DRPT Recommendations

The DRPT (Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation) has issued recommendations for increased rail capacity at http://dc2rvarail.com/about/recommendations/.

Report Details

Below is the the first page of the report. They have divided the 123 mile corridor into six Areas ― with Ashland being Area 5. Firm recommendations are made for each Area except for Ashland, which requires supplemental study.

DRPT Report AshlandThe section to do with Area 5 is shown below.

DRPT Report Ashland area

The following points can be drawn from the Area 5 section of the report.

  • There are seven build alternatives. These are not defined. It states that two of the seven are under consideration but does not state which they are. Four small maps are shown. Clicking on any one of these shows that they are part of a series of ten alternatives. (Originally there were three options: No Build, Third Track and Western Bypass. It is assumed that the No Build option has been dropped.)
  • With regard to the undefined “Both Alternatives” there are three bullet points. They are ambiguous but do suggest that there will be no new track within the town of Ashland but that there might be “improvements” within the existing Right of Way ― which is not defined.
  • Local train service from Richmond to D.C. will continue, with a stop at a new station in Ashland.
  • Two station options are under consideration. The first is the 850 platform over the College Avenue crossing. This is the one that is so strongly opposed by the College. The second is south of Ashcake Rd.
  • Two unidentified roadway crossings will have grade separation.

Ashland Town Council

At its scheduled December 6th 2016 meeting the Ashland Town Council adopted the following resolution.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the Ashland Town Council at its regular meeting on December 6, 2016, that the Ashland Town Council strongly opposes a third track through Town, and therefore heartily endorses and supports DRPT’s recommendations made on December 6, 2016 to the CTB [Commonwealth Transportation Board] to request of the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) the ability for DRPT to conduct a separate additional study for the Ashland area while proceeding with the DC2RVA project for the remainder of the 123-mile corridor, so as to allow for additional coordination and time to study and identify a preferred alternative for rail capacity improvements in the Ashland area.

In his remarks  Mayor Foley said that the study period would be around twelve months and that options such as the Buckingham Branch and a tunnel would be reconsidered.

Timing

The timing of the project, without the delays just discussed, is as follows.

  • The DRPT recommendations are submitted to the FRA.
  • The DRPT publishes a draft of its plan, possibly in January or February, 2017.
  • This is followed by a 60 day period for public hearings.
  • The FRA will make its final decision in late 2017.
  • The tentative build date is the year 2026.

Conclusions

It appears as if we will continue with a period of uncertainty ― maybe as long as twelve months. In the meantime we need to demonstrate our continued opposition to the third track option.

Advertisements

Board of Supervisors Resolution

Hyperloop train

At yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting the following resolution was approved.

There was no opportunity for public comment on this topic. The following remarks were made.

  • The High Speed Rail issue has generated more citizen response than any other topic since a suggestion that nuclear waste be stored in the County.
  • The resolution was not so much about the Buckingham Branch per se. Instead the supervisors want the DRPT to explore other options.
  • They expressed a need for dialog with the DRPT.

My personal take on this topic is that the Buckingham Branch is not technically feasible ─ particularly at its southern end. If they want to pursue a really different option then they will have to look at new technology, such as Hyperloop Trains ─ a topic I broached with the same Board of Supervisors in July of this year.

Message from Mayor Foley

Jim Foley Mayor Ashland VA

The following is a message from Mayor Foley regarding the upcoming visit by DRPT and CTB to our town on November 1st.

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

Dear Citizens,

I want to update everyone on the latest information about the CTB visit this Tuesday.  I also would like to give some guidance regarding how you can assist the town and county during the visit.

The CTB and some members of the DRTP will arrive at the Ashland Theater by 11:00 am on Tuesday.  The group will give a presentation, followed by 5 minutes of commentary from myself, President Lindgren and someone from Hanover County.

This is a “fact finding” visit.  No public comments will be allowed although you are allowed to watch the proceedings inside the theater.

The group will have a working lunch at the theater and will then take a short tour of the town starting at approximately 12:45pm. We believe that the tour will start from the theater and cover Center Street between Lee Street and College Avenue.

After the walking tour (12:45-1:45pm), the group will do a slow driving tour of the town.  Although we are not sure of the order, I do know that they plan to drive by Randolph-Macon College and Berkleytown.  They are also planning to drive down south Center Street to view a potential new train station location south of Ashcake Road.

Afterwards, the group will head to the county to view all of the potential intersections that a bypass would possibly cross.

How can you help?

1) Stay positive.  These are the folks that will make the decision on the Third Rail option. Technically they make a recommendation to the Federal government (FRA) and that recommendation is very likely to be accepted.

2) It is your right to hold up signs like “No Third Rail,” but please be calm and courteous.

3) We want to show the CTB and DRTP that we are always conscious of track safety.  Please use designated cross walks and piers to cross the tracks.

4) If you are available on Tuesday before and/or after the meeting please spend time outside.  Walk your dogs and babies.  Sit outside on your front porch.  Have lunch or coffee outside at one of our fine establishments near the intersection of England Street and Center Street.  We want to show the CTB and DRTP that we are a vibrant little town.

5) Tidy up your yards, especially if you live on or near the walking tour route or the driving tour route.

As always, I am available to answer any questions you may have on this important topic.

Best Regards,

Mayor Foley

 

CTB Meetings: November 1st – Details

Germanna Community College

One of our Ashland neighbors has provided the following additional information to do with the meetings on November 1st.

