazardous chemicals (toxic, flammable and explosive) that travel through our town. This is part of a larger effort to write a White Paper with the title “The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive, Costly”.

Information to do with the chemicals that go through town is provided in Attachment A of the White Paper. Today we mailed (not emailed) a letter and Attachment A to the DRPT project team. We assume that they are conducting a similar analysis and we hope that our research can be helpful to them.

The letter is shown below. It states, “It is my conclusion that the transport of these chemicals through town is already hazardous — adding a third rail and a lot more freight traffic makes an already serious situation completely untenable.”

Attachment A is 10 pages long; if you would like a copy of it or of the full draft White Paper please contact me. In the meantime we show the current list of chemicals that wend their way through Ashland. This list is “organic” — we are constantly adding new materials to it. Please help us in this effort.Stock-6-cropped  Chemicals-1Chemicals-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.