Sunday Train: The Charleston WV Hub

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Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from The Hillbilly Report, also available in Orange

The Appalachian Hub Part 2: The Charleston WV Hub

The increasingly infamous Appalachian Development Highway program started out with the goal of supporting the potential for genuine economic development in Appalachia by improving transport links into and within the region.

And yet, with the decentralized, state-based system for planning 110mph, 125mph and 220mph High Speed Rail systems, there is the threat that the very problem that the Appalachian Development Highway system was established to address will be re-created as we modernize our regional passenger transport backbones from asphalt to steel.

An Appalachian Hub project would aim to drag these laudable goals into the 21st Century by filling the gaping hole in Eastern US planning for High Speed Rail systems. “Would”, since this is an exploration of what such a system might look like if West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee joined this planning process – not a report on ongoing, formal projects such as the Midwest Hub or Ohio Hub.

The Story So Far

The Appalachian Hub Pt. 1 presented the problem of the gaping hole in the middle of Eastern US planning to build Emerging High Speed Rail systems – the tilt-train systems that allow us to quickly roll-out higher speed passenger rail by using existing rail corridors.

This process also provides the improved rail access to urban centers required by Express High Speed Rail systems as well as increasing the potential ridership of Express High Speed Rail system by acting as a passenger recruiter.

Two trunks of the network were Atlanta / Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville / Indianapolis and Memphis / Nashville / Chattanooga / Knoxville / Tri-Cities / Roanoke and points northeast.

The 21st Century Steel Interstate examined the proposed I-81 “trial” Steel Interstate system, for electrified Rapid Freight Rail and Regional High Speed Rail from Harriburg, PA to Knoxville, TN along the Shenandoah River Valley alignment.

Modifying the original trunks to fit this existing proposal results in one trunk that completes the circle around Appalachia and one that cuts through Appalachia running from the Northeast toward the Southwest. Also shown is the existing conventional rail Amtrak route from DC to Chicago via Charleston, WV.

The Problem of Coal

Today’s focus is West Virginia, and zooming into West Virginia reveals one of the central challenges facing the Appalachian Hub project. A dominant market for rail transport in West Virginia is coal – and so, unlike the industrial and interurban electric Rights of Way established in places like Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, a large number of rail lines in West Virginia do not run through – they run to the coal mine, which is the original railhead, and then stop.

Indeed, in hilly and mountainous terrain, this allows a certain kind of “cheating” on the rail line, where empty rail cars are going uphill while full rail cars are going downhill … which is much less work than the other way around.

The result is that often you have rail lines that are not all that far apart, on a straight line path, but one rail line connects to the north (the lines that run up through Weston in the map), the other rail lines connects to the south (the lines that run through Buckhannon in the map), and they do not connect.

And of course, once a project shifts from increasing the capacity of an existing rail line in an existing right of way to establishing a new right of way through hilly and mountainous terrain – the costs of the project will certainly explode.

However, as described long ago in Route Matrix Revolutions (Daily Kos, 7 April, 2007), a rail service has a striking competitive advantage over other common carrier services, and especially over air services, in terms of the low time cost of stopping the train to pick up and drop off passengers. The time penalty is the most dramatic for a plane, but even for a regional bus, leaving the Interstate to find its way to an urban bus station imposes far more time penalty than a train stopping at a station.

So Stage One is upgrading the route that already exists through West Virginia. The first step is to upgrade the capacity of the existing Amtrak route through West Virginia, to allow on-time passenger services – which includes a capability to catch up when experiencing a delay, rather than one delay creating another creating another, as so often happened in 2007 and 2008 when oil price shocks were increasing demand for rail freight.

The second step is to upgrade the speed of the existing Amtrak route, first by operating tilt-trains under the current 79mph maximum speed limit, and then by raising the maximum speed limit to 110mph.

This then supports an increase in frequency.

And that is the combination – reliable schedules, faster trip speeds, and more frequent service – that lays the foundation for establishing a route matrix with Charleston, WV, as its hub.

Going the Easy Way

Stage Two is a service from Charleston to the West, collecting westbound passengers from the existing (but more reliable, faster, and more frequent) DC/Chicago service and collecting eastbound passengers. Further west, the alignment crosses existing planned 110mph Higher Speed routes, ending in Saint Louis (Note that while I have traced out an existing rail right of way, it is not shown in the schematic).

