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.


Cultural Impact #2: Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad


The impact of the proposed third track through the Town of Ashland can be organized into the following three  categories:

  1. Safety/Environmental;
  2. Cultural — including the loss of historic buildings and sites; and
  3. Economic.

We are publishing a series of posts outlining concerns to do with all three areas. Posts to date include:

This is the second post in the Cultural series (although it could also be considered to be a safety topic).

Help Needed

I have worked as a professional engineer on large projects for much of my career. Hence I am familiar as to how such projects are organized and managed. In particular, as a result of my book-writing activities, I have a reasonable grasp as to how engineering standards are developed and implemented. However my experience has been in the process industries (oil refineries, chemical plants, offshore oil and gas platforms). This HSR Project is, of course, to do with a different industry: railways. Therefore I request that anyone who has worked on the design or construction of a railroad expansion project such as this to critique the work that I have done and correct any errors or false assumptions.

Thank you.

Basis of Design


It is normal for project managers to create a document that summarizes the technical and engineering standards that they will be following for their project . They have to follow legal requirements, of course — of that there is no choice. But there is generally some flexibility as to which industry standards and practices are to be adopted. With regard to this proposed project the project team has published a 105 page document entitled the Basis of Design (BOD), dated February 24, 2015 (DRPT 2015).

Shown below is the first page of the BOD’s Table of Contents.

The design engineers must follow the standards that are provided in the BOD. Only in rare circumstances can the design engineers claim an exemption.

Development of Design Standards

For background it is useful to to understand how engineering codes and standards are developed and applied.

The Regulatory Processfra-logo-1

In the United States, the federal regulatory process starts when both Houses of Congress develop a law or statute. Generally, each House develops its own version. These are then sent to committee, where a compromise bill is agreed upon. This, in turn, goes to the President, who signs it (unless he chooses to use his power of veto). Once a statute becomes law, the affected agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in this case, develop specific regulations. It is the regulations, not the law itself, that companies are expected to follow. (The words “regulation” and “rule” are used synonymously in this post.)

Once the regulation has been written it is listed in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and indexed in the Federal Register. The public and other interested parties are invited to comment on this draft regulation. Following the implementation of a standard, the agency can modify it through Letters of Interpretation. If a person or organization disagrees with some part of the regulation, they can challenge it in court on the grounds that it does not meet the intent of the original Congressional statute. If the court agrees, the standard is implicitly changed.

This whole process is illustrated in the sketch below.


Engineering Standards

Arema-1Rules and regulations generally do not provide sufficient detail for engineers to make detailed design decisions. Therefore all industries have standards-setting bodies that develop  detailed guidance. For example, AREMA (the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association) published the 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering, Chapter 5 of which contains a Recommended Practice entitled Track (AREMA 2016) and which is probably the most relevant to these discussions.

Usually these engineering standards are not a formal legal requirement unless they are adopted into a regulation by reference. However, even when they are not legally required, failure to follow them is hard to justify.

 Ashland, Ashland

On page 18 of her book Ashland, Ashland Rosanne Shalf describes the history of the railroad in Ashland.

Workers laid the first twenty miles of single track to the Hanover site in 1836 . . . Workers began to lay double lines of track along the route in 1903.

(Shalf, 1994)

The first engineering standards in the United States were developed in the early years of the 20th century with an initial focus on boiler explosions. The newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), for example, published its first first boiler code in the year 1914. This means, therefore, that when the existing Ashland tracks were installed it is very unlikely that the engineers at the time had to worry about code to do with spacing requirements between the tracks and adjacent pedestrians and buildings. And, as the picture at the head of this post shows, there simply wasn’t the density of building and road traffic in the town as we have now.


Any project that involves upgrading an existing facility will likely face the challenge of “grandfathering” old designs. Standards generally become more stringent over time. But it is not practical to re-engineer an existing facility every time a new version of a standard is published. So it is normal for the facility to be “grandfathered”, i.e., it can remain “as is” and does not need to meet the latest code. An example in day-to-day life is to do with backup cameras on automobiles. It is likely that future rules will require that they be installed on all new cars but that old cars will not need to have them retrofitted.

In industry this concept of grandfathering only holds if the original facility is not significantly modified. If large changes are made then it is likely that the entire system will have to be upgraded to meet the latest standards. Adding a third track to two existing tracks constitutes a huge change. Hence I assume that the entire system will need to be upgraded to 2016 standards and to meet the requirements of the BOD for spacing between the tracks and pedestrians and buildings.

Minimum Separation Distances

Chapter 3 of the BOD —  “Highway” — appears to be the most pertinent to this discussion, particularly Section 3.3.6, which is entitled “Pedestrians/Bike Paths/Trails”.  Page 3-4 provides an inactive link to a document entitled Vtrans Pedestrian and Bicycle Facility Planning and Design Manual that presumably provides more detail. (I was unable to open the link or to locate the document on the internet.) The recommended minimum separation distances are provided in Figure 3-1, which is reproduced below.


Engineering Judgment

No matter how detailed the rules and standards may be there are always gray areas that require interpretation and the application of professional judgement. For example, Page 3-5 of the BOD shows three types of rail operation.


A normal first response would be to put the town of Ashland into the first category:

“11 trains or more per day. Max Speed over 45 mph”.

But trains are not allowed to travel at 45 mph through town, so maybe the town does not fall into that category. It is not clear if the standard means,

. . . per day or Max Speed . . .


. . . per day and Max Speed . . .

Judgment is called for (or else the project engineering manager reviewed this document with an insufficiently sharp pencil).

Minor Upgrade

There is currently a discussion going on to do with a “Minor Upgrade” to the tracks through Ashland. (This option was removed from a recent Board of Supervisors motion.) No definition has been provided for the word “minor”, thus making the whole discussion rather vague. However, it may not be that all that important. Based on the the information in this post it is likely that any upgrade that can materially affect the capacity of the railroad will be large enough to obviate the existing exemption from code. Hence it is probable that,

All minor upgrades are actually major upgrades

Hence even a “minor” upgrade will lead to destruction of historic homes and businesses and will be enormously costly.


All engineering projects have to meet a plethora of codes and standards. In order to fully understand the impact of this proposed project on the town of Ashland we need to identify which of those codes apply. Based on the preliminary analysis provided here the following early conclusions are reached.

  1. The existing tracks were installed when there was little or nothing in the way of construction codes and standards.
  2. Adding a third track through the center of town means that the existing tracks would have to be upgraded to meet current code.
  3. The spacing required for this upgrade would be substantial and the impact on the town would be greater than previously anticipated.

This post started with a request. If anyone can provide insights regarding the engineering or construction of railroad tracks please let me know. In particular, I invite professional comments to do with the engineering discussions and assumptions that this post has initiated.

Next week we will probably glance at the topic of Cognitive Dissonance.


American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering. 2016.

Shalf, Roseanne Groat. Ashland, Ashland. Brunswick Publishing Corporation. 1994.

Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Basis of Design. Technical Criteria for Concept & Preliminary Engineering. Final Report. February 24, 2015.

Hanover Meeting: 2016-04-27


We have just received the following information:.


Hanover Board of Supervisor’s Meeting

Wednesday, April 27th at 6:00 p.m.

Hanover Courthouse, first floor

Please make an effort to attend this important meeting:

This Wednesday, 4/27 at 6:00 pm, Buckey Stanley, Hanover Supervisor of the Beaverdam District (which includes the western part of Ashland) will introduce a resolution to change the Board’s position on high speed rail/CSX rail development.

Selling Nothing


The Virginian

This is the third in a three-part series of posts to do with the misleading use of the term “High Speed Rail”. The first post — HSR — showed that average train speeds after the project is complete will be a mere 52.5 mph — hardly “high speed”. Moreover, it will still be quicker to drive than to take the train when traveling from Richmond to Washington, D.C.


In the second post, Controlling the Narrative, we introduced a business lady who regularly travels from Richmond to Washington D.C.. She was excited to learn that the new High Speed Railway would whisk her along, reducing her journey time to less than an hour compared to the current 2 hr 20 min. When she then found out that the journey time will not actually be much different from now (just a 20 minutes saving) and that the train remains slower than driving she is regretful, even annoyed, at this missed opportunity. And the fact that the cost of the train journey would be nearly double that of driving crystallizes her opinion, especially when she has to add the time and expense associated with local travel at each end of the journey.

But then she sees the following sign and says to herself,

I hear that freight trains use much less fuel per ton of cargo than 18-wheelers. That’s good for the environment and it cuts back on our imports of oil from unfriendly nations. It also eases the traffic problems on I-95. I was disappointed to learn that the “High Speed Railway” is not actually a high speed railway but I still support the project. I’m sorry that people are losing their homes to this project but you can’t stand in the way of progress. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know.

