Train in Vain
Passenger rail transit makes good sense, but will we give up our cars?
By Joe Tarr
JUNE 19, 2000: The locomotive blasts an unmistakable whoo-whoo at the riverfront landing, spitting out puffs of diesel exhaust. The engine's gears grind forward and begin to drag two 1932 Philadelphia commuter cars, a 1925 Pullman sleeper, and a 1987 caboose over the tracks.
The Three Rivers Rambleran hour-and-20-minute weekend excursion that runs along the Tennessee Riveris a relic of how people used to get around in this country. But for Knoxvillians Denise and Francis Lloyd, it's a more relaxed, civilized way to travel. When the couple take their two daughters on vacation to St. Augustine, Fla., this year, they'll first be driving to North Carolina where they'll park their car and climb aboard an Amtrak passenger train.
"You can move around, look at the scenery," says Denise Lloyd, explaining why they'd rather leave their car behind. "Some of them have dining cars. Plus, I don't have to worry about traffic."
In the next car, William Schmidt gazes out at the East Tennessee landscape. Schmidt is no stranger to trains. A railroad buff, he commutes daily from his home in Spotsylvania, Va., to his job in Washington, D.C. by train for $197 a month.
"It's more expensive than driving, but if you figure the wear and tear on your vehicle and the wear and tear on yourself, and parking, it's worth it," he says. "If you had passenger service here, I'd come down more. I'd love to do that."
Fed up with competing with double tractor trailers on the interstates and worried about the environmental and social damage automobiles cause, a lot of people in East Tennessee and around the country wonder why the trains stopped running, and what it would take to bring them back.
There are several proposals and studies in the works to bring passenger rail to East Tennessee. The proposals aren't cheap, and it won't be easy, but fans of railroads and mass transportation say the time has come to rethink the way Americans get around.
Trains were once such a symbol of the American frontier and progress that it's hard to believe they fell from grace so quickly and nearly completely.
Residents began trying to link Knoxville to train lines in 1831, but it would take 27 years of planning, lobbying and work before the city would be connected by rail to the major Eastern and Southern cities, according to the Knoxville history book Heart of the Valley. Numerous bridges and tunnels were needed to navigate East Tennessee's rough terrain and many rivers and valleys, which slowed construction.
The railroads changed Knoxville in bizarre ways, making it possible for fresh seafood to be shipped in from the Atlantic so fast that oyster bars became a Civil War-era sensation. It also made it easier for people to travel: Passengers could board a car in Knoxville and get off the same car in Manhattan the next day.
After the Civil War, the railways expanded and went through a variety of owners until J.P. Morgan bought most of them out in 1894 and founded the Southern Railway Company. The Louisville & Nashville connected Knoxville north to Cincinnati.
Except for during World War II, passenger service steadily began dropping in the 1920s. The death knell was the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced automobiles, combined with construction of the massive interstate system, beginning in the 1950s.
The railroad companies were glad to see passenger service go. "The railroads weren't all that interested in passenger travel. It's much more labor intensive," says Pete Claussen, owner of the shortline Gulf & Ohio Railroad.
It takes just a few people to run a freight train, and it doesn't matter much if it's an hour or two behind schedule. But passenger trains require a lot of support personnel, and must run on timethereby decreasing the profit margin.
By the Depression, the railroads had realized freight was where the money was, and most companies looked for excuses to cut passenger service. Local lines were the first to go, followed by dining cars and then sleepers. In March, 1968, the L&N ran its last passenger train, the Flamingo, which ran from Cincinnati to Atlanta.
The Southern's passenger service ended two years later. On Aug. 12, 1970, the Birmingham Special left Knoxville from the Southern Station off Gay Street with 16 paid passengers on board. A crew of seven drove the train and tended to their needs.
Knoxville journalist Dudley Brewer lamented the city's loss of trains: "What was the name of the last jet airplane you flew? A DC8. Why, that's not a name, it's an identification. DC8 has no personality. It stands for a fast contraption in which a lot of people are cooped up out of sight of everything. But recall the names of trains. They read like poetry:
"Royal Palm, Southwind, Humming Bird, Orange Blossom Special, Cannonball...They seemed something breathing and alive."
Realizing the country would soon be without passenger rail, Congress created the quasi-public Amtrak in 1971. The new entity allowed railroads to abandon their passenger service by investing in Amtrak (often, with equipment donations). In turn, Amtrak had rights to use their private railroad tracks.
