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Rail on a Budget: Nashville's Music City Star

With a total construction cost of $41 million, Nashville's 32 mile Music City Star is the most cost effective commuter rail start-up in the nation.

Published September 18, 2007 in Transit      21 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


The Music City Star is a regional rail service running between Nashville and Lebanon, Tennessee. The service uses the existing trackage of the Nashville and Eastern Railroad. The line currently has six stops: Riverfront Station (western terminus), Donelson, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet, Martha (Tennessee State Route 109 and U.S. Highway 70), and Lebanon (eastern terminus). The operation covers 32 miles (52 km) of rail line. Service began on September 18, 2006.

The Star is considered a "starter" project to demonstrate the effectiveness of commuter rail service to the metro Nashville area.

Expansion plