Congestion on Nashville’s roadways is a daily reminder of a growing city that can no longer sit on the sidelines, but could possibly find solutions from its past with passenger rail service.
Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) first brought passenger rail service to Nashville on October 27, 1859, when the first passenger train arrived from Louisville, Kentucky. Today, Union Station, located at the corner of 10th and Broadway, still stands as a reminder of both inter-city passenger trains and streetcars.
Fast forward to the invention of the automobile. In the 1920s, gasoline taxes were instituted and road construction and paving accelerated, resulting in a decline of railroad travel. By 1930, there was about six times as much passenger travel by auto as by railroad.
After World War II automobile production surged, gasoline rationing ended and more people could afford a car. Rail passenger travel went into a sharp decline from which it never recovered.
By 1957, the rapid rise of air transportation resulted in domestic air travel overtaking rail. Thus the fate of rail was sealed in spite of the government subsidized Amtrak created in 1970 to operate passenger trains.
In 1990, Nashville began exploring commuter rail. Local entrepreneur Bronson Ingram — an early proponent of rail—suggested a vehicle emission fee to be collected solely for a future passenger rail operation. Ingram, who owned the Ingram Industries, chaired the Nashville Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s and wanted the city to avoid some of the congestion that Atlanta was then suffering, according to an article issued by the rail industry.
Bob Clement was serving Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, including Nashville, in the United States House of Representatives, a seat he held from 1988 to 2003. During that time, he served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Railroads Subcommittee. He was ideally suited to lead the city’s effort to bring commuter rail to Middle Tennessee.
At that time, Clement said, “Passenger rail is a quality of life issue.”
Clement began the process of bringing rail back to Nashville in 1997 by requesting preliminary engineering and station development funding be included in federal transportation law reauthorization. The plans that evolved for an extensive commuter rail operation in and around Nashville remain in place today.
In September 2006, the Music City Star — named after Nashville’s famous nickname and the star, which Regional Transit Authority’s proposed network would resemble once all the corridors were built — began operating along the 32-mile east corridor that connected Lebanon with the city’s Riverfront Station. This line was selected because it was the simplest and most cost-effective of the corridors from which to launch the Music City Star. Track usage and maintenance of way agreements with the publicly owned Nashville and Eastern Railroad made the east corridor a logical first foray for commuter rail.
From the time RTA officials began commuter rail planning in the early 1990s until construction began in 2004, the project had little political support because passenger rail service in Nashville was never a top priority for most local leaders.
Today, however, the need for passenger rail service has the attention of elected officials, regional and metro transit authorities and organizations, who believe this is no longer a low priority. With Nashville’s projected growth within the next 20 years, the city has fallen behind comparable cities such as Charlotte, N.C. and Austin, Texas.
“Things have changed for the better,” said Clement, who has been asked to serve as honorary co-chair of Go Rail Now because of his knowledge and experience with Music City Star.
“Attitudes have changed since Megan Berry became mayor and the conversation is going in the right direction.
“Passenger rail service is not a short-term process and it will take a coordinated effort with people working in tandem to achieve this goal,” Clement said. “We can no longer be found siting on the sidelines.”
After seeing Go Rail Now’s plan, Clement said it was “the best I’ve seen. I was highly impressed with their vision and planning.
“To achieve this goal, a lot of the public will have to buy into it with support and energy,” said Clement, adding that a substantial amount of money will be needed to pay for the project.
“I want to support all those are working to bring passenger rail service to Nashville and Tennessee,” Clement said.
Go Rail Now’s Rick Williams said they see the feasibility of rerouting freight rail traffic around Middle Tennessee in order to free up railroad space for regional passenger rail service. Economic development would be an added bonus.
“We are behind the eight ball,” Williams said, adding that if President Trump plans to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, “then I want to get about $5 billion of that money to fix Middle Tennessee’s transit problems by using passenger rail service.”
The arduous process begins with a feasibility study using Go Rail Now’s proposal, as well as Metro’s nMotion transit plan, that will then be presented to CSX.
Nashville is a key hub of CSX rail and the success of bringing passenger rail service back to the area is dependent on the willingness of CSX to become a partner in this endeavor.