Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fans of rail want Amtrak here
Nashville not ready to support train service, state says

Published: Tuesday, 07/03/07

It's been nearly 30 years since the last passenger train left Union Station, but advocates of city-to-city rail hope it won't take another 30 years to get it back.

A spider web of routes takes a broad circle around the city, passing through Louisville, Ky., Memphis, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., but national rail advocates consider Tennessee to be the most underserved rail state. In a report released last week, they targeted Nashville for the expansion of passenger rail.

Trains equal less pollution and highway congestion, proponents say, but state officials say Nashville isn't populous enough to support a city-to-city route.

"It would be wonderful to say I can be in Memphis and jump on a train to Nashville, but the volume of people who would do that isn't anywhere close to what the cost would be to provide the service," said Ed Cole, chief of environment and planning with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

As gas prices and congestion rise in cities like Nashville, Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said rail trips would catch on if routes were expanded.

"When you make a commodity as scarce as the federal government has made Amtrak in the Southeast, it's hard for the public to get excited about it because they can't see it," Capon said.

The federal government isn't funding any new Amtrak service right now, he said.

Mark Fraley said he would love to take the train to visit family in Cincinnati, a five-hour drive he makes from Nashville four times a year.

"Every time I have to drive to Cincinnati or Atlanta, I get angry at the time and energy wasted," Fraley said.

Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio, are the only American cities with higher populations than metro Nashville that have no inter-city train connections, according to the railroad passenger association.

Amtrak legally can use any train track in the country, even those operated by private railroad companies, although im provements in freight lines would be needed before they could be deemed fit for passenger travel.

Capon said it would be nearly impossible to do so without a substantial investment from the state because federal money has dried up.

TDOT has projected up to a $2 billion shortfall in funding for Tennessee projects through the next 10 years.

Scott Denbo of Nashville, who has used trains in the Northeast and in California, said he thinks rail works best when there are many places to stop during a long trip, which is not the case in the Southeast.

"Who would really want to take an eight-hour train ride to Chicago that cost $150 when they can fly for the same buck and get there in an hour?" he said.

Clement favors service

Former congressman Bob Clement tried to restore train service to Nashville in the 1990s while he was serving on the House Transportation Committee.

Considering the city's growth and destination as a tourist attraction, Clement thinks a route through Nashville would make more money than other routes Amtrak is running. "I think we need more emphasis on rail passenger service," said Clement, a candidate for mayor in Nashville.

John Freeman would like to see rail service out of Nashville for a simple reason: His wife hates to fly.

"The entire family would benefit from being able to see the countryside from the window of a train car, rather than 30,000 feet up," he said.

TDOT officials say rail is a big part of their future transportation plan, but the focus is on improving freight and expanding commuter lines.


August 1952: With ridership dropping, the Louisville & Nashville railroad seeks to discontinue service between Nashville and the Tennessee-Kentucky and Tennessee-Alabama state lines.
October 1979: The Floridian, Nashville’s last inter-city passenger train, pulls out of Union Station after the federal government dropped funding for the route through Nashville.
October 2000: Federal funding is approved for a Nashville-to-Lebanon commuter rail, envisioned as part of a system of trains between Nashville and surrounding counties.
September 2006: The city’s commuter rail line, the Music City Star, is launched between Lebanon and Nashville.
SOURCE: Tennessean archives

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