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 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.


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


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.




Letter to DRPT – Attachment A


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


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:

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.

The third track option would lead to the destruction of many civil war era homes and buildings.

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”


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.


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.


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.

Cognitive Dissonance


Groucho Marx (1890-1977) once said of himself, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” He is also credited with the words,

Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?

Which brings us to freight traffic on the railroad that runs through Ashland.

Project Justification

In the post HSR we concluded that,

The High Speed Rail Project is not a high speed rail project

By giving the project such a misleading title the project managers have seriously damaged their credibility. The only way in which that credibility can be restored is for them to provide a detailed and well-documented explanation as to the real justification for the project.

They have failed to do so.

Hence — given the lack of publicly available documentation — residents and business owners in Ashland can only speculate as to the purpose of the project. Otherwise we have a solution looking for a problem.

Some respond that the true purpose is to increase freight capacity. Although this statement is likely true it is difficult to find detailed up to date documentation that supports this assertion. Moreover, we are not provided with a definition for “increased freight capacity”. It could be,

Or any combination of the above. We don’t know.

They say that, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”. If the project team is to have a second chance to regain trust it will need to provide much more information as to what is going on.

We hear anecdotally that freight traffic will grow by a large amount fueled by factors such as,

  • Expansion of ports in Virginia.
  • Increased capacity through the Panama canal.
  • Growth in the south east of the United States.

All of this is projected to create more inter-modal (container) traffic that will travel by train to the north east of the United States through central Virginia. Hence increased rail capacity is needed.

Freight Traffic

If growth in freight traffic is the key justification for the project then it is worth taking a first look at historical traffic and plausible projections for the future.


The Association of American Railroads report on overall freight traffic is shown in the chart below.


It appears as if there has been no statistically significant change to the tonnage hauled by American railroads over the last ten years.


During the last twelve months — a period when we are supposedly enjoying an economic recovery — freight traffic has fallen quite dramatically, as shown in the following chart.


Inter-modal traffic (containers) — the heart of the justification for this project — has fallen nearly 9% since 2015.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. The following picture shows 4 miles of mothballed freight locomotives parked alongside I-10 in Benson, Arizona (the picture was taken May 3rd 2016). The line stretches as far as the eye can see.


Coal Traffic

We have already looked at the decline in coal traffic; it was noted,

. . . projections of a large increase in freight traffic may turn out to be inaccurate. One of the more important cargoes is coal yet, as the chart below shows, 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.

Coal Traffic by Rail 2015

A Glance from the Window

I recently conducted a highly informal and subjective survey of people who have lived on or near the tracks for the last few years. I asked them if they thought that freight traffic had changed much. A few thought that there had been a decline and some felt that it was about the same. No one thought that there had been an increase. People who live on the tracks also noted that there are often large intervals between one train and another. The system does not appear to be overloaded. Furthermore these same people have seen a noticeable reduction in the number of coal trains suggesting that the decline in coal traffic discussed above may actually be even more severe than that shown in the chart.

Rail to Nowhere

It is probable that much of the justification for future increases in freight traffic is based on growth in world trade. A discussion of global economics is way, way outside the scope of this small town blog. Nevertheless, at a time when the Chinese economy is cooling — maybe even shrinking — it makes sense to give some thought to the very big picture. It seems as if assumptions of continued expansion of global trade are increasingly wobbly.

Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) once said,

Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

His insight could open up a totally new blog. But, in the meantime, it is vital that the project team convince everyone that they are not building a “Rail to Nowhere”.

Timely Information

The project team’s need to re-establish credibility also means that they must base their policies and actions on up to date information and analyses. As noted in the post 2002 this does not appear to be the case. They are in fact working with information generated almost a generation ago.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that my career has been in the oil and chemical industries. I visualize the following vignette occurring at my place of work. It is a conversation between an oil company executive (E.) and one of his project managers (P.).

P.   I propose that we build a new multi-billion dollar oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
E.   Show me the data and analyses (safety, economic, environmental).
P.   It’s all here in this report.
E.   When was the report written?
P.   The year 2002.
E.   Get out of my office.


There is no conclusion to this post; there are too many loose ends.

It is likely that there will indeed be substantial growth in freight traffic through the Ashland area for macro economic reasons. But, given that these projections do not match what we see from our own windows “with our own lying eyes” it is reasonable to ask the project managers to provide the following information.

  • What are the projections for freight traffic for the next two decades?
  • What are the assumptions that lie behind those projections?
  • Do the projections assume constant economic growth at a time when many are wondering if such growth can continue?
  • The analyses that they have presented to the public are based on data that are almost two decades old. The world has changed since then. Do they plan to revisit their analyses with more up to date information?

The term cognitive dissonance can be defined as, “Being confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs”. There seems to be some of that going on here. The project team talks about large increases in freight traffic but there is little evidence on the ground that such increases are taking place. This is not to say that they are wrong. But it does mean that the project managers have an even greater responsibility to communicate with the people of Ashland and to tell them — in great detail — just what the projections for freight traffic show and how defensible those projections are.

Postscript #1

An article in the May 5th 2016 edition of the Herald-Progress suggests that the increased capacity is needed because CSX plans to divert traffic from existing lines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia on to the central Virginia line.



Next week’s post is entitled ‘Cognitive Dissonance’. I take a first look at projected changes in freight traffic. Various people have said that there will be a ‘”400% increase”. Can anyone provide me with a source for this number.