The following letter to the editor of the The Roanoke Times by SMART Transportation Division Virginia State Legislative Director was published Jan. 26.

Re: the Dec. 26 article “Railroads want only one person at helm of trains”:

The article quotes Allan Zarembski “It’s a question of how much of a degree of safety do you want?”

That statement truly is spot on. There are so many situations in society where we can do things a certain way but choose differently for various reasons. The railroad industry seems to be ramping up its efforts to justify reducing from two crew members down to one. Only certain trains to begin with, they say, but I imagine if you give them that inch, the mile isn’t far behind.

Using technology to justify the use of one person to operate a train instead of two would make sense to me also if I were a for-profit business and thought this allowed me the opportunity to cut labor costs dramatically — it is just natural to a capitalistic business model. Unfortunately, this same minimalist model is devoid of any sense of duty in relation to public concern or public safety, and typically remains so until a calamity drives up the cost of that model. With our nation’s railroads running through just about every major and moderately sized metropolitan center, and with the sheer volume of hazardous material they carry, we cannot afford to roll the dice on safety.

Consider oil trains like the one that wrecked in Lynchburg, running through the state on their way to Yorktown, each one carrying the approximate equivalent of 330 truckloads, and ethanol trains coming through Roanoke hauling 200 truckloads or more at a time. The level of catastrophe that an incident can reach is highly disproportionate to that of trucks, almost all of which use a single driver. A recent example of such a catastrophe is the inferno in Canada at Lac Megantic, which incinerated the small downtown and 47 people. Many of these individuals were out celebrating a birthday party, just living life, expecting to go home, go to sleep, and get up the following day to a life of kids and grandkids and parents and spouses and lovers (just like we all do so many nights here in Roanoke, as the trains pass within a stone’s throw of the downtown district).

That railroad was using a lone person to operate its trains in Canada because they did not have an agreement with a union requiring more. In the recent Lynchburg derailment, the onboard conductor the railroads would like to eliminate was there to go back and cut away the lead cars of the train from the wrecked cars, thereby greatly lessening the amount of available combustible material. He was also able to alert people and businesses in the area to evacuate immediately.

Even if the railroads agree to continue the use of two crew members when hauling hazardous materials, the problem is that these hazmat trains would be operating on the same tracks as trains with only one person onboard (these new lone operator trains would share the same rails as Amtrak too; one less failsafe to prevent a potentially horrific wreck with a passenger train).

There is more to handling trains than going from point A to point B. Trains can be more than two miles in length at times. Train crews can’t just pull over to use the bathroom, or stop and get a cup of coffee, or pull into a rest stop for a quick 30-minute nap. Most train crews have no set schedule and are called to work on just two hours’ notice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including almost all holidays. I can tell you from personal experience that having the other person in the cab of the locomotive is lifesaving at times. We who run the trains welcome technology that adds a level of safety to train operations and lessens the hazards of the environment we work in, but not the use of that technology to open the door to riskier operations.

The extra cost to society in having to pay a minute fraction more for products so that trains have two crew members instead of one is insignificant. Residents in Roanoke, Richmond, Charlottesville, Alexandria and Bristol, to name just a few, should expect a greater level of safety out of our transportation system than what those innocent people in Lac Megantic received. Ensuring all trains have a certified conductor and engineer onboard is paramount to providing that level of safety.


Pat Corp, Virginia State Legislative Director of the SMART Transportation Division, submitted the following letter to the editor of The Roanoke Times. It was published Aug. 22, 2014.

Re: the July 28 article “Coal exports bypass emission rules” from the Associated Press. The article’s leanings struck me as somewhat less than pure investigative reporting.

U.S. exports are actually down and projected to decrease through 2015 for a reduction of almost 25 percent from 2012, due in most part to other countries upping their production levels (source Energy Information Adminstration).

Since world demand for coal is expected to grow and demand for our coal to almost double, building export terminals in the U.S. for Powder River Basin coal is being worked out now and argued over, yet the author fails to note Canada has the ability to export as well, and this is outside of the administration’s authority. British Columbia is planning expansion of the coal terminal at New Westminster and a large new facility at Prince Rupert.

History is replete with examples of failed attempts to stop the supply of commodities in the face of demand (marijuana being a prime example). Perpetuating the misperception that restricting U.S. coal exports will result in the world’s reduction in the use of coal is promoting an agenda of certain groups whose ultimate goal, though arguably utopian, is the unrealistic near-term elimination of fossil fuel use.

Any coal export or mining of coal that is for the purpose of burning for thermal (power plant) or metallurgical (steel production) will add to global emissions, versus where it not mined at all. The real question is in what amounts. The article could have argued the emissions from production and transportation of U.S.-mined coal exceed that of Australia or Columbia, if it does.

Perhaps the large supply of U.S. reserves keeps the costs of coal lower on the open markets than if that supply were not accessible, and therefore more economically feasible to use as opposed to less carbon producing alternatives, but it is a leap to say it is “fueling demand.” Though this country holds 28 percent of recoverable coal reserves, this leaves 72 percent on the world market, hardly a monopoly.

