John Hodges and I have sent a letter/report to the DRPT expressing our concerns to do with safety and the proposed third track through Ashland. The letter, which was written on Ashland Museum letter head, has three main sections:
1. Vehicle / Train Collisions
Cars frequently drive on to the tracks. Many of these events have been recorded by the organization Virtual Railfan. In some instances the events have led to trains hitting cars. People have been injured — we are fortunate that so far there have been no fatalities. Adding an additional track and many more trains will create a safety situation that is untenable.
2. Highly Hazardous Chemicals
Approximately 6% of the freight traffic consists of tank cars carrying chemicals that are flammable, explosive or toxic. In the process industries it is normal to conduct a Formal Safety Assessment to do with such chemicals. We believe that such a study should be carried out for our community.
3. Engineering Standards
We need more detail to do with the standards for,
Spacing between tracks.
Spacing between the outer edge of the tracks and the first public access point.
Whether modern standards will be applied to the existing tracks.
Two CSX trains collided today at a location in central Florida. Although this event did not involved highly hazardous chemicals it does give us an idea as to the impact of such an incident. (The first reports state that there was a 4,000 gallon fuel leak although it appears as if it did not catch fire. It is not clear if this number refers to the actual or potential size of the leak.)
Based on the pictures and movie clips that have been made available so far some of the derailed cars are at least one a car length away from the tracks. Most freight cars are around 60 ft. long (including their attachments).As the sketch below shows, currently there is a distance of 351 inches or 29.25 ft. from the outer edge of the rail to community property.
Therefore, were an event such as this to take place in Ashland, it would impact many homes and businesses.
On November 8th the Commonwealth of Virginia Attorney General’s office released a draft of the Tier II Environmental Impact Statement (EIA). A copy of the document is available at the Town of Ashland web site here. (Due to the size of the document it takes a few minutes to download the document. Be patient.)
The document is lengthy (1426 pages) and is difficult to navigate because the Adobe ‘Find’ function does not work, at least not on the document that we downloaded. I will analyze the document as time permits and publish a set of Analyses.
Disclaimer: Because there is so much material in this document it is possible that some of the early conclusions will have to be adjusted as the analysis proceeds.
My first reaction to the draft EIS is a huge “missing section”. There is no solid discussion about the most important topic of all: Safety.
There are various categories of safety. For the purposes of this analysis we will look at two of them:
A spill of a Highly Hazardous Chemical from a damaged tank car.
A grade crossing event involving either a vehicle or a pedestrian.
Chemical Tank Car Safety
We have discussed chemical tank car safety in many previous posts. Probably the most relevant is the Lynchburg derailment. After all, this occurred in our state just over two years ago.
What Can Happen
The general scenario is as follows.
A tank car is badly damaged, say by hitting another car or by coming off the tracks. (The picture at the top of this post is an example of the second failure mode.It is of a car carrying toxic chemicals through Tennessee in July 2015. The chemical in question — acrylonitrile — is toxic, flammable and water soluble. This event led to serious contamination of both the soil and groundwater.)
The chemical spill leads to the formation of a cloud of toxic gas that drifts into the local community, or the spilled contents explode and catch fire. One of the tenets of my work is not be alarmist. But, should such an event take place within the town of Ashland, the loss of life and injuries to people could be very high indeed.)
Now the likelihood of such an event is low, but it is not zero. Indeed, an Internet search shows that there have been quite a few of this type of event in recent years. Moreover we know how to analyze events of this type using EPA-approved software. Chemical risk management is a mature topic.
Up until this point we have simply accepted the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals being hauled through the town of Ashland. “That’s the way it’s always been”. But now that we are looking at new track configurations it would be irresponsible not to select the safest option. And that option is to run chemical tanks cars on a bypass around town. This would improve safety for the following reasons.
The population density would be much lower. Hence the impact would be correspondingly less.
A new track would be built to the latest standards of safety, particularly with regard to track spacing. Hence the likelihood of such an event taking place would be as low as can be achieved.
Emergency vehicle access would be good since all crossings would be bridges, hence the roads would not be blocked by the stopped train.
Traffic Crossing Safety
The second type of safety with which railroads concern themselves is collisions between vehicles or people at grade crossings. (The picture shows the consequence of a train traveling at 9½ mph hitting a car crossing the tracks at Myrtle St.)
Events such as these occur quite frequently. The town of Ashland is a particular concern due to the large number of vehicles that transit England St. and Ashcake Rd. On the other hand the proposed bypass will have only bridge crossings and (presumably) fences to prevent people and livestock from crossing the tracks.