The lady’s reaction is likely representative of the feelings of a typical citizen of Virginia who has very little knowledge of this project (which means virtually all the citizens). The new sign continues to cede the project narrative. It tells people that freight train service will be improving; that’s something that they want to hear.

Just Say Yes

The prominence given to the word ‘Stop’ in the sign raises two additional concerns. The first is that the action command goes nowhere. Our business woman has no involvement in or control of the project — there is no action for her to take. The second difficulty is that the message of the sign suggests conflict and dispute. By contrast, virtually all advertisements on television are positive in tone. They say,

Buy our product or service and something good will happen to you.

They could say,

If you don’t buy our product or service then your life will not be as good.

The two messages are, of course, flip sides of the same coin. But the response that they generate is totally different. The first succeeds as a narrative, the second fails.

The Challenge

The opponents of the project face a dilemma: they are ‘Selling Nothing’ (actually the ‘No Build’ option). They need to create a positive message that is cast in terms of the customer, not of the residents who will be affected by the new rail. How this could be done regarding “high speed” passenger travel has already been illustrated. Basically the narrative was changed from “Look at our exciting new means of transport that will change your business life” to “Nothing much has changed after all”.

The challenge that the opponents now face is how to create a new freight train narrative.

Codes and Standards

Next week in Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad we will take a first look at the Basis of Design that the project managers have chosen to adopt. It appears as if adding a third track through the center of Ashland will do more than add the width of the new track to what is present already; it will presumably mean that existing tracks will have to be brought up to today’s code. If this assumption is correct then the addition of a third track and the associated upgrade will probably have a greater impact than originally anticipated.

Slowing Down

This blog started just over three months ago (Christmas Eve 2015 to be precise). Since then 39 posts have been published — that’s nearly three a week— too many. (A summary of them can be found at our Welcome page.)

I am (ahem) running out of steam and need to slow down.

The objective of the blog was and is to demonstrate that running a third track through the center of Ashland as a part of what was then known as the “High Speed Rail” project would be unsafe, hugely destructive to our cultural heritage and very costly. The project would destroy the town of Ashland as we now know it. It created an existential crisis.

From the beginning I have attempted to focus on facts and verified statements and to avoid emotional responses.

So let’s review what has been achieved and consider where we go from here.

When we started — a mere three months ago — the normal response of people in the community to this proposed project was generally on the following lines,

  • They’ve been talking about this for years — nothing is going to happen.
  • They’ll never get funding — nothing is going to happen.
  • That’s absurd, they couldn’t do that — nothing is going to happen.

These responses may be correct, and, there again, they may not be correct. But they make me uneasy. I felt then, and I feel even more strongly now, that we as a community should respond energetically to the challenges that this proposed project poses and that we should take nothing for granted. In particular, we should control the narrative and not let others do that for us.

Much has happened in the last three months, including the following.

  • Awareness has increased. It would be an exaggeration to say that, “everyone is talking about it” but concerns are increasing. Probably the most important single event that shifted this way of thinking was the arrival of letters stating that inspectors would be visiting homes and land in order to conduct surveys.
  • The people living to the west of town have become vocal in their opposition to the project. Their voices can be heard at the web site Families Under the Rail and the Facebook site No High Speed Railway.
  • Public meetings, such as this one, have drawn large numbers of people and have raised the awareness among community leaders.

The Holy Roman Empire

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

Already we have had our successes. Three months ago everyone, including myself, referred to the project as the “High Speed Rail” project. That is changing. Since it was pointed out that the journey time of this so-called high speed train after the project is completed will be longer than normal driving time I am already finding that people are looking a little sheepish when they use the term.

One of the quotations for which the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is famous is,

This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

(In his time the political organization known as the Holy Roman Empire was a loosely structured collection of nation states and local governments located in central Europe.)

The “High Speed Rail” aspect of the project is starting to look like the “Holy Roman Empire” of Voltaire’s time.

The Holy Roman Empire (c. 1600)



When analyzing the proposed project it is useful to organize our thoughts into the following categories:

I have already written quite a few posts on these various topics, and there are more to come.

Publication Schedule

I started this post by saying that I needed to slow down. I have little doubt that the topic of “High Speed Rail” (or whatever it will be called in the future) is one that will continue to be front and center for a long time; we need to pace ourselves. Therefore my plan as of now is to publish once a week (with breaks). I will also write bulletin-type posts that provide information to do with events such as upcoming meetings.