The author, after exploring the administration’s reasoning for not interfering in the domestic coal export markets as an avenue for lessening worldwide carbon emissions, leaves us with the thought that U.S. coal exports have a direct effect on rising sea levels in the Norfolk area, and therefore the false suggestion that the reduction of such would have the reverse effect, and further implies the ship sailing away from U.S. shores to other countries is the cause of global warming.

Continuing and accelerating the research and application of technologies that will allow for the use of all fossil fuels, with the goal being to minimize any environmental impact, and at the same time lessening demand in developed and developing countries through technology is a realistic approach to solving the carbon emissions quandary worldwide.

Examples of each are carbon sequestration, which The Roanoke Times covered well not so long ago, and wraparound solar panels, which can envelope an entire multistory building. China is still building coal-fired power plants at a substantial rate, along with India, and even Germany is increasing its electricity capacity from coal generation.

The U.S. needs to keep trade open to these countries and maintain relationships in the coal markets so we can influence the expansion of pollution and carbon mitigation technologies worldwide.

Printing articles that accurately explore carbon emission/pollution reduction possibilities (which the author failed to do) would certainly be of greater service in informing readers to the challenges of providing the world with affordable electricity, and at the same time maintaining a healthy planet for all to be able to enjoy the benefits of that electricity.

Newspapers still play a significant role in keeping the public informed as to the workings of the world. Unfortunately, articles such as the referenced one here do all a disservice, certainly those in our domestic coal industry, by building upon the myth that limiting U.S. coal exports is a realistic answer to global warming.


It is true the Norfolk Southern Corp.’s intermodal facility project at Elliston, as Cynthia Munley suggests in her July 30 letter (“Keep rail plan sidetracked,” pick of the day), will bring much greater truck traffic to that area (or so the company hopes) from the surrounding locales, perhaps even from a hundred or more miles away. That is the intent.

Continued investment in the Heartland Corridor and the Crescent Corridor along Interstate 81 by Norfolk Southern, Virginia and the federal government actually will benefit the environment as well as the taxpayer by taking long distance trucks off the interstate highway system.

Anyone who drives I-81 is quite aware of the endless line of trucks going both north and south, and having to jockey through them on the hills can be quite hairy at times. Our seemingly never-ending highway construction is partly a byproduct of our lack of investment in the nation’s rail infrastructure, not just Virginia’s.

Locally, the “truck climbing” lane being built between Roanoke and Christiansburg costs $75 million for approximately five miles of highway. One lane, specifically built for truck traffic.

These types of subsidies to the trucking industry nationwide over the last 50 to 60 years have so undermined the ability of railroads to be cost competitive they have abandoned thousands upon thousands of miles of trackage and have been unable to adequately upgrade their remaining network.

In an attempt to arrest this downward spiral, the state of Virginia began assisting Norfolk Southern, CSX and the various short lines with funding in 2005, when, during former Gov. Mark Warner’s administration, the Rail Enhancement Fund was created.

The portion of the Crescent Corridor which runs through the Shenandoah Valley into Roanoke and on to Bristol is slated for multiple siding extensions and improvements so that longer trains can meet one another at closer points, yet much more will be needed to truly modernize the line. Because the railroad is what we refer to as a “single track territory,” a train going north has to share the track with a train going south. This is also true in many places on the Heartland Corridor going east and west, where much of the “double track” that once existed, for example between Roanoke and Crewe, no longer does because one set of tracks was pulled up as freight volumes decreased and it became cost prohibitive to maintain it.

Again, as the highway system was continually invested in by the hundreds of billions of dollars to the great benefit of the trucking industry, that investment had a reverse effect on the rail industry. Here’s a great example of the disparity: When the rails were first laid between Roanoke and Hagerstown, Md., between 1870 and 1882, the roadways were dirt or wood planks, and freight traveled by wagons drawn by teams of horses or mules. In the early 1900s, various forms of hard surfacing were used after the automobile was born. Then U. S. 11 was built in the late 1920s down the Shenandoah Valley and was expanded to three and four lanes over time.

In the 1960s, Interstate 81 was begun and continues to be improved to this day. Meanwhile, that same stretch of railroad from Hagerstown to Roanoke is basically right where they laid it more than 130 years ago, on the same “goat path,” as I like to say. The same curves that restrict speeds to 30 mph in many places, no bypasses built around towns, aging bridges and signals, and short sidings not designed for today’s longer trains. Meanwhile, we debate adding another lane to I-81.

Since railroads move tonnage four times as efficiently as trucks on average, it just doesn’t make sense. Is the Elliston area the best choice in this region for an intermodal facility? I don’t know, but building those facilities and upgrading Virginia’s and the nation’s rail infrastructure will ultimately decrease the number of trucks on the highways, lead to safer highways and less diesel emissions, and cost all of us less in taxes and less for the products we buy.

The preceding letter was written by Pat Corp, the SMART Transportation Division’s Virginia State Legislative Director, and was published Aug. 1 in The Roanoke Times. Corp, of Roanoke, is a Norfolk Southern engineer.