One of the options presented at the recent community meeting at the Ashland theater was to run just passenger trains through Ashland and to direct freight trains (and presumably express passenger trains) on a bypass. Not only would such a bypass option be inherently safer due to the absence of grade crossings, safety will also be enhanced because there would be fewer trains traveling through Ashland. A rough estimate is that around 80% of the trains are freight. If most of these could be diverted we would see a corresponding improvement in safety. Moreover, passenger trains are shorter and can brake more quickly: another safety enhancement.
Running just passenger trains through town and diverting most of the freight trains to a bypass is unequivocally the safest option.
This rail tragedy in Bad Aibling, Bavaria, in which 12 persons died and many more were injured, was caused by the train controller using his mobile phone while working.
Prosecutors said Michael P had been playing the fantasy game “Dungeon Hunter 5” on his phone when he allowed the two trains on to a single-track line.
The court heard from one police official that the controller had regularly played on his smart phone while on shift, even though it was banned. Analysis of his phone records showed that his mobile use often corresponded with his working hours.
“He played almost every time,” the official said, according to Germany’s DPA news agency.
There was a similar incident in London, England a couple of years ago in which the driver of a commuter train was using his mobile phone as he approached the terminus. He slammed into the buffers causing many passenger injuries.
I have worked in the process industries for all of my career. Safety is given the very highest priority — not least because the consequences of a large release of a Highly Hazardous Chemical can be so catastrophic. We have known for a long time that the use of a mobile/cell phone while driving is dangerous. We may think that we are looking at the road and watching the traffic but psychologists tell us that we are mentally “looking at” the person we are talking to and that our driving is receiving only 30% of our attention. For this reason companies in the process industries insist that mobile phones be switched off while driving; moreover, the use of a phone while driving is grounds for termination.
If you are driving, for your own safety and for the safety of your neighbors, please turn off your cell phone.
This year’s Train Day is Saturday, November 5th. Please visit the event site to learn more.
The “No Third Rail” team will have a table in front of the museum on Hanover Ave. Volunteers will discuss the impact of the proposed project. (If you would like to help as a volunteer please let us know.)
Based on what we heard yesterday it appears as if what we have been calling ‘Case A’ (existing tracks stay in place) will not happen. So we move to ‘Case B’ which has an even greater impact. Therefore the sketch below, which is for ‘Case A’ (and which was derived from our limited knowledge as to what engineering standards are being used on this project), is probably too conservative, i.e., the impact of the Third Rail will be greater than shown. It is likely that there will be little or no road access and just narrow sidewalks. Some buildings will have to be be moved or eliminated. (We have not yet been able to access yesterday’s presentation that shows the DRPT sketch of the impact of the third rail — we will do so when the information becomes available. We can then update our own analysis.)
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.
On September 27th 2016 somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. a CSX locomotive caught fire in Ashland. Here is what is known so far:
The train was being hauled by three locomotives. It was the third locomotive that had the fire.
The locomotive was located in the region of West Patrick St., adjacent to the Randolph-Macon tennis courts.
The train was heading south.
The fire was extinguished and the locomotive was removed.
The train consisted of coal wagons only.
There are no reports of injuries or damage to other property.
It is possible that the cause of the event was unburned fuel caking up on the turbocharger and catching fire.
We are continuing to research this event in order to find more details.
The background is that we are analyzing safety issues to do with the proposed High Speed Rail project. The current situation with regard to safety is, in our judgment, unacceptable. Here are some basic facts.
Approximately 62 freight trains a day travel through Ashland.
6% of the cars carry Highly Hazardous Chemicals (HHCs) — chemicals that can explode, burn or release a vapor cloud of toxic gas. (“Empty” cars generally contain 3% of the original contents and can actually be more hazardous than full cars.) Some of the most severe chemicals used in American industry travel through our town.
We can analyze the effect of a leak (large or small) using EPA-authorized software.
A preliminary risk analysis indicates that we are above the threshold of “acceptable risk”. However, we live with the situation because “That’s the way it’s always been” (just as we live with the fact that the current track spacing does not meet code). However, adding more trains, many of them with many more cars, will create a safety situation that is not acceptable.
The following posts provide information on some of the safety analysis work that we have done so far.
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.
DRPT and CSX provide the public with a plan for coordinating their projects.
DRPT provides a thorough analysis as to why the I-95 option was rejected.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
High Speed Rail — in some form — is coming.
The current ‘High Speed Rail’ project is actually a ‘More Reliable Rail’ project.
It is likely that we will see much more freight traffic along the eastern corridor in coming years — although details are frustratingly hazy.
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.
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.
Early in my career I was appointed lead engineer on a project for a chemical plant in Texas. The project was to take a small unit operation consisting of a distillation column, two heat exchangers and a pump and to adapt it for a new service. Here are the parameters:
The equipment had been built and installed in the 1940s.
