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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
How do you build a commuter-rail system on a tight budget? Make every penny count. That’s the approach officials at Nashville’s Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) took when they built the Music City Star, a 32-mile commuter-rail line running from Nashville’s revived downtown to the more rural Lebanon, Tenn.
With a budget of $40 million, RTA execs, project consultants and contractors rehabilitated existing freight tracks, built six stations and acquired rolling stock. To convince people to ride Nashville’s first full-time passenger-rail system, execs knew they needed to provide a high-quality service.
Since the Music City Star opened on Sept. 18, 2006, RTA has done just that. On-time performance is above 95 percent and the agency already has added late evening and special event service. Ridership is gaining steam, and officials expected it to pick up even more after the holidays. All in all, it’s been a successful first few months for the Music City Star, and execs believe there are many more good months to come.
“We’re trying to understand the needs of our riders, and we’ll formulate future plans based on the success of what we’re doing now,” says Terry Bebout, general manager for Transit Solutions Group L.L.C. (TSG), Music City Star’s contract operator.
Speaking in future tense isn’t something Music City Star execs take for granted. From the time RTA officials began commuter-rail planning in the early 1990s until construction began in 2004, the project had little political support; adding passenger-rail service in Nashville was never a top priority for most local leaders.
“This isn’t a project that many politicians have hung their hats on,” says RTA Interim Executive Director and Director of Commuter Rail Bill Farquhar. “I had more than one person tell me they thought this project never would happen. People in the Nashville government were to the point of saying, ‘If it happens, it happens, but we aren’t going to put any push behind it.’”
The project did have a couple of backers — namely, former Tennessee congressman Bob Clement, who helped secure preliminary project funding, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied Congress for federal funds.
A roundabout way
RTA received a federal grant to cover 80 percent of the project’s cost, then obtained 20 percent matching funds through the Tennessee Department of Transportation and local municipalities. The city of Nashville provided an additional $2 million to build Riverfront Station in downtown Nashville.
“We got the federal funding first, then had to go back to get local support, which is what limited our funding,” says RTA’s Director of Commuter Rail and Interim Executive Director Bill Farquhar. “It forced all of us to be very conservative in how we spent the money.”
The cost-consciousness carried over into many aspects of the project, from corridor selection to station design to track upgrades.
Ultimately, RTA officials decided the only way they could launch a commuter-rail line was to upgrade existing — and publicly owned — Nashville and Eastern Railroad short-line tracks. Population along the corridor isn’t as dense as other areas in the region, but RTA execs knew the line would be the least costly to upgrade.
Other corridors involved operating over right of way owned by CSX Transportation, which has strict requirements for transit agencies that want to operate commuter trains along its tracks: passenger operations can’t compromise safety and must be transparent to freight operations; capacity consumed by passenger operations must be replaced; and CSXT must be compensated for right of way and capacity consumed, and retain no risk of liability for passenger trains.
In September 2004, RTA launched construction on the Music City Star, which reflects both Nashville’s famous nickname and the “star” shape RTA’s proposed network will form once all corridors are built. The project included installing new rail and ties, but only where needed, and removing two timber bridges and replacing them with concrete trestles.
“We didn’t just come in and wholesale replace everything,” says Farquhar. “Every project got scrutinized because we were on a finite budget.”
And that budget didn’t provide any wiggle room for inflation or the rising cost of materials. So when high steel and concrete prices caused station construction costs to come in 40 percent over budget, RTA officials had to get creative. They decided to shorten platforms to only accommodate the two- and three-car trains they knew they’d initially be operating, built two shelters instead of four, and spread asphalt thinner in parking areas.
“These were all little things that, sure, it would have been nice if we could do, but it wasn’t necessary to get the service up and running,” says Farquhar.
Execs also reviewed the service plan to determine if they needed to build a mile-long passing track or just add a siding for one train to wait while the other passed by. Their conclusion: For the additional cost to build a passing track, they could live without it.
For rolling stock, RTA purchased recently overhauled locomotives from Amtrak and bi-level gallery cars from the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. (Metra).
RTA also saved money by installing modified parking machines that cost about $17,000 each rather than standard ticket vending machines — which can cost up to $500,000 a pop — at stations. Manufactured by Nashville-based Central Parking, the machines met RTA’s basic requirements for a device that simply accepts debit and credit cards, and issues tickets.
