U.S., Tennessee: Rising to the challenge of creating a new state rail program

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 22, 2022

News item from Tennessee:

Lawmakers push to expand Amtrak to connect major cities in Tennessee

By Gerald Harris

Posted: Feb 21, 2022 / 07:26 PM EST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Railroad giant Amtrak released its 2035 rail concept connecting many parts of America mostly in the northeast and southern part of the U.S.

In Tennessee, folks are pushing for Amtrak, which goes through Memphis and could connect Nashville to Atlanta, to expand to other destinations in the state.

The Amtrak concept map for 2035 caused a stir on social media among some Tennesseans for expanded service.

“Amtrak wants to be in Tennessee and they’re open to any and all routes as long as they make sense,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).

In the proposed map rendering, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Nashville will connect. But there’s an appetite to do more.

“Rail connects all of us and it’s something an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans want and it’s on the table right now thanks to President Biden and this infrastructure bill,” Clemmons said.

Biden, last year, signed into law $66 billion in funding for passenger rail the largest since the creation of Amtrak in 1971.

“We need to get behind taking this statewide I want to connect this from Knoxville, all the way to Memphis coming through Nashville and then go north,” said Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville).

North connecting Music City to Louisville, Kentucky. Powell is introducing a bill to create the Tennessee Agency of Rail and Public Transportation.

“I think it is important for the state to have an agency that is solely focused on making sure that we have rail transportation, commuter rail transportation, across the state,” Powell said.

But existing rail companies may fight against the expansion of passenger rail.

“CSX is actually in my district, so we need to welcome them to, have them at the table to see what we can do,” Powell said.

Lawmakers say the expansion of rail could also be key in revitalizing rural Tennessee.

“Amtrak wants to be here, the federal government is putting up money so the only thing missing is what’s the state doing, what are local governments doing we should take yes for an answer,” Clemmons said.

Amtrak last stopped in Nashville in 1979.

Due to the federal holiday, Amtrak was not available for comment.

A train expansion to Knoxville and Louisville would face some hurdles with the terrain and existing infrastructure.

[End of news story]

Here is some perspective about Tennessee from Wikipedia:

Tennessee officially the State of Tennessee, is a state in the Southeastern region of the United States. Tennessee is the 36th largest by area and the 16th most populous of the 50 states. It is bordered by Kentucky to the north, Virginia to the northeast, North Carolina to the east, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to the south, Arkansas to the southwest, and Missouri to the northwest. Tennessee is geographically, culturally, and legally divided into three Grand Divisions of East, Middle, and West Tennessee. Nashville is the state’s capital and largest city, and anchors its largest metropolitan area. Other major cities include Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Clarksville. Tennessee’s population as of the 2020 United States census is approximately 6.9 million.”

Notably, Wikipedia reports that Tennessee is 440 miles from the Mississippi River in the west to its eastern border with North Carolina. The state runs 120 miles north to south. Tennessee is big.

Tennessee is a state which is growing in importance as many in the entertainment and related industries are migrating from California and other locations to the Nashville area.

Nashville already boasts a modest commuter rail line, the 32 mile in length Music City Star, complete with seven stations on the Nashville and Eastern Railroad. The service is owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Wikipedia reports the line cost $41 million to start, or just under $1.3 million per mile which made it the most cost-efficient commuter rail start-up in the nation.

Pre-pandemic in 2019 ridership was 292,500 passenger trips. Note that for commuter rail, ridership is a valid measurement, as opposed to load factor and passenger miles which are the correct measurements for long distance/inter-regional trains.

The last intercity/inter-regional passenger service to Nashville was Amtrak’s Floridian which was discontinued in 1979 during the Carter Administration national system cuts.

Amtrak’s total service in Tennessee is provided by the City of New Orleans on a route which hugs the western edge of the state and in places such as Memphis, operates within sight of the Mississippi River.

The City on its northbound departs Memphis Central Station at 10:40 p.m. and just under two hours later departs the only other Tennessee stop, Newbern – Dyersburg.

Southbound, the City calls at Newbern – Dyersburg at the insomniac hour of 3:56 a.m. and Memphis at 6:27 a.m.

Combined, these two intermediate station stops generated 64,401 boardings and alightings for 2019, the latest year information is available.

Amtrak hasn’t exactly been setting new records impressing hordes of new passengers in Tennessee.

For all of the flawed premises and plans of Amtrak’s Connect US debacle for the various lower 48 united states, it has achieved at least one good thing: It is prompting public officials on both the state and local levels to start dreaming about passenger trains.

The prospects of intercity/inter-regional passenger trains in Tennessee beyond the limited Amtrak offerings of today has been dim for decades. Restoration of “natural” routes like Louisville, Kentucky to Nashville has long been on the “must do” lists of many planners. Other practical links such as Memphis to Nashville has long been a goal, but the fear of costs from a host railroad have held back planners.

A number of states have had successful rail divisions/programs in state departments of transportation offices such as Virginia, North Carolina, the New England states making up the Downeaster coalition, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, Washington State and more.

Other states with emerging programs such as Minnesota and some of the participants in a re-emerging North Coast Limited corridor from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Portland and Seattle understand in the 21st Century passenger trains have a role to play.

Connect US has politicians thinking there is a pot of gold just waiting to be discovered for their favorite projects. What they don’t understand is the $66 billion Amtrak has been authorized for by the feds in the long run is chump change. It may get a lot of projects started, but it’s not going to sustain those projects to completion. Then there is the issue that Amtrak is playing bait and switch by saying after a very few set number of years after the beginning suddenly the states will join the couple of dozen states which already feed money annually into Amtrak coffers for state supported trains.

Amtrak is hoping that states won’t notice that; they are hoping the states will become addicted to their new trains and will gleefully keep paying Amtrak’s inordinately high prices to run regional trains.

What Connect US also does is completely ignore Amtrak’s original – and still in place – mandate to operate a national system of trains, not a disconnected series of low-mileage routes which magnify the emphasis of the “you can’t get there from here” mantra.

To all of the states considering beefing up their rail programs, please do. But, once your professionals are funded and in place remember the promise of capitalism: Competition breeds good results when it comes to operating trains. Amtrak is NOT – thankfully – the only game in town.

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