Amtrak had many problems early on, some of which were beyond its control. Politics dictated many of the early routes, which weren't always the most economically feasible or logical, says Barton Jennings, a University of Tennessee transportation professor, railroad consultant, and president of the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum.
Service was notoriously bad from the start. In later years, Amtrak cut routes in hopes of saving money, but found the fewer routes it offered the fewer passengers it had.
Although passenger rail greatly disintegrated in the second part of the 20th century, most cities are still connected by an enormous network of rail tracks that freight companies still use.
In a few instances, the lines disappeared altogether. Amazingly, there are no rail lines connecting Nashville and Knoxville.
A 22-mile stretch of line was lost in the late '60s when the Tennessee Central Railroad went bankrupt, according to Bill Drunsic, president of the shortline Nashville & Eastern Railroad. The old Tennessee Central's tracks ran over a steep plateau in order to feed coal to the steel mills in Harriman. The lines were divided up between three companies, with the old Southern Railroad company getting Crossville to Harriman, the L&N getting Nashville to Monterey, and the Illinois Central getting the tracks west of Nashville.
The Southern deliberately tore up the tracks between Monterey and Crossville, so there wouldn't be any competition, Drunsic says. Ever since then, trains had to get from Nashville to Knoxville via Atlanta.
Another lost line is the Smoky Mountain Railway, which connected Knoxville to Pigeon Forge. Built in 1910, the railroad was used primarily for moving timber out of the Smokies, but also carried passengers, Jennings says. It struggled financially all along, and went through several different owners. In 1964, permission was granted to abandon the line, and highways 441 and 411 became the primary transportation routes.
Today, there are two main railroadsCSX and Norfolk Southernserving the United States east of the Mississippi, Jennings says. These are Knoxville's main lines. Several other shortline railroads fill in the gaps.
During World War II, there was a shortage of workers in the states, so high school junior John Ascher managed to get a job on the railroad in Gloucester, Mass, working in passenger service.
From his Farragut living room, Ascher now speaks of a different time. He was trained by men had worked the lines since the 19th century. Automobiles were still largely a luxury and novelty.
"The highway system was not anything like we have today. It was all two-lane roads. Not every family had a car, and if you did, you had only one. Many people kept their cars in their garage all week and drove it only on the weekends," Ascher says.
Railroads became his vocation, and Ascher worked his way through a variety of positions and companiespausing briefly to get a degree in transportation from the University of Tennessee ("Today, I look back and I guess I got a degree in buggy whips," he jokes).
Retiring here 10 years ago, Ascher now publishes the Dixie Flyer and National Mountain Railroader, a history and retired worker advocacy newsletter. He has a collection of videotapes of trains and light rail he's ridden around the globe.
Ascher is convinced that passenger railboth long distance and light commuter railwill return to Knoxville and around the country.
"There's no question we'll get it. It's happening all over the country. We may be the last, but we'll probably get it," he says.
Rail is indeed making a comeback nationally.
Given a mandate to break even by 2003, Amtrak has found new revenue sources, such as express mail and other cargo. This year, Amtrak expanded several lines and added others.
But that doesn't mean that Knoxville will soon be next.
Kevin Johnson, an Amtrak spokesman, says the company recently took a look at where there was strong demand for new routes. Knoxville was not one of them.
"We're willing to take a look at anything that makes sense financially." Johnson says. "If somebody could show us a plan that would result in an addition to our bottom line, we'd take a look at it."
While lots of people agree that trains are better ways of moving people, even many train buffs admit that getting it in East Tennessee is a tough sell.
Gulf & Ohio's Claussen, who started the Three Rivers Rambler, doesn't see the need.
"A hundred years from now, it may be so obvious that [starting a rail line] is what you do," Claussen says. "Today, I think it will be difficult to change people's patterns and get them to use it...You build it, nobody will ride it."
One problem (especially in terms of short-range rail transit) is you need to have clearly defined origins and destination points. "You need a point A and a point B. Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge is a destination. That's B. But there's no A. People come from all around to go there," Claussen says.
Or you could run a train to Atlanta, he says, but how will people get around in the sprawl city without a car once they're there?
An even bigger problem is it's simply too easy and too cheap to drive a car for a train system to attract people en masse. "You can pop on an interstate highway and get anywhere you want at any time of the day or night. That's tough to compete with," Claussen says.