Riding in the cab car from Lebanon to downtown Nashville, it’s easy to see — and feel — where RTA’s money literally ran out, as train speeds decline from 59 mph to 10 mph in areas where the agency couldn’t afford to resurface or replace track. But for the RTA, a small agency that also operates bus and vanpool services, the line is more than adequate to meet the agency’s No. 1 objective: provide area residents with a fast, cost-effective alternative to driving the city’s increasingly congested highways.
And for many Nashville residents who have never ridden a train before, the Music City Star more than meets their expectations for a reliable transit service between Nashville’s rural eastern end and revived downtown area. For some, the system’s already become a travel lifeline.
“I met an 82-year-old woman who was taking the train to see her sister, who she hadn’t seen in six years since they both gave up their drivers’ licenses,” says
Music City Star Engineer/Conductor Lane De Vors. “Six years ... and they only live 25 miles apart.”
De Vors could share many other stories about Music City Star passengers. That’s because he and his colleagues take the time to get to know their riders. It’s no mistake that the agency’s four crew members are of the friendly variety. When RTA and contract operator TSG began conducting interviews, finding workers with railroading experience was their top requirement, but customer service experience was a close second.
“These guys need to be able to talk to passengers, whether it’s telling them how to get to a particular destination or dealing with a problem,” says Farquhar.
Each two-man train crew operates on a rotating schedule, with each person serving as conductor one week and engineer the next. The crews work a split shift, operating either the early- or mid-morning train, then coming back four hours later to run the early- or late-evening service on one of the Music City Star’s two trainsets.
TSG also employs a maintenance crew and clerk, who manages parts, and orders and receives shipments. A few maintenance people, the clerk and even Bebout also serve as train crew back-ups.
“Because we’re starting out with a small operation, we wanted everybody to be very versatile,” says TSG’s Bebout.
RTA officials wear many hats, as well. In addition to his top-chief duties, Farquhar effectively serves as chief operating officer, chief engineer and chief mechanical officer. Project Manager Allyson Shumate also oversees funding, marketing, ticket sales and customer service.
For now, the low employee count works for the RTA, which operates trains between downtown Nashville, and stations in Donelson, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet, Martha and Lebanon during peak morning and evening periods. As of mid-December, the Music City Star was carrying about 500 round-trip passengers daily, well on its way to a goal of 750 after its first year of operation.
To attract even more riders, the agency has operated a handful of special event trains to the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field, which is a 10-minute walk from downtown’s Riverfront Station. RTA’s also operated late-evening service on Thursday and Friday nights.
This year, the agency will target downtown employers, offering a commuter benefit program under which the companies can deduct employee’s public transportation expenses from their paychecks using pre-tax dollars.
“A lot of companies downtown offer a parking benefit — why not offer a transit benefit?” says Shumate.
As ridership grows, RTA is poised to expand service, either by adding cars or a third trainset. The authority also plans to improve the corridor and eliminate remaining slow orders.
Service expansion might be necessary sooner rather than later. The city of Mt. Juliet plans to use its new commuter-rail station as a community focal point. Across the street from the station, a plot of land has been cleared for a development that will include retail shops and housing. And a couple of miles down the road, a set of orange cones mark the spot where an overpass will be built to provide Mt. Juliet freeway access. Once the new road is complete, more than 10,000 homes will be built in the area, giving RTA the potential to attract thousands of new riders, says Farquhar.
RTA has plans to add rail service to other areas, as well. But the agency will need a dedicated funding source to build future extensions — all of which require operating on CSXT right of way.
“We can’t build other corridors like we did this one — the money will be so much bigger,” says Farquhar.
RTA is working with lobbyists and the state legislature to identify possible funding sources. They can rule out a sales tax increase.
“Tennessee has no state income tax, so everything’s funded by sales taxes,” says Farquhar. “In most states, you bump up the sales tax to fund transportation improvements, but we’re already at the high level.”
If RTA obtains funding, the agency plans to add service from Nashville northeast to Gallatin; southeast to Murfreesboro; south to Columbia; west to Dickson; north to Springfield; and possibly northwest to Ashland City and Clarksville. Based on population, the northeast and southeast corridors would most likely be the next two to be built, says Shumate.
In the meantime, RTA execs will continue working to please current customers and attract new ones. If they continue to do it, the Music City Star will serve as a model for commuter rail not only in Nashville, but smaller metropolitan areas throughout the country, officials believe.
“We’re proving the concept, and to more than just middle Tennessee,” says Farquhar. “If commuter rail works here — and it does — it’s going to work anywhere.”