All aboard: Commuter Rail and Tennessee- the future or a boondoggle?

Posted byDevin Greaneyon Monday, January 9, 2012 ·Leave a Comment(Edit)

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The Music City Star at Mount Juliet.

At Nashville’s Riverfront Station, I board the Music City Star commuter train for the 16.7mile-route from Nashville to Mount Juliet. This train departed at 4:20 PM – right on schedule. The cost is $5 one way, $9.00 for round trip. The car is about half full of people who seem to be enjoying themselves, talking about friends and TV shows. Some are in their own universe listening to music. But no one is stressed out about traffic. In June, according to the Regional Transit Authority, there were just fewer than 27,000 passenger trips or 1, 228 per day ( the train does not run on weekends) .

To people in cities such as New York, Boston or Washington it would seem odd I am treating this trip as a novelty. But more than likely for readers in Tennessee cars andbusesare the afternoon commute.

The Music City Star goes as far as Lebanon, a trip of 32 miles one way. The ride can be a bit bouncy but not so much that one has trouble typing on a laptop and watching the trees and suburbs fly past the window. My GPS tells me we are moving at an average of 35 miles per hour, not including the stops made at Donnellson and Hermitage. Not fast in Tennessee’s car culture, but there are no red lights or the traffic jams one can occasionally glimpse from the train. 35 miles per hour never seemed faster.

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Will rail transportation become part of Tennessee’s future? If so how will Tennesseans take to it? Will it be a hit or a boondoggle?

The 2010 Census lists Greater Nashville and Memphis as the 38thand 41stlargest metro areas. A look at similar-sized metro areas shows a variety of ways light and commuter rail is used.


The 35thlargest metro area is Austin, Texas. This metro area joined the world of commuter rail in March, 2010. The fast-growing area of Leander to downtown Austin is serviced by a 32-mile Capital MetroRail which travels from Leander in the Northwest to North, Central and East Austin, then into Downtown.

36th:Norforlk-Hampton Roads, Virginia : The newbies in the world of rail transport are these communities perhaps best known as home to the Atlantic Fleet. The Tide is a light rail system whose 7.4 mile route debuted August 19, 2011.

37th: Providence, Rhode Island : Bus service only

38th: Nashville: Three commuter rail trains arrive at downtown Nashville in the morning and three arrive in the afternoon, plus an additional train arrives and departs Friday evening. Departing Nashville there are three in the morning and three in the afternoon with no weekend service.

39th: Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Bus service only

40th: Jacksonville, Florida: A people mover service composed of two automated rail cars, The Skyway, travels 2.5 miles and crosses the St John River running through downtown

41st- Memphis: Trolley cars make a five-mile loop in through downtown plus another 2.4 mile spur to the Medical Center in a service aimed mostly for tourists. It is a handy way for visitors in town for a convention to get to the Beale Street entertainment area and back.

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Charlotte, North Carolina chose a light rail for commuters to get around town

42nd– Louisville, Kentucky : Bus service only

43rd– Richmond, Virginia: Bus service only.

And some smaller metros also use rail

47th– Buffalo, New York: Niagara Frontier has a 6.2-mile rail line both above and below ground. When construction began in 1979, Buffalo was the 31stlargest metro area in the US.

50th– Salt Lake City, Utah : The UTA Trax runs light rail lines with plans to add to them, plus locals can take the Front Runner train which is a 44-mile commuter rail from Salt Lake City to Pleasant View. This is perhaps one of the more unlikely locations for commuter/light rail as rail transport is generally viewed as a liberal cause in this very Republican state.

When it comes to mass transit, some terms are used interchangeably, but there are differences.Light railis a modern day version of the street car and uses electricity instead of gasoline or diesel. The Siemens S 70, which is what is used in Virginia Beach/Norfolk and Salt Lake City, has a maximum operational speed of 55 miles per hour. They can run on railroad right of ways but often they use tracks built into the street. The Lynx in Charlotte, NC, Metrolink in Saint Louis and The Tide in Virginia Beach are nearby examples light rail systems.Commuterrailrunsoff railroads, uses diesel and generally covers more distance than light rail. Some area examples, in addition to the Music City Star, are the MARTA system in Atlanta and The Metro in Washington, DC.People movers, like the ones in Jacksonville, are fully automated and only make sense where there are no other trains or railroad crossings on the route so no conductor is needed to apply the brakes at a split-second’s notice. This is what is found at the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport in the mile-long connection between terminals and the tram connecting Memphis’ Mud Island Park with Downtown.

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The controls on one of Memphis' street cars has a feel of commutes past

Looking at a map of cities, one can get creative looking at centers of the cities and obvious places for a rail stop such as downtowns, medical centers, universities and airports. Could a local rail system take people from the Nashville’s airport to downtown with stops at places like Vanderbilt and the entertainment district? In addition to travelers emplaning and deplaning from Nashville’s airport, a 2007 study estimated roughly 5,600 people work at there. Nashville’s numbers are dwarfed by Memphis International Airport where FedEx alone employees about 10,000 people at the second-largest cargo airport in the world. In 1971 improvements to the airport included a mass transit tunnelbellowthe parking area. A call to the airport confirms it is still there and empty. A railroad passes near there as well. Another travels from the eastern suburbs of Collierville, Germantown and in front of the University of Memphis campus. Still another railroad goes from northeastern suburbs of Lakeland, Bartlett through the Jackson/Warford industrial complex, through theBinghamptonarea which is an older neighborhood working on making a comeback. All of these railroads converge at or near the oldfairgroundswhich in recent years has had seen the closure of the Mid-South Coliseum, and the removal of the Tim McCarver Baseball stadium, several buildings and Libertyland amusement park. Now the area is home to the Liberty Bowl Stadium and a lot of empty space in the center of town. It is not terribly far from the Medical Center where existing rails go to Downtown. Could the oldfairgroundsbecome a hub for Memphis light rail or commuter rail?

But along come other thoughts. The newest light rail, The Tide, came in at a cost of $318.5 million which is a little over $43 million per mile. In cash-strapped budgets, is this a wise use of resources? The Music City Star at first glance seems obvious to a resident of Lebanon who works in Nashville. Just park the car, hop on the train and 50 minutes later you are in Downtown Nashville. But then what about the call at 10 am from the school nurse about the sick child? The next train to Lebanon is at 4:20 PM. Curse traffic if you will, but cars do provide freedom. There will also be the inevitable conflicts from the business owner whose access may be interrupted due to the laying of tracks or park and rides.


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The Washington DC Metro