Controlling the Narrative


Our recent post HSR drew many visits. It is probably therefore worth continuing the line of thinking that it engendered.

The Project Frame

Large, industrial projects are costly, time-consuming and risky. Hence it is vital that the project managers carefully define the ‘Project Frame’, i.e., what’s in the project and what’s excluded. The Frame also provides the criteria for failure and success.

Currently the HSR Project is framed in a traditional cost/benefit manner. To a business person or resident of central Virginia the benefits are:

  • A comfortable, fast ride to D.C. from Richmond.
  • Less hassle fighting I-95 traffic.
  • Doing my bit for the environment.

The costs are:

  • Financial — that number is not known but it will probably be lost somewhere in the government deficit.
  • Some valuable parts of our culture (old homes, grave sites, the second oldest grocery store in the United States) will be damaged or have to be relocated.
  • Some bucolic farmland will be lost.

The Current Narrative

Let us imagine a business woman who makes regular trips to D.C. from Richmond. Her response to this Frame is likely to be, “Go ahead – it’s worth it. There’s always a cost to progress. ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know.’ ”

She sees the words “High Speed Rail” on the sign shown below.


She might respond by saying,

H’m: High Speed Rail — that sounds good. I hear that the High Speed Train will take me from Richmond to D.C. in less than an hour. That means that I can take the early morning train, enjoy a cup of coffee on the ride, visit my client or project, and be back in time for dinner. And I won’t have to struggle with traffic. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me. It’s a shame that some of these people, none of whom I actually know, will lose their property. But ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs’, you know.

In other words, it is possible that the sign will achieve the opposite purpose from that intended.

The sign’s language cedes the project narrative

Redefining the Frame

But what if the Frame is structured in a different manner?

Opposition to the project so far has been presented in terms of the people who live on or near the tracks. By talking about their concerns they have done little to change the mind of our business woman who looks forward to a fast and comfortable trip to Washington.

An alternative frame would be one that focuses on the potential travelers and the community in general — obviously a much larger group of people than those directly affected by the project. In other words, think in terms of the customer.

Journey Time

Currently the project is defined by three words: “High Speed Rail”. But if, as suggested in the earlier post, the actual journey time does not change significantly then our business woman may say to herself,

The project doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of benefits, and the costs are high and government deficits seem to be never-ending. And we really do need to be doing more to preserve our way of life instead of pouring concrete everywhere. And it turns out that, instead of offering us a smooth, slick new train, Amtrak will continue to use their somewhat scruffy old carriages. I was hoping that I could make the round-trip journey in less than two hours, but it looks as if it’s going to be at least four hours. That’s too long.

You know, I am not sure that I do support this project after all. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.



Our traveler may also wonder about the cost. Currently a non-discounted coach seat is $136 round trip. The IRS 2016 rate is $0.54 / mile. Hence the cost of driving would be $82.40.


If the above analysis is accurate then those who oppose the HSR Project should challenge the use of the phrase “High Speed Rail” at every opportunity. For example, if a newspaper runs an article on the topic then multiple letters to the editor should dispute the editor’s choice of words. Even in normal conversation, if someone uses the words “High Speed Rail” it should be politely pointed out that a different phrase is needed. If it can be shown that the project offers few benefits but many costs then the project’s opponents will gain a much broader base of support.

In other words,

Control the project narrative



Journey Times

At the recent public meeting to do with “High Speed Rail” it was twice stated that the journey time from Richmond to D.C. would be reduced by 20 minutes once the project was complete. In each case the audience reaction was somewhat caustic.

Let us work through the numbers.

  • Currently the North East Regional trains from Staples Mill Rd. to Washington Union Station average a journey time of 2 hr 20 min.
  • The distance is about 105 miles.
  • Hence the average speed is (105/2.33) = 45.1 mph.

If the project moves forward,

  • The journey time is reduced to 2 hr.
  • Hence the average speed becomes (105/2.00) = 52.5 mph

For reference: Google Maps estimates the I-95 time for the same journey as being 1 hr 52 min — giving an average speed of 56 mph.

High Speed Rail


There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the term “High Speed Rail”. However the following parameters provide a sensible framework:

  • Staightaway speeds of 300 km/h (185 mph)
  • High voltage overhead catenaries
  • No mixing of freight and passenger traffic


  • This project does not meet any of the three parameters that help define the term “High Speed Rail”.
  • 52.5 mph is not “high speed”.
  • Once the project is complete it will be quicker to drive from Richmond to Washington D.C. than to take the train.

