National News

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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.
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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

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

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.

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.

Guest Post #3 – Details, Details

Engineer-1

The following is a guest post from Bob Brown, a resident of Ashland. Mr. Brown served as town planner for the City of Philadelphia for many years and is currently on the Board of the Main St. Association of Ashland.

Editorial Comment: It is likely that the impact of a new track through Ashland would be considerably greater than Mr. Brown has shown here due to the need to bring all tracks up to modern code (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).

******************************
April 29, 2016

Friends and Neighbors:

The call for facts about the proposed “High Speed” Rail is fundamental. The following is my (initial) list of detail questions that everyone needs to know and have answered. Note that this list relates to Ashland (I assume some similar facts could be given for the Western route alternative.)

Note that they require several sets of evaluations:

  •             Railroad Engineering,
  •             Real Estate and Business Economics,
  •             Historic Analysis,
  •             Traffic and Pedestrian Analysis,
  •             Town Planning Analysis.
  •             College Planning Analysis

This is NOT merely a Railroad Engineering and Planning process…

Answers to these questions must be given before any position vote is taken, regarding the evaluation of possible train service changes in Ashland:

ASSUMPTION 1, RE ASHLAND: THIRD RAIL IS ADDED, AND EAST SIDE OF CENTER ST./RAILROAD AVE IS REMOVED –

  •  Exactly how many homes and properties would lose any auto access (i think it is at least 12). These homes would have to be purchased and removed.
  • What will happen to the corner houses, once the East side street is closed? Will all those streets require Fire Engine turn-arounds, thus removing land from those properties?
  • Note that this assumes that the businesses on the East side of Downtown will have no front or street access. Will this not put them out of business? And, if this one side of Railroad Ave. is put out of business, and if there is only one south-bound traffic lane, how will the West side businesses survive?
  • What will be the functional (and visual) impact on the College when its main north-south frontage street is removed? (this could be a big question for Randolph Macon to consider.) Note that much of its on-street parking would also be eliminated,
  • How would Center St. & Railroad Ave. function when there is only one-way (South bound) traffic possible – in both the Downtown and residential areas (and at the College)?
  • Will fences be required – on both sides of the tracks? If so, will pedestrian crossings be eliminated, and the Town cut in half? If so, what will that do to the quality of life of the houses on the West side of Center St.? What is their future? What will the College do, since it now exists on both sides of the Tracks?
  • How can the existing Train Station continue to function when there are three rails?
  • What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • And – the biggest question of all: What will be the future of historic and economically thriving Ashland if all the properties along the tracks, and in the Downtown (and perhaps parts of the College) cease to function? Will our beloved Community no longer exist?

ASSUMPTION 2, RE ASHLAND: NO THIRD RAIL; JUST “IMPROVEMENTS” TO THE TWO EXISTING TRACKS:

  • Exactly what are the “improvements”? Exactly what changes could they impose on the operation and quality of all three parts of Center St. and Railroad Ave.: Downtown, Residences, College?
  • What construction will take place, and how long will it take?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • Will – once again – pedestrian crossings be eliminated?
  • Will – once again – fences be required? If so, the same questions apply:

Elimination of pedestrian crossings (dividing Ashland in half)?

What would be the quality of life and the property values be for the houses on both sides of the tracks?

What would be our ability to shop in Downtown on both sides of the tracks?

What must the College do if pedestrian crossings are limited, since the campus now exists on both sides of the Tracks?

  • Once again – What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?

This may just be a start. Does anyone have other questions that we need to have answered before working out our position?

Bob (Brown)

PS: A detail: sometimes illustrations (diagrams, sketch views, sketch plans and street cross sections) help explain the issues. If Main Street, the Town, or the neighbors feel they would be a help, I would gladly do some.

Cognitive Dissonance

Marx-Groucho-1

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.

2005-2014

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

Freight-Traffic-1

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

2015-2016

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.

Rail-Traffic-1

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.

Union-Pacific-engines-idled-2016-05-031

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.

Conclusion

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.

Problems and Predicaments

Ashland Town Hall

Yesterday the Town of Ashland held council elections. All four candidates were successful. Congratulations to all.

There was no competition for the open seats so the mood was generally amiable. Depending on the status of the rail project such amicability is less likely to be present in upcoming elections involving the town. By then many residents and business owners who have been rather detached from the discussions so far will begin to understand how this proposed project could destroy Ashland as we know it. They will not be so relaxed.

Prediction #1
Upcoming Ashland elections will be emotional and contentious if the 3rd track option is still on the table.

Prediction #2
Candidates will have to do more than simply express opposition to the project — citizens will demand detailed plans. (A starting point would be to stop using the phrase “High Speed Rail”.)

Prediction #3
The successful candidate(s) will understand that the rail project creates not a problem but a predicament.

The third prediction is worth thinking through. Town Council is experienced at solving problems such as rezoning a building or handling the impact of long-term hotel residency. Problems such as these (a) have solutions, (b) they are not existential (they do not fundamentally change the nature of the town), and (c) the solution can often be reversed if it does not work out.

The rail project, on the other hand, creates a predicament. A predicament (a) does not have a solution. Either the track is there or it’s not. Options such as “Minor Upgrades” are not realistic (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).  Moreover, a predicament (b) is existential — it utterly transforms the nature of the town. Finally (c), the predicament cannot be reversed. Once the third track has led to the destruction of homes and businesses they can never be restored.