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VOL. 44 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 31, 2020

Could Nashville fit Amtrak’s new business model?

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Amtrak is flirting with Tennessee, batting its eyes and signaling its desire for a deeper relationship. We should jump at the chance.

Train travel is cool.

Officials from the passenger rail service made their pitch to legislators recently, proposing a new route from Nashville to Atlanta and an additional train to connect Memphis to Chicago.

Amtrak service in Nashville would be the first since October 1979 when the Floridian route between Chicago and Miami died in an austerity push. And Amtrak’s interest has given rise to talk of renewed service between Nashville and Memphis, which fizzled out even before the Floridian.

Any results would take years. But hey – we’ve started.

State Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville has filed legislation to direct the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations “to perform a study of the feasibility, cost and infrastructure of expanding passenger railroad service in this state.”

Over the summer, Powell told me, he attended a national conference of state legislators at which Amtrak had a booth that included a map of its service lines.

“Outside of rail through Memphis in the western part of the state, there’s no service in Tennessee,” Powell says. “I said, Hey, I’d love to see Amtrak service in Nashville and in Tennessee. Let me know if there’s any way I can help.”

It was a response born of long affection.

“I’m a lifelong lover of trains,” he explains. “I grew up interested in rail transportation and have always enjoyed whenever I’ve been in a city that had subway transportation or rail service.”

Last year, on a trip with his wife to London, “we saw the entire city and some of countryside on passenger rail,” he says.

I’ve done the same sort of exploration myself. Since 1982, trains have taken me to and through various scenic places in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain.

In this country, while in voluntary exile in New York, I used the Amtrak Northeast Corridor service to get to baseball outings in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

All of which pales in comparison to Jarod Pearson of Cowan, president of the Tennessee Association of Railroad Passengers, who estimates he’s put 47,000 miles on Amtrak and Rail Canada since about 1993.

“I love the train,” he tells me. “I can go on and on about it.”

And he does, to some extent. His affection is a long-running affair, too, dating back 30 years to when he began volunteering at the Cowan Railroad Museum at age 14. He came to appreciate how passenger trains were once the lifeblood of small towns like his in Franklin County and huge contributors to the culture and livability of the town.

He likes what he sees happening now and says he is somewhat optimistic about the chances for success.

“The reason Amtrak is bringing this up is, Amtrak’s existing network serves regions of the country that are not growing in population,” he said. “It is in Amtrak’s best interests to go where the population growth is.

“Their footprint needs to include states like Tennessee and Alabama.”

As for getting legislators on board, well…

“It will find support as far as people endorsing the idea,” he adds. “When it comes to dollars and cents, that’s a more complicated issue.”

No surprise there. The issue, Pearson says, is that Amtrak’s current rules call for routes of less than 750 miles to include funding directly by states. Getting Congress to modify or remove that requirement, he says, would go a long way toward getting expanded service in Tennessee.

The very fact that Amtrak has come calling here means the corporation, formally known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, believes it can make money in the region, Pearson says.

“Amtrak is rethinking its business model,” he continues. “That’s why they’re coming to Tennessee. This is not just a dream that somebody had. This is a business decision.”

To take advantage, legislators need to get behind the idea, as does the state’s delegation in Washington, he says.

“Congress has strong bipartisan support for a strong national rail system,” he says. “It’s one of very few issues in Washington that can bring people together.”

My. Doesn’t that sound like a welcome change.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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