For these reasons the term “High Speed Rail” will no longer be used at this blog site in the context of this project. Instead we will refer to it as the ‘HSR Project’.

Notes of Meeting with DRPT: April 4, 2016

On April 4th 2016 the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) held an informational meeting at the Patrick Henry High School to do with the various High Speed Rail options for the Ashland area. I had not intended to post about the meeting since not much new information was provided and the articles in the Herald-Progress and the  Richmond-Times Dispatch covered the event well. My post 2002 reflected on my concern to do with the age of the Tier I report.

However, I have been asked to provide a few notes, so here they are.

Meeting Structure

  • Location: Auditorium, Patrick Henry High School.
  • Date and time: April 4th 2016, 6:35 p.m. to 8:05 p.m.
  • Very rough head count: more than 550 attendees.






The meeting, which was chaired by Supervisors Stanley and Pritchard, was well managed and, in spite of the high level of emotion, the audience members responded correctly. The project team members replied to questions and comments professionally and courteously. Compliments to all.



The meeting was divided into two sections. The first was a presentation by Ms. Emily Stock of DRPT, supported by her colleagues.  It lasted for approximately 40 minutes. We were told that the slidepack would be available at the project web site; I have not been able to locate it yet.


The following are some of the notes I took during the presentation and follow-up question and answer session. I am only commenting on information that was new to me — most of the presentation covered territory that is well known to most of us.

  • Growth in Freight Traffic
    One of the rationales for the project is an anticipated growth of 2% per annum in freight traffic. This may sound like a small number but, being an exponential, it means that 30 years from now traffic is projected to be up by 80%. A background comment that I have heard is that this projection may not pass the red-face test. Subjective observations are that freight traffic through Ashland has declined in the last twelve months. And coal traffic nation-wide has certainly declined materially (see Freight Traffic). The projected growth may come from increased inter-modal shipping (containers) but these assumptions are worthy of further investigation.
  • Grade Crossings
    If the western bypass is selected there will be no grade crossings. This obviates one of the major concerns to do with this option: residents’ access to roads.
  • No-Build
    The No-Build option will nevertheless probably include minor improvements to the existing system.
  • Ashland Tunnel
    Were a tunnel under Ashland to be used the “ramps” into and out of that tunnel would be at least a mile long in order to achieve a gradual enough grade.
  • Travel Time
    Travel time from Richmond to D.C. will be reduced from its current level of around 2 hr 15 min by about 15 to 20 minutes and delays would be reduced. (This observation was not graciously received.)
  • Tier I
    The book on Tier I is closed (but see 2002). The cost of straightening I-95 would be prohibitive and the existing Buckingham Branch has too many curves and grades.
  • Speeds
    90 mph is the project limit. Train speeds are restricted to 35 mph by day, 40 mph at night through town. These are head-in speeds. Once a train clears town it can accelerate, hence the rear part of the train may be going faster.
  • Letters
    Another round of letters to do with access to properties is to be sent out.
  • Economics
    The issue of economics was not satisfactorily addressed — the team needs more data. The projections seem to be foggy. However, a red-face check creates a concern: does the expenditure of billions of dollars along with the associated cultural upheaval justify the relatively minor gains that the project offers? In addition concerns were expressed regarding spending public funds to finance a private business (CSX).

Submitting Comments

I was asked to stress to readers of this blog that the project team will only respond to comments that are submitted to their web site (see my post Comments to DC2RVA Rail). I did ask as to how we can submit comments such as Cultural Impact #1: Stonewall Jackson that contain hyperlinks and video clips. Being a government site they cannot include links to non-governmental sites such as this blog or YouTube. I will post an answer to this question when I receive it.







Last night — April 4th 2016— the project team presented the status of the Ashland High Speed Rail program to the citizens of Hanover County. The meeting was interesting and well managed but little new information was imparted. However, one item did catch my attention. It was noted at least twice that the Tier I report was released in the year 2002. It is this report that establishes among other issues the philosophy that the High Speed Rail was to follow the existing right of way rather than the I-95 corridor.

But 2002 was a long, long time ago. It was the year that that first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was released. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory. Prior to our meeting at the Patrick Henry high school the stage had just been used by high school students to rehearse a musical performance. In the year 2002 these students were just four years old.