Since then it had operated safely and efficiently with no incidents.
The equipment did not comply with the latest pressure vessel and heat exchanger code.
The new service for this equipment was less stringent, i.e., pressures and temperatures were lower than before and the new chemicals being processed were no more hazardous than the old ones.
Nevertheless we had to cancel the project because a fundamental change in service meant that the “grandfather clauses” that had allowed us to keep operating were no longer usable and we could not justify the cost of a major upgrade to the equipment.
Now fast forward to Ashland’s railroad.
In the posts to do with the proposed “High Speed Rail” project we have repeatedly pointed out that the Third Rail option is a code violation. Let us summarize the logic.
The existing tracks were laid down in the years 1843 and 1903, long before the introduction of codes to do with track beds.
The existing tracks are in violation of modern code in two regards. First the spacing between the tracks is too narrow. Second, there is insufficient space between the edge of the tracks and the public highway (see DRPT Basis of Design).
Current operation of the tracks is permitted under the concept of a “grandfather clause”.
Adding a third rail means that all the tracks, not just the new one, have to be upgraded to modern code.
The fact that there has been only one major derailment in the Ashland area in recent years is immaterial. The codes’ requirements have to be followed.
Based on the maps published by DRPT the proposed expansion is in violation of code.
Hence the Third Rail option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
Hence the Third Rail option cannot go forward.
Let us apply the same logic to the 3-2-3 option.
The project has two justifications. The first is to provide High Speed Passenger train capability. The second is to allow for a 95% increase in freight traffic and a 71% increase in the number of tank cars carrying Highly Hazardous Chemicals following the expansion of the east coast ports.
Both of these rationales constitute a fundamental change in the operation of the tracks. This is analogous to the engineering analogy which started this post.
Hence the grandfather clauses that apply to the existing tracks no longer hold.
Hence the 3-2-3 option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
Hence the 3-2-3 option cannot go forward.
Two final thoughts.
It is possible for the project team to ask for a variance from a safety code. But few regulators or engineers will ever do so for what should be self-evident reasons. That option was never on the table as we decided what to do with regard to our little engineering project.
The project may be able to meet code by destroying and existing homes and businesses. But doing so is not part of the published option. If the project team changes the scope of work then there are many more new options to be considered.
To close out the anecdote that started this post; when I presented the results of the engineering analysis to the project manager I was not exactly the most popular person in the room because it resulted in cancellation of the project. But never at any time was there any question that we had made the right decision.
As discussed in previous posts we are writing a White Paper entitled The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive and Costly. Details are available here and here. Part of that White Paper includes a review of train incidents that provide lessons learned for the Rail project. One of those incidents was the derailment and fire that occurred in the Texas Panhandle on June 28th 2014. Unlike the Lynchburg event this tragedy resulted in three fatalities and one injury.
This Panhandle incident was caused by a head-on collision between two BNSF freight trains in northwest Texas. Because the event is so recent very little authorized information as to its causes are available. As agencies such as the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) publish their reports we will update this post.
Here is what we know so far.
The event occurred on June 28th 2016 in the morning. It was daylight; weather conditions were normal.
The location was about 25 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas.
It is reported, but not confirmed, that the speed limit in the area was 70 mph.
Neither train included chemical tank cars. Nevertheless the diesel fuel in the locomotives caught fire and burned for hours. From pictures of the event it appears as if the freight cars also burned. Freight cars were scattered quite a long way from the tracks.
Each locomotive had two crew members. Three of them died, the fourth jumped from the train before the impact and survived.
It is reported that the fire fighters did not have the foam systems needed to suppress a diesel fire, which is why the fire burned for so long.
We are looking at these events to see what lessons can be applied to the proposed third rail project.
As can be seen from the pictures, the event took place in a sparsely populated area. Had it occurred in Ashland there would have been major property damage and a significant chance of injury or even fatalities to members of the public.
Although chemical tank cars present the greatest risk, fire is a major hazard to do with any train.
Clearly the existing situation in which trains travel through a densely populated area on tracks that were built long before modern codes were promulgated poses a high level of risk. Adding a third rail to this already congested area and then increasing the number of freight trains by nearly 100% over the next 30 years increased risk to an unacceptable level.
One final thought about this incident is to do with personal safety. If you yourself are close to an event such as this what should you do?
In our post Immediate Response to a Vapor Release we described what to do if you are exposed to a leak of toxic gas from a ruptured tank car (move across, not down wind). This Panhandle event provides another lesson — if an emergency is about to happen run away. The only survivor of this event was the locomotive operator who jumped out before the impact.
In general if you are involved in an event such as this get away from the scene. You can do little to help and you are a distraction to the trained emergency responders.