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.
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."
All in all, the plan worked. As Farquhar says, "Used equipment? OK, it doesn't have the clean car smell, but it works real well for us. Used conductors? They don't have the new conductor smell, but they work real well for us."
Anyone getting on the Music City Star in Nashville will notice its distinctive platform, Riverfront Station. Farquhar explains that most of the line's platforms as just that, with no building there, but for this end of the line, the local government wanted more.
"Davidson County didn't want a plain station downtown, so they paid an additional amount of money to actually build the building there in Nashville. And we were fortunate that it gives us a real nice terminal station to have," Farquhar says.
"Our hope is to get a vendor in there. We're working with several vendors to do that. This is the public dock for Nashville. So we will get cruise ships tying up here. The river cruise ships, big steamboats and barges tie up here. And then there is also a stage that they bring in for events. And then this area becomes backstage, so we are working with everybody so that if we do get a vendor in here they can stay open when they are backstage and they are doing shows.
"That and the fact that when we first tried to get vendors into the station they kind of wanted proof from us that people are really going to ride the train. We've done that, so now we are talking with a series of vendors."
The Music City Star is only one of a planned series of commuter rail lines into Nashville from surrounding counties.
Interestingly, though, is that where it terminates at Riverfront Station isn't where the other lines will terminate. The other lines all come together at nearby Union Station. As Farquhar says, there is a physical connection between the two spots, but "typical railroad, you can't get there from here."
"It looks like we can build a couple of connections and then get these trains there and then this will just become a special events facility. Or we may just use it for extra capacity," Farquhar says. "Of course the challenge is all of the other lines are on CSX [rails] so we need to chat with them.
"Pretty much the infrastructure is there. There are some sections that need to be double-tracked but they are fairly short. And fortunately the big yard, Radner Yard, all the main lines bypass it. It's great. It's a central location and all of the lines feed into it, but you can go right by the yard without getting close to it on all the main lines. And Nashville of course is a hub so we've got lines going in six or seven different directions."
Farquhar doesn't think a temporal separation, running the freight and commuter lines at different times on the same tracks like other systems do, will be needed in Nashville, though.
"You figure out what you need to build the capacity so you can run the trains. You don't need to do a temporal separation. You just need to have good dispatching and make sure you build the infrastructure so that you can run all of the trains."
As with all major transit projects, the future of the Music City Star comes down to the RTA getting it funded. To date the system has been predominantly funded by federal and state money, but to not only continue operating, but expand, Farquhar says the system is going to need a permanent stream of local funding.
"We know that we have to get a local dedicated funding source. We are working on that," Farquhar says.
"We need to get some way of controlling liability concerns. CSX, justifiably, has some real concerns about getting themselves in a situation where there is an accident because of a passenger train, but it is on their property and they certainly have deeper pockets than any local government does.
"So they want a very healthy amount of liability coverage. You can go back and forth if it's excessive or not, but it's their property that's what they want. So we have to find a way … and really the amount they want doesn't make any economical justification on the public side to make that kind of investment.
"So to do that we have to mitigate that issue absolutely. That has to be added to the legislation. They have to be protected. We are working on that."
And while they are working on securing the factors that will keep them running, Farquhar says they can look to the future.
"Until we have those two issues taken care of, we can look at where the stations should go. We can start directing development around the stations to get transit-oriented development. Get an idea what the capital improvements need to be.
"We are certainly very well aware that we are going to a private property owner. And it is [CSX's] property. And after what has been well over 100 years of telling them — kind of brushing them off and not understanding their side of the picture. We try to do that. We really try to pay attention to be aware of their needs. They have their needs, they have their wants and they have their wishes. And we're definitely going to try and address some of those.
"The area is growing. Of course, I will never tell you that we will get rid of the private automobile that is ridiculous. But we can as the area grows get people to think there are more ways to get around, especially more ways to get in and out of downtown, than driving on I-40."
In the end, though, it's about ridership. Farquhar says the Music City Star has about 500 riders a day currently and they are shooting for about 1,500 a day by this fall, a year after the system opened. So how are they going to do it? Simple, they take care of the essentials.
As Farquhar says, "You put a quality service out and you let people know about it and it will build up."