Oh,Chatlanta: Can a train change the way Tennesseans think about regions?

Posted byDevin Greaneyon Monday, January 16, 2012 ·Leave a Comment(Edit)


Tennessee could have something in common with Japan besides cameras and Elvis fans. These high speed trails may become part of our future. Photo courtesy Japan-guide.com

Last week’s post featured intracity andintrametrocommuter rail in Tennessee. 

On the eastern seaboard between Washington, DC and Boston, fifteen trains are scheduled headed north on weekdays, fourteen are headed south. In Tennessee passenger rail is much less utilized.  Amtrak makes twice-daily stops in Memphis and Dyersburg on their way to Chicago and New Orleans. But generations ago rails tied cities together.

My aunt, Dorothy Greaney, has fond memories of taking The Tennessean from Memphis’ Union Station to college at University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the mid 1940’s. The food was good, it was easy to sleep and there were people to talk to, she remembers. A timetable from The Tennessean (http://www.streamlinerschedules.com/concourse/track1/tennessean195212.html) shows a schedule that probably would not be to the liking of a Knoxville-bound traveler in these days of Interstate 40. The train would depart Memphis at 7:15 PM and arrive at Chattanooga at 3:30 am. “There we would stop for a little while and take on or take off some cars,” Greaney remembers. At 4:10 am the train started heading northeast, getting to Knoxville at 6:45 am. One could ride another three hours to Bristol or stay on until 7:45 PM to Washington, DC.


A 1947 article in theMemphis Commercial Appealshowed off the new City of Memphis Speedliner. It gives an idea of the speed of rail transportation between Nashville and Memphis.

At 8:05 am the train would leave the Memphis station at Third and GE Patterson (which was torn down in 1968 and replaced by a post office). Eleven minutes later the train would arrive at the Lenox station in Memphis near Cooper and Central. At 9:03 the train pulled into Somerville. 9:53 am, Jackson. 10:36 am, Lexington. 11:05 am, Bruceton, in Carroll County. Dickson was the next stop at 12:12 pm and into the Nashville station on Broadway at 1:05 pm – five hours after departing Memphis. Today, thanks to Interstate 40, the trip between the two downtowns is about a three and a half hour drive.

But this article is not about the nostalgic days of railroad, bib overalls and a pipe-smoking conductor yelling “all aboard!” Fast forward to March, 1997. People were waiting for the millennium and thinking of the future. A meeting then between Chattanooga and Atlanta focused on common interests between the two metros.  Could teamwork between the two places benefit each other?

A name from Tennessee’s past was one who began working on this bold vision of its future.

DavidCrocket, direct descent of the legendary US representative, was a Chattanooga councilman at the time of the 1997 meeting. “Assuming we (Atlanta and Chattanooga) were across town, then what could we do?” he remembers “Time. Ease. Connectivity,” he says are the keys in thinking of regions instead of cities and metro areas. “We were thinking of changing the dynamic of a region. If you are all one big place then you began to think of common issues.”

Crockett compares the evolution from the metro area mentality to the regions mentality to the evolution of the computer. Twenty years ago a business would have a computer operating from a mainframe for word processing, record keeping and finance. But ten years later computers were connecting with each other and exchanging ideas and business and it is hard to imagine the days without Amazon.com,EBayand Google.Crocketsays this is similar to the way metros can began to think of themselves as part of regions. Tourists could fly into one airport and spend money in the two metro areas. UT Chattanooga students and faculty can more easily collaborate with people at Georgia State University. But though the metro areas have common interests they are separated by some 125 miles of congested Interstate highway. How could time be compressed to makeChatlantainto a super region? And idea came from Japan.

In 1964, about the time passenger train depots around the US were closing, Japan began running the Shinkansen better known as the bullet train. Could a high speed rail be the right vehicle to turn theChatlantacommute into the time it takes to cross a big city unite the metro areas?

This was the go-go 1990s. It was when dot.com stocks were selling with 999 price/earning ratios and buying a house with no money down seemed like a good idea. But despite all the changes, theChatlantaproject has not gone away and has gotten even bigger adding Nashville and Louisville, Kentucky to the transport of the future.

In early 1998, the I 75 corridor was chosen as the most logical route to connect the cities. The project was moved to the Enterprise Center of Chattanooga in 2001, which is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit corporation formed to bring advanced technology to Chattanooga. In the fifteen years since the planning conference technology has also changed.

The trains of the 1990’s can travel up to 186 miles per hour, according to Japan-guide.com.  Now high speed rail is also found in several countries in Europe.  In 2002 a new technology was introduced in Shanghai – magnetic levitation technology- better known as maglev, zips commuters between cities at 267 miles per hour.  Today Shanghai is the only location to run maglev.

“In almost fifty years of running the high speed rail in Japan has never had a fatal accident,” Ferguson said.  Last year a high speed rail accident killed forty people in China. Another in 1998 in Germany killed 110. But in perspective, 947 people in Tennessee lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents in 2011. And that was the lowest rate since 1963.

Some of the nuts and bolts of the operation have also come out of studies on the project. For one, the rails will be dedicated to high speed rail only. They will not share tracks with other trains. Airports seem the most likely stations for the system. Atlanta’s Hartsfield is the largest in the world, is accessible via commuter rail and has facilities there such as rental cars. There will be express trips going strictly from Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and Louisville plus trips stopping at towns along the way like Marietta, Cartersville and Dalton in Georgia.

Ferguson says as the areas grow, some forecasts indicate the ridership may be great enough to make the routes profitable for private business.

“In fifteen to twenty years theforcastsshow a dire need for relief along the I 75 corridor. All you have to do is drive I 75 to understand,” says Joe Ferguson, director of the Enterprise institute. In speaking to groups he says he hears nothing but enthusiastic response. As Chattanooga expands to the South, Atlanta is expanding to the north. “We will be a mega-region,” he says. Over the years $8 million has been spent on environmental impact and feasibility studies. Today the idea of the train seems as fanciful as the train from last year’s cult film “Atlas Shrugged” but Ferguson says this is no fantasy.  “It is not if, it is when this is going to happen.”