And to do that they had to think outside the box on a lot of things. Farquhar broke it down by saying they first made sure they had all of the Essentials, and then they put in Important things, followed by Useful items and finally the Amenities. Sticking to this rule allowed them to save millions of dollars.
"[Seattle's] Sounder [commuter rail line,] for example, their ticket machine will sell any one of their tickets, in seven languages, supported by satellites and will give change, take debit cards, credit cards and probably issue you a marriage license for all I know. And the machines are about a half million dollars a piece," Farquhar says.
"So obviously we couldn't spend 10 percent of the budget up front just for the ticket machines. And so we got looking at what we really need, which is what I like to call the essential components.
"It has to sell tickets 24 hours a day seven days a week and be able to take money. And be able to take debit and credit cards in this day and age. And be able to issue you a ticket. You know kind of like a parking machine when you go to a parking lot.
"Oh yeah, like a parking machine when you go to a parking lot."
So the RTA went to Central Parking, headquartered near Nashville, and bought up a ticket machine that the company had been trying to market to the transit industry. They were weather proof, tough and issued a ticket. Just the essentials Farquhar was looking for. The next challenge was figuring out how to validate the tickets.
Most commuter railroads use a validation machine for this, but as Farquhar pointed out they are basically a timer and cost more than $10,000 each. Then an idea struck them. Using tickets that had scratch-off sections like a lottery ticket. The passengers could validate their own tickets and hand them to the conductor. Just the essential item they were looking for!
"So it was doing things like that that allowed us to bring the costs way down," Farquhar says, "Obviously safety is the first thing you make sure you have covered. And we tried to provide the best service we can with the money we had."
Getting a Little Help
The RTA was able to keep costs down on the Music City Star commuter rail line not by cutting corners, but by sticking to the essentials. For example, it needed locomotives and passenger cars for the line, but nobody said it needed new locomotives and passenger cars.
"These cars were originally built for Chicago Northwestern in the ‘60s," says Farquhar.
"Then [they were] rehabbed by Metra in the late ‘90s early 2000s. What really worked out for us is that Metra got a grant to buy new equipment and the process went faster than they thought it would.
"So they had started rehabbing cars when they were afraid it was going to be quite a while before they got to get new equipment. You can get another 10-12 years out of [rehabbed cars]. Well the new cars started drawing up, so they stopped the rehab program and took the oldest cars that had been rehabbed and put them on the market.
"Federal money has tons of restrictions on it. They couldn't sell [the cars] because there was so much federal interest in them. But what they did is the FTA transferred the interest from the Chicago region down to the Atlanta region, so we paid $1 for each of the cars, so there was a transfer of money between the agencies. Then we brought them down here and did some refurbishment."
Farquhar explained that the refurbishment they had to do was mainly wiring work to get the Metra cars to work properly with the Amtrak locomotives the agency was going to use.
"We put new ditch lights on them. The cars were set up to work on the Chicago Northwestern railroad. They had a lot of signaling stuff in them for cab signals that we weren't going to use here. So we had to take that out. That was the major thing we had to do. We modified them for ADA compliance. And then also the car, the cabs and the locomotives wouldn't talk to each other. So we had to rewire the cabs so they would talk to the locomotive.
"Every railroad has slightly different standards. It was easier to wire the cab cars with the Amtrak standard than try to rewire the locomotive to the CNW standard. These are ex-Amtrak F40s.
"They're older locomotives, but they went through rehab and are in pretty good shape. They have been pretty reliable for us. We've had a few glitches — teething pains — but we're doing well."