My first reaction to the ‘2002’ statement was the obvious one: how can the project team justify current decisions based on studies that were done not long after the birth of these high school students? Has nothing changed since then? The question is, of course, rhetorical. The profound changes that have taken place in our economic, social and political environment fully justify the actions being taken by some citizens to learn more about the contents of the Tier I document. I have worked as an engineer on large projects in the process industries (chemicals, refining, offshore oil and gas). I cannot imagine that a large oil or chemical company would base investment decisions on a document published so long ago. (And I would have thought that the same would apply to CSX, which is also a profit-making entity.)

But my concern with the 2002 date goes beyond basing decisions on old analyses. An even more fundamental issue is that its conclusions are based on technology of the late 1990s.

Let us consider what was going on that time.

  • GPS had just been introduced to civilians in 2000.
  • The cell phone was still a novelty.
  • The Apple Macintosh computer was just catching on.
  • Windows XP was still in development.

It is improbable that the writers of the 2002 Tier I report would have considered these looming developments in their thinking. Yet now they are passé.

The “No Build” Option

Most of the talk to do with high speed rail in Ashland has been to do with the location of the new tracks. Yet few seem to consider that, with the technological developments that have occurred since the late 1990s, it may be possible to achieve many of the project’s goals without building any rails at all. One example of this way of thinking was discussed in previous post — What’s the Problem? In it was suggested that the technology used for driverless cars might allow trains to travel at greater density and greater speed without jeopardizing safety. Is this possible? I simplly don’t know, but it is worth consideration.

I have spent many years designing and analyzing offshore oil and gas platforms; the level of sophistication of technology in that industry is extraordinarily high. This means that any oil company that tried to find and extract oil using twenty year old technology would soon be out of business. But, as an outsider looking in, it does not appear as if the railroad business is as change-driven.

“Make America Great Again”

The above title is the most well known political slogan of the current election season. What does the author mean by it? Most of us assume that he is referring to a time period when the country was strong and had no problems (whenever that was). But a much more satisfying answer is that America got to be great when innovators such as Steve Jobs developed a vision of what might be.

In any business there is a time for innovation and there is a time for incremental improvement. Each has its place. The following quotation is attributed (probably wrongly) to Henry Ford.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.


I am sure that CSX and Amtrak are incorporating new technology into their locomotive and traffic management systems, and that many of these improvements are not visible to the casual observer. Still, it is legitimate to wonder if we are spending too much time trying to find faster horses.


It is recommended that the project team put together a task force to explore technological options that would:

  • Meet the project’s goals for increased speed, reliability and capacity.
  • Do this without installing extra tracks.
  • Do it quickly.


Safety Impact #2: Tier I Evaluation


The proposed High Speed Rail project has generated much debate. But there is one aspect of the project about which there can be no debate: Safety. There is nothing more important than making sure that all those who ride the trains or who live or work near the tracks go home in the condition in which they arrived. All other issues — the environment, culture, historic farmland, old homes, profits — take second place to safety. Period. Full stop.

In a recent post it was noted that the safety issues to do with this proposed project cannot be taken for granted — indeed, there is a real chance that a train could leave the tracks at high speed. Were such an event to take place in a populated area such as the Town of Ashland the consequences could be momentous. And last year’s crash of Amtrak Train #188 shows that such events are plausible.

With these thoughts in mind available Tier I documents were reviewed to see how they analyzed safety. Certain parameters are basic to such an analysis. They include:

  • How is “acceptable safety” defined?
  • Have thorough investigations of similar projects and railroad systems been carried out in order to generate lessons learned?
  • What rules, regulations, reports and industry standards were consulted in order to ensure that the latest safety techniques are being used?
  • What methodologies were used for analyzing risk and safety?
  • What safety criteria were used when comparing one track option with another?

Tier I Analysis Matrix

In order to understand how Tier I decisions were made the simple matrix shown below was created. As data are added to the cells of the matrix it will be possible for those impacted by this project to assess the decision-making process in an organized and objective manner.

The matrix has four columns — one for each of the corridors discussed (the ‘East of Ashland’ option incorporates an upgrade to the Buckingham Branch line). There are five rows, some of which may be expanded. For example, ‘Cultural’ can include the destruction of historic homes, the loss of community created by tall fences and the desecration of historic sites. ‘Economic’ includes the losses that business in the Town of Ashland would sustain were the community to be bisected.


The final row — ‘Long-Term’ — is to do with the selection of a corridor that will be best in the coming decades. The choice of the Town of Ashland would be a bad one for the this category because speeds through town will always be restricted to 50 mph or so. There will never actually be “high speed” rail in Ashland. On the other hand selection of the I-95 corridor will allow for true high speed passenger trains (300 km/h). The existing tracks would be used for freight and commuter service between Richmond and D.C.

Formal Safety Analysis

The formal analysis of safety is a large topic — one that is outside the scope of this post. Nevertheless the Tier I documents should contain at least some formal safety analysis. One example of such an approach is the use of F-N curves such as that shown below (‘F’ stands for frequency of fatalities or injuries; ‘N’ represents the number of persons harmed). Such a curve is basically saying is that there is an inverse relationship between the frequency of events and the consequences of those events.


The sketch shows three zones:

  • Unacceptable risk;
  • Area of judgment; and
  • Acceptable risk.

At a minimum it can be expected that (a) the reports provide numerical values to define the zones, and (b) a relative ranking for each of the corridor options should be provided.

Tier I Review

The following documents were reviewed in order to understand how safety has been analyzed on Tier I of the proposed project. The paper trail is  tangled and the documents are still being evaluated. The following are initial findings to do with safety.

It must be stressed that there may be other documents. This research is not necessarily complete.

Environmental Impact Statement

Federal Register. October 23, 2014. Vol. 79. No. 205

This is the document that authorizes the Tier II process. It does not appear to provide significant information regarding the Tier I EIS (discussed below), nor does it provide guidance as to how safety is to be evaluated. The heart of the document is about two and a half pages long. It is supplemented by extensive paperwork documenting the meetings that were held in 2014.

Regarding the DC2RVA part of the project the following quotation is pertinent.

Additionally, this project will include preliminary engineering and environmental analyses for related capacity improvements on the CSXT Peninsula Subdivision in the Richmond area . . . on the Buckingham Branch Railroad from AM Junction through Doswell, VA, to the north, as well as two localities where specific improvements have not been identified: Elmont to North Doswell (through Ashland, VA) and Fredericksburg to Dahlgren (through Fredericksburg, VA and the Rappahannock River Bridge). These areas will be evaluated for station, track, and safety improvements as well as the feasibility of a third track. This project will involve further analysis of the alignment of the route selected through the 2002 Tier I EIS and Record of Decision, including the Buckingham Branch Railroad and the CSXT S-Line and A-Line routes from Greendale north of Richmond to Centralia south of Richmond.

Tier I EIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement)

This document contains the following sections:

  • Summary and Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3 Comments and Responses.
  • Appendix

The following quotation is from this document.

The most consistent community concern SEHSR Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC 1-16 Tier I Final Environmental Impact Statement (abbreviated format) expressed during the public hearings was safety.

Otherwise there are no significant comments to do with safety could be located.

Scoping Summary

This document is dated May 15, 2015. It consists of a report and appendices.

In the Comment Summary it is noted that 7% of the responses referred to Traffic/Safety.

Page 4-7 contains the following:

Comment: I am concerned that higher speed will lead to a great number of accidents.

Response: Safety is of paramount importance and will be a primary consideration in the development of improvement concepts. Safety analyses performed as part of the DC2RVATier II EIS will address the effectiveness of each proposed concept with regard to safety. In addition, Project improvements will include new and enhanced safety features such as road and rail grade separations and flashing lights and gates at roadway-rail at-grade crossings throughout the corridor as appropriate. 

Record of Decision for the Tier I Southeast High Speed Rail Project

Page 16 contains a statement that the project will improve “overall transportation safety”. No analyses or data are provided to substantiate this statement.  Otherwise there are no significant comments to do with safety.


Based on the Tier I documents reviewed — and it must be stressed that the review is still underway and there may be additional pertinent information not yet identified — three conclusions can be drawn.

  1. There does not appear to have been any formal safety analysis, such as the use of F-N curves to evaluate the safety issues associated with each corridor option.
  2. There are  few references to safety in any of the documents that were evaluated.
  3. Very little information is available to support the corridor selection decisions made in Tier I.

If readers of this post have additional hard information to do with safety and the Tier 1 process please provide it via the Comment section of this blog.

Given this background it is recommended that the project team retain a qualified risk analyst to review the safety impact of each of the corridor options.