Now, we won’t be worrying about “all those empty seats” from passengers transferring at Charleston, WV for the westbound service that originates there, since the higher speed NYC/DC/WV/IN/Chicago service will be able to recruit passengers in Charleston for Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago, and of course will be able to recruit in Cincinnati to fill seats toward Chicago from the Ohio Hub’s Triple C line.

Going the Hard Way

Now, with Charleston established as a Hub, the third stage cuts across Appalachia the hard way.

There is an obvious hole in the coverage of the Ohio Hub which is, by no coincidence, precisely in the heart of the Appalachian counties of Ohio. The Pittsburgh/Columbus alignment is actually two alignments, with a corridor originating in Zanesville and running through Newark to double the frequency of services from Licking County into Franklin County.

Stage Three offers to fill this hole by extending that corridor down to Athens, Ohio, and then on to Charleston, WV, to share the NYC/DC/WV/IN/Chicago corridor and then cross to Roanake, terminating at Greensboro on the Southeast Express Corridor. Note that the route appears more irregular since the pictured route more closely follows existing rights of way – and that this is definitely terrain where operating a conventional passenger service rather than a tilt-train would be a mistake even if a maximum speed limit of 79mph or 90mph is applied.

With this route addition, Charleston, WV acts even more strongly as a hub. The Columbus/WV/Greensboro train would be scheduled to arrive in advance of the Chicago/WV/DC train at Charleston, and depart after it. The role of “local and express” would be reversed at Roanoke, where the Columbus/WV/Greensboro train would connect with Richmond and Bristol VA with the proposed TransDominion Express.

One of the primary reasons for placing this in Stage three is that it is a major potential beneficiary of network economies at connections to services that do not yet exist, at Columbus OH, at Charleston WV, at Roanoke VA, and at Greensboro NC.

Leaving WV to connect WV

There is one last link in the Charleston Hub segment of the Appalachia Hub – and it is neither a High Speed Rail corridor nor does it pass through Charleston, WV. Yet it relies on the Route Matrix to connect the capital of WV to much of the north of the state.

The “Mountaineer” connects Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Morgantown to Columbus via Athens and Pittsburgh via Uniontown. With the Columbus/Greenboro line, a passenger can transfer at Athens between Charleston and points to the Southeast and West Virginia towns along the Mountaineer. Note that this corridor looks even squigglier, in large part because the process of lining it up along existing rail rights of way (for estimating route-miles for a later essay) is almost complete – but also because the terrain means that most through rail corridors run along fairly narrow river valleys.

So, that’s the Charleston WV Hub

I hope that it clearer why I have been calling this hypothetical system “The Appalachian Hub” rather than “The Appalachian Express Corridor”. In order to gain full benefit from Route Matrix effects, and also because of the tyranny of geography, the system is not based along a single trunk backbone, nor as a single centralized hub and spoke “wheel”, but rather as a decentralized hub and link network. So it is a “hub” based system, but based on hubs strategically placed through the Appalachian region.

Of course, until the problem of funding is sorted out, its rather like a road train going nowhere …


    • BruceMcF on September 13, 2009 at 23:03

    … so that I can pedal my bike 15-20 miles the road down to Alliance, catch a train in the middle of the night to Pittsburgh, and from there catch a train to Athens to see if that great used bookstore is still there.

  1. out of me lies in the NascoCorridor plan touted for the North American Union.  The “secure” corridors that high speed rail lines would demand might demand a sort of (in this post 911 world) a security controlled sort of Berlin demilitarized zone of complete prefectedness thus allowing imports of shitty Chinese copies of ViseGrip brand pliers causing me to spend two hours to extract the steering stabilizer on my son’s Jeep Wrangler with 19,000 miles on it.  The corporate approved dealer five star service rated place wanted $330 to fix a part I bought for $29.95 and could have installed in ten minutes save the crappy Chinese ViseGrip brand pliers I did not have because my real tools happened to be located 200 miles away at my survivalist encampment.

    I have no doubt the demise of American railroads came about as the result of evil corporate manipulations and I also have no doubt that if rail interest might be beneficial to America it will be supressed in the very same way abundant cheap energy was in the 1930s.

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