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

11:00 am Ashland Theater, OPEN TO THE PUBLIC – CTB and DRPT will be giving a presentation on High Speed Rail and their visit to Ashland. Then, Jim Foley, R-MC President Lindgren and a representative from the County will briefly speak (5 minutes each.) Next there will be a Q&A between the CTB and Town and County representatives… there will be NO PUBLIC COMMENT.

The group of officials will then walk from Lee Street (Library) north to College Ave where they will ride a bus up Center to Ashcake to check out a potential new rail station location. Then, as I understand it, they will drive along the Western Bypass route before leaving for their 4:00 meeting in Fredericksburg.

Let’s show them how much we love our Town… Come to the meeting at the Ashland Theater, beautify your properties for them to see, be out and about Town during their visit and please come to Fredericksburg for public comments during CTB meeting!

Commonwealth Transportation Board Meeting

Tuesday, November 1 @ 4:00

Germanna Community College,
Center for Workforce Development and Community Education
10000 Germanna Point Drive
Fredericksburg, VA 22408

There are already a few people planning on attending/speaking at this meeting, so if you would like to car pool contact kjamkjam at comcast dot net.

If anyone has questions, you can contact Jim Foley jfoley@town.ashland.va.us or Kathy Abbott kabbott@town.ashland.va.us or Josh Farrar (Acting Town Manager)  jfarrar@town.ashland.va.us

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

If you are planning on speaking at the Fredericsksburg meeting I suggest that you coordinate your comments with Jim Foley or Kathy Abbot.

 

Impact of the Third Rail

Impact of Third Rail on Ashland VA

Based on data from the Basis of Design provided by the Department of Rail & Public Transportation (DRPT) we have estimated the impact of the Third Rail on the Town of Ashland. We have presented reports to the Hanover Board of Supervisors, the DRPT itself and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

We have also flown a drone down Center St. and superimposed the calculated impact of the project on the town. This has led to the creation of a series of images, some of which are shown in this post.

I have stressed many times that we are working with inadequate and sometimes ambiguous data to do with codes and standards. But it is unlikely that our estimates are drastically wrong.

Here is some background.

  1. The existing tracks were laid down in 1843 (some say 1834) and 1903 respectively — long before there were any standards to do with spacing between tracks and, more important, standards to do with the spacing between the tracks and the first public highway or footpath.
  2. The preliminary plan shows a new third rail to be located on the eastern side of Center St. The existing tracks would, it is assumed, remain where they are.
  3. The new third rail would have to meet modern code regarding its distance from the existing eastern track. There would then be a space (“no man’s land”) between the outer edge of the new track and a new fence. There is then a space between the fence and the first public footpath or road.

We are referring to this as Case A. Its impact is shown in the image at the top of this post and in the images shown below. Basically it would take out many buildings in the business district, quite a few homes, it would remove all the frontage from virtually all the other homes and from buildings such as the library. It would also create the odd situation that the east side of the tracks would be built to 21st century standards of safety but that the west side would remain in the 19th century.

In my judgment Case A is not be acceptable regarding codes and standards. If they touch the existing tracks then all the historical exclusion that they have enjoyed for a century and half would disappear. This means that the existing tracks would also have to be upgraded. We refer to this as Case B. We have not created images of the impact of Case B on Center St. but it would be quite similar to what is shown for the east side. All frontages on both sides would be lost and all buildings north of the Arts Center up to and including the existing train station would be gone.

The reality is that either Case A or Case B would tear the heart out of Ashland.

 

Shown below are the engineering sketches that we prepared based on the DRPT Basis of Design to calculate the pertinent distances. They are respectively:

  • The existing tracks.
  • Case A.
  • Case B.
existing
Existing Tracks
Case A — Third Rail Ashland VA
Case A
Case B Third Rail Ashland VA
Case B

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.

Amtrak

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

Intermodal

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

Coal

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.

coal-traffic-2015

Analysis

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.

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.

National News

tgv-1
A French TGV

Our little town of Ashland is making it to the national level. On September 23rd 2016 the Washington Post published A railroad town that doesn’t want another train.

Here are some highlights from the article:

  • Railroading has built Ashland, 15 miles north of Richmond, dating to the 1840s. But now it threatens to destroy it.
  • One proposal would add a third track right through Ashland’s downtown where there’s hardly room. Grade crossings in the area may be closed. Shop customers and residents wouldn’t have the same freedom to walk across the tracks they do now. Some of Ashland’s finest homes face the tracks and would be endangered.
  • Ashland is hiring Williams Mullen, an influential Richmond law firm, to fight the third rail. Randolph-Macon College, whose leafy campus would be split by two 850-foot-long elevated passenger stands and a parking lot, has signed up McGuire Woods, another blue-chip Richmond law firm. It isn’t known yet if the western bypass players will follow suit.
  • Some feel squeezed by big inside players such as CSX, Amtrak and state and federal bureaucrats. They control the bureaucratic process in which the 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board will make a final recommendation after state and federal officials complete their assessments, including routes and costs.
  • One option that would let many off the hook is using a short-line railroad trunk line to bypass Ashland to the east. But in 2002, bureaucrats took that off the table, saying it was too disruptive and expensive. Still, some Ashland residents see it as a solution to ease community tensions.

Facebook

Facebook logo Ashland railA few months ago I registered with Facebook so that I could learn more about what people were saying about the “High Speed Rail” project. Since then I have received many ‘friend requests’. I have not responded to them because I am increasingly uneasy about Facebook’s security, its lack of privacy and what they are doing with the data we give them.

Therefore, if you are one of the people who has asked to be a ‘Facebook friend’, please understand why I have not responded. It’s nothing personal. However — if you would like to meet for a coffee in the real world then I would be delighted to do so.

Ian Sutton

 

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