On a sunny morning I walked down to Nashville's Riverfront Station and caught the Music City Star's mid-morning run to Mt. Juliet and back with Bill Farquhar, the Regional Transportation Authority's commuter rail director.
The Music City Star is Nashville's next big step in transit. The first in a series of seven commuter rail lines bringing in riders from outlying communities, the planned rail network would layout in a rough star shape all centered on Nashville, and more precisely, Nashville's Union Station.
Farquhar explained to me that those rail lines are existing CSX lines and that the RTA would have to negotiate with them as part of the process of expanding the system.
"This is a short line," Farquhar says.
"We don't own the track. The track is owned by a public agency, a joint powers authority of Davidson, Wilson, Smith and Puttman counties called the Nashville Eastern Rail Authority. And they actually own the rail and property.
"They have a 50-year lease with a company called the Nashville Eastern Rail Corporation. They are the ones who are actually the railroad. They run the freight service, they maintain the signals, they dispatch and they maintain the track.
"So we have a three-way agreement with them for trackage rights and access to the railroad. And then we have a separate contract with a company called the Transit Solutions Group. TSG maintains the equipment and provides the crews."
While for most cities getting a commuter rail service up and running means building from the ground up, the line the Music City Star operates on was already there, but there was a lot of work to do with it.
"You don't do commuter rail for that low of cost without a lot of things falling into place at the right time. And a lot of people working really hard to make it happen," says Farquhar. "So certainly if the short line operator hadn't been an enthusiastic supporter of the project it wouldn't have happened.
"We rehabbed the track. That was the biggest single cost. We rebuilt some of the bridges. We worked on the drainage, did a lot of surfacing.
"[We] replaced about 50 percent of the rail," Farquhar says about the short line. The continuous welded rail was only part of the equation as nearly 20,000 tons of ballast was used to build the railroad up first. And then there was the problem with the signals — or lack of them.
"We had to install the signals. This was dark territory," Farquhar says.
"The Tennessee Central ran a couple freight trains each way each day and their passenger trains until 1955 in one round trip. That's not too hard with track pullers and track orders and stations every 10 miles to get the railroad like that.
"Of course, we come in and we are running faster than they ever ran. We're running more trains. You want signals not only because your conductors aren't out front throwing switches, but it gives another set of eyes watching over the railroad.
"And if there is a problem with the track, it will show up on the screen long before you want the train to find it. So it lets you be more proactive and lets you decrease your liability and lets you get your crews out there faster. Lets you be a better system.
"We built the stations. It sounds simple, but … We have an agreement to use Nashville Eastern's facility out in Lebanon, which is why we built our layover facility right next to it. It's actually on land we lease from Nashville Eastern. Part of that lease agreement is that we can use their locomotive shop if we need it. It works really well."
The Music City Star was built at a cost of about $1.3 million dollars a mile, which Bill Farquhar told me was about a tenth of what most systems cost.
"That was because the amount of money we were given to build it with. We were told quite firmly that is the money you have and you make it work within that budget," Farquhar says.