UT's Jennings agrees that cars are tough rivals. The most important factor in picking a transportation mode is ease of use. But if other factorssuch as cost, time, comfort, safety, parkingbecome big enough burdens, more people will leave their cars at home.
"Time is not the reason people will take rail," Jennings says. "The reasons to ride a train are price, comfort, adventure, a fear of flying, and the feeling that in many ways rail is a more civilized way of traveling."
When rail is done well, plenty of people ride it, says Robert Stewart, a director of both the Tennessee Association of Railway Passengers and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which is a watchdog and advisor of Amtrak and lobbies for improved passenger service. "In parts of the country where Amtrak is run well, the problem is not enough riders, it's not enough equipment," he says.
Ascher says people are already getting fed up with cars. "I think the trucking industry is doing a good job of it now. How do you get from here to Knoxville and know you're going to get there on time?" Ascher says. "Today, it might take you 15 minutes, tomorrow it might take you an hour and 15 minutes. [The roads] aren't so reliable."
Ascher advocates starting small, with light commuter and transit rail in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburgso tourists there won't need their cars to get from attraction to attraction once they're there. He'd also like to see a rail run through the park. "We're killing off all the trees from the car fumes," he says. "Pigeon Forge is where it needs to happen yesterday."
Once such a system is up and running within the tourist towns, it could then be linked to Knoxville. And high-speed rail track could be laid from here to Chattanoogaperhaps right down the middle or alongside the interstates.
"You can afford to run a decent passenger service at a loss if what you're spending on highways could be used," Ascher says. "I think that's the way we should think today."
The only passenger train that touches Tennessee is the City of New Orleans, which goes through Memphis on its way back and forth between Chicago and its namesake. The closest Amtrak station to Knoxville is 101 miles away in Toccoa, Ga., which is on the 1,400 mile Crescent Line stretching from New York to New Orleans.
There are, however, a variety of ideassome of them serious, some of them perhaps only pipedreamsfor linking passenger rail to the rest of Tennessee.
* Nashville & Eastern's Drunsic is trying to reconnect the state's capital city with Knoxville and East Tennessee, proposing a 55-mile section of new track (which has a flatter grade and is less tortuous than the lost 22-mile section). Estimating a $2 million-a-mile pricetag, it would cost about $110 million total, Drunsic says. Although that seems high, it's considerably cheaper than a new highway, which averages $7 to $8 million a mile, according to Louanne Grandinetti of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Plus, the rail line could carry the load of 4,000 trucks a day.
Hoping to get federal and state aid in laying the track, Drunsic says the line would move both freight and people.
"With congestion on the highways and an aging population, as time goes by passenger rail is going to have a resurgence," Drunsic says. "It can be intimidating on the interstate. I think a lot of people would like a more relaxing way of getting back and forth between our major cities. If you're in Knoxville and you've got business in Nashville, do you want to drive and wear yourself out or sit on a train and read, relax, and get there in the same amount of time or less? To me it's a no-brainer."
* If Knoxville sees passenger rail return any time soon, it will most likely be thanks to the state of Virginia. Tennessee's neighbor is trying to extend its commuter rail west to Bristol, Tenn. The plan is to have two round-trips a day scheduled, with options of traveling to Washington or Virginia, says Bristol Mayor John Gaines. With a federal subsidy for the project in the works, Gaines is encouraged.
"What we're now trying to work on is instead of being the end of the line, getting it extended to Knoxville and Chattanooga," Gaines says. "The only thing that needs to be decided is negotiation with a rail company, and purchase of equipment for Amtrak."
"The hold-up in Tennessee is the state got a real late start," he adds.
Virginia is committing some $9 million to the projecta gift that Tennesseans could see some real benefits from.
"I really believe we'll see rail in Knoxville in the next 10 years," Jennings says. "Virginia is going to be the key. If they can get trains to Bristol, we'll see them here."
Amtrak can still run trains on anybody's tracks, but today it must negotiate with the rail lines over terms, which can drag on for years. Amtrak leases the tracks and often must agree to make improvements to them, Jennings says.
"On some routes, [rail companies] are very resistant to Amtrak. A lot of it is on a route-by-route basis," Jennings says. "If they have plenty of capacity, they're generally happy to lease that to passenger service. If they have no capacity, the last thing they want is to put a passenger train on there."
Connecting Bristol to Chattanooga holds promise because the linesowned by Norfolk Southernhave spare capacity, Jennings says, even though they need some improvement. It's also a popular travel corridor. "It connects on the north end with Amtrak's biggest source of businessthe D.C., New York, Boston corridor. It provides a tremendous population base on one end," he says. "Also, when you look at where Knoxville people go, an amazing number go to the Northeast."
* Another possibility is that Amtrak's Kentucky Cardinal, which now runs from Chicago to Louisville, could be extended into Nashville. The rail lines exist for this now, and Stewart says equipment currently sits in Louisville from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. "That equipment could be run down to Nashville and back in that time," Stewart says.
However, Jennings says it makes more sense to buy new equipment and extend the line through to Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and on to Florida. The big problem is that the track needs to be upgraded, he says. Currently owned by CSX, the lines already have capacity problems. Unless Amtrak or Kentucky and Tennessee are willing to spend money to add a parallel track, Jennings doubts that CSX would cooperate.
* Georgia hopes to become the test site for the radical technology known as maglev, and connect Atlanta with Chattanooga. Maglev uses magnetics to levitate and propel train cars over a guiderail. Traveling up to 250 miles an hour, maglev trains are quiet, have low emissions, and are much safer than other transportation modes. With no surface contact, there's less wear and tear on equipment. Plus, they can climb grades as high as 10 percent, while standard rail can only climb a 2 percent grade, tops.
Georgia is competing with six other states for a federal grant to build the country's first maglev system.
However, the new technology is extremely expensive: The first 40 miles of the Georgia line are expected to cost more than $1.5 billion, which breaks down to $37 million a mile.
In contrast, standard rail lines cost anywhere from $500,000 to $8 million per mile, but average about $1 million a mile. Although Japan and Germany are both testing this technology, there is no functioning maglev system anywhere in the world.
Because of the cost and novelty, Jennings thinks the project is ill-conceived. "The people that support maglev, they tend to hang out with people who support monorail. It's a high-tech, fancy game that looks very futuristic and Buck Rogers-ish. But we're not using [monorail] in too many places except Disneyland," he says.
Rather than spend billions upon billions on an unproven technology, Jennings advocates developing a basic rail systemwhich could create an interest and ridership base. When you have that, you can upgrade to newer technologies. "I'm not an enthusiast of maglev," he says. "It sucks money into a hole and hasn't produced anything yet."
* North Carolina is considering laying track from Salisbury to Asheville. "There's some discussion about bringing it to Morristown and Knoxville, and maybe farther west," Jennings says. "But right now with the state budget situation, there's probably not a lot of interest in funding these routes."
Tennessee is making at least some slow nods toward passenger rail. The state is undertaking a study of all its rail lines, to look at what's there, what's needed, and what's feasible, says Ben Smith, who oversees mass transportation at Tennessee's Department of Transportation. A contract for the two-year study will be awarded in August.
"It's our view that a rail passenger network is emerging in this country," Smith says. "We want to position the state of Tennessee to be able to participate."
But roads still rule in Tennessee. Of TDOT's $1.4 billion budget, only $32 million is dedicated to public transitabout 2 percent, Smith says. Nine million dollars come from the federal government and $22 million from the gas tax. All but $5 million of the money is spent funding the state's 12 city bus systems, Smith says.
"There is a bias towards roads inside TDOT and every DOT in the country," Jennings says. "The largest campaign contributors are the road contractors and the asphalt and concrete contractors. It's probably a very reasonable bias within DOT that you support what supports you."
The Metropolitan Planning Organizationa group of regional elected officials that plans for the area's transportation needsis also looking at alternatives to car travel. With $650,000 worth of grants that former state Sen. Bud Gilbert helped secure, the MPO and a consultant will examine options for 10 countiesincluding bike trails, vanpools, buses, bus rapid transit, light rail, and others. It will be completed July 2001.
Although many people scoff at the idea of building a light rail in East Tennessee, Gilbert says he's unwilling to rule anything out.
"America's love for the automobile is never going to change. But we have to realize that you cannot keep adding lanes to highways forever," he says.
While East Tennessee doesn't have much hope of building its own rail system, there are enough potential projects happening on the periphery that the region could build on.
"A lot of things are up the in the tree right now that may shake out," he says. "Those [other projects] could be a catalyst for things happening our way, so we have to be ready and have our facts straight."
In the meantime, Knoxvillians will have to settle for weekend excursions trips along the river or in Oak Ridge.
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