The Curious Nashville inbox has received several variations on the same question: What happened to passenger rail service in Nashville? Residents are right to be curious. Nashville is one of the largest cities in the country to have no rail connection to another city.
So here's the inquiry from retired school teacher Sharon Lorenz of Gallatin:
Nashville used to be an Amtrak destination. It is a perfect central location between many cities. Why did that end?
It's true, Nashville used to have Amtrak service, though it lasted less than a decade. To properly answer this question, a visit to Nashville's Union Station is in order. This was the hub of rail activity for nearly 80 years after its construction in 1900.
When this place was hopping, everyone dressed in their Sunday best, crisscrossing the marble floor on their way to board any number of trains. The train shed, which has been torn down, was once the largest structure of its kind in the country — a modern engineering marvel.
But by 1970, private railroads were bailing on passenger service. That’s when the government took over with an agency called Amtrak. The one train line through Nashville that survived was the Floridian — a 1400-mile route from Chicago to Miami. Terry Bebout, who happens to run the Music City Star commuter train for a living now, rode the Floridian as a young man and has fond memories.
"Getting there was half the fun, and getting back was the other half. Being there was the middle part," he says. "It was just part of the vacation.”
An old brochure says, “We’ll be rolling through America’s heartland to America’s sunland.” It advertises the “dome coaches” that gave passengers a 360-degree view of the countryside and a dining car with “full-course” meals.
But catching the train was a little less glitzy than riding it.
Union Station's unofficial historian says guests often mention their memories of the place when you could still board a train there. Depending on when that was, they might call the place "grand" or they might call it "nasty."
"The railroad had let the facilities just deteriorate," says Roy Neel, a Democratic Party operative born and raised in Smyrna. He also did a tour of duty on the Amtrak board of directors.
By the time Amtrak took over in 1970, the Floridian never really had a chance, he says. There was only one passenger train going south and one going north from Nashville's Union Station every day.
"There wasn’t much a facility left," he says. "The building was still there, but it was beginning to decay substantially."
The train shed had holes in the ceiling and pigeon poop was piling up.
A Potential Savior
Amtrak, which was still just a few years old, was already having trouble. In a cost-saving move, President Jimmy Carter proposed cutting several cross-country lines, including the Floridian. But a savior stepped in — former Vice President Al Gore, then a Tennessee Congressman.
Neel was Gore's long-time chief of staff. The two shared an appreciation for rail travel.
“There’s something about moving along and looking out that window, eating in a dining car, maybe sleeping on the train and waking up. Looking out the window, and you see a whole new town — and watching the countryside go by," he says. "It’s magical.”
Gore helped keep the Floridian on life support for months. In Congress, he argued that the train would regain popularity as gas prices surged. States and local governments that were getting cut out started filing lawsuits. For a while, federal courts delayed those cuts. But then the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, and said yes, Amtrak could move forward.
The Last Train
As a final act before waiving the white flag, Gore decided he had to take the last train out of Nashville. It was October 8, 1979.
Reporters who chronicled those final days talked about how cars were in disrepair — even little stuff like bar stools where the upholstery fabric was patched with duct tape. Al Gore may have been aboard that last train, but there weren't many others. A newspaper account by long-time Nashville journalist Gene Policinski said one coach car was completely empty and another half-filled.
"The whole trip had a very heavy sense of 'this is it. It's going away, and it's not going to come back,'" Policinski says.
Policinski did the math to show the Floridian's loss per mile, which he calculated to be 13.5 cents. That meant Congress was basically subsidizing each passenger about as much as $150. The Floridian ranked as the biggest money loser for Amtrak in 1978.
So Amtrak chugged out of Union Station in 1979 with a whimper. For most people, it was no big deal. But there has been talk from time to time about a revival.
“It’s not easy, but it’s possible," says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. "I would say that there’s a process for it.”
Even before the Floridian took its last trip south, the tracks were in rough shape — so rough that the passenger trains were averaging like 40 miles an hour — half the allowable speed. And low speed is a big problem.
“If the train is remarkably slower than driving, people will drive," Magliari says.
Freight trains use many of the same tracks today, but they go slower and don't require such smooth conditions.
If Amtrak was going to rev back up in Middle Tennessee, those rails would need some help. Magliari says other high-dollar upgrades would be needed too, such as the railway crossings that are electronically triggered for slower-speed freight trains.
"Each one of those crossings either has to be re-engineered or needs to be made smart enough to know the difference between a passenger train going 79 miles per hour and a freight train that would go over it at 60,” he says.
Magliari says Amtrak won't be initiating a resurrection. The state has to act first.
'We Need To Be Realistic'
To avoid Amtrak sinking back into a financial hole, states are now responsible for any startup costs that might be needed for a new line. And if there aren’t enough passengers to pay for the operating costs, states have to cover that too.
In other words, reviving the Floridian would start with someone like Liza Joffrion. She oversees multimodal transportation for Tennessee and says the state has done some looking at what it would take to get another train going — not north and south, but east and west to Memphis. That would be the quickest link to Amtrak’s existing map since a train does run along the western edge of Tennessee.
The estimate, as of 2011, is $1.8 billion. And that doesn't include any potential operating deficit.
"That’s a huge amount of money," she says. "I think if you asked Nashvillians or the folks in Memphis if we’re going to spend $1.8 billion, how would you like to spend it? Amtrak service is not likely to be the first priority."
Joffrion says its tough to make trains economically viable in Tennessee because there's not enough density. She points to one Amtrak line between Lynchburg, Virginia and Washington D.C. that is self-supporting, but primarily because driving in D.C. is no fun.
"I’m a supporter of passenger rail. I would love to see passenger rail," Joffrion says. "But I just think we need to be realistic in looking at the costs and the use of the system in relation to our other priorities.”
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