Support builds for Amtrak travel as federal funds dangle

By: - February 22, 2022 4:01 pm
Passengers prepare to board Amtrak's California Zephyr at the Denver Union rail station during its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago that takes roughly 52 hours on March 24, 2017 in Denver. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Passengers prepare to board Amtrak’s California Zephyr at the Denver Union rail station during its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago that takes roughly 52 hours on March 24, 2017 in Denver. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Buoyed by a shot at federal funds, lawmakers are putting together a bipartisan Train Travel Caucus to bring Amtrak service to the state, starting with a Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta line and then moving to Bristol and Memphis.

“There is unprecedented momentum right now for passenger rail here in Tennessee because of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that recently passed,” said state Rep. Jason Powell, a Nashville Democrat leading the effort.

The package includes $66 billion for rail, with Amtrak unveiling plans for a line running from Atlanta through Chattanooga to Nashville. 

Powell hopes Tennessee can tap into those funds, and he wants to expand plans to Bristol and Knoxville in East Tennessee and eventually to Memphis and then north to Louisville, Kentucky, with a connection in Clarksville.

Two years ago, Amtrak officials told the House Transportation Committee it wanted to create a grant program for states and showed lawmakers plans to extend the Illini/Saluki lines from Carbondale, Illinois to Memphis with long-term plans for a Memphis-to-Nashville route and potentially a line from Nashville to Atlanta.

 Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville: "It's time for train travel in Tennessee."(Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville: “It’s time for train travel in Tennessee.”(Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“The key is for Tennessee to be embracing passenger rail service. It’s time for train travel in the state of Tennessee,” Powell says.

It has been missing since 1979 when Amtrak eliminated the Chicago-to-Miami route, making Nashville now the third largest city in the nation without Amtrak service.

The Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta line, which would stop in Nashville, the Nashville International Airport, Murfreesboro and Tullahoma, is projected to generate $464 million in yearly economic impact and some $20 billion in economic impact from one-time investments, according to a release from Powell.

While a Train Travel Caucus would bring together lawmakers committed to bringing passenger rail to every major city in the state, Powell is sponsoring House Bill 2278, which would direct the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations to study the feasibility and cost of passenger rails through the National Railroad Passenger Corp., which does business as Amtrak.

In addition, the legislation would create a Tennessee Agency of Rail and Public Transportation to work with local, state and federal governments and the private sector to support rail, public transportation and commuter programs. It would report to the Department of Transportation.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell is sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation, and Republican Rep. Eddie Mannis is backing the bill. The proposal also has support from Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol.

“I’m on board,” says Lundberg.

He believes Bristol is the next logical step for Amtrak coming from Virginia, where lines run across the state from the Northeast through Charlottesville to Roanoke and along the seaboard to Richmond, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Virginia has emphasized passenger rail, but that would stop at Bristol, which is split by the two states.

“We want to make certain that stop sign is a green light, no question,” Lundberg says. 

Part of the difficulty with delivering passenger rail to Tennessee is negotiating with the railroad companies, Lundberg says, because they want to put as much freight on the tracks as possible, which conflicts with passenger trains. The entire rail system wouldn’t have to be re-created but some locations would be necessary where trains could pass each other.

CSX, which owns the railroad system in Tennessee, contends it does not oppose passenger rail in the state and, in fact, has more passenger services in densely populated areas than any other railroad, according to a spokesperson.

“But it must be done in a safe and efficient manner which considers the impact to communities and freight rail operations,” says CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild. A Rail Traffic Controller study is required to assess the impact of passenger service and determine what infrastructure may be required, she said, adding CSX looks forward to learning more about the proposed services once a proposal is received “and will participate in further discussions with the Tennessee Train Travel Caucus.”

Two years ago, Amtrak officials told the House Transportation Committee it wanted to create a grant program for states and showed lawmakers plans to extend the Illini/Saluki lines from Carbondale, Illinois to Memphis with long-term plans for a Memphis-to-Nashville route and potentially a line from Nashville to Atlanta.

Reviving passenger rail has been grueling work.

Powell, who sponsored previous Amtrak legislation, calls the shift to passenger rail “critical” because of Nashville’s rapid growth, which will only continue as “innovative” companies move to the city.

Powell drew support Tuesday from Democratic state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, who says he’s been working on passenger rail from Atlanta to Chattanooga for 15 years.

“We need to strike while the iron is hot,” Hakeem says.

He and Powell were joined in a press conference by Democratic Reps. Jason Hodges of Clarksville and John Mark Windle of Livingston.

Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce also lent her support Tuesday to the Amtrak initiative.

The federal infrastructure bill “helped align the stars more closely” and renew discussion about bringing Amtrak back to Tennessee, Rhinehart says.

Bringing Amtrak to Bristol from ending points in Virginia would cost $533 million, based on a recent study, according to Rhinehart.

“Our state has to embrace the concept of passenger rail through Amtrak and what that can do for economic activity,” Rhinehart says.

Legislators were uncertain how much it would cost to start a Nashville to Atlanta route. They’re discussing route projections with the Department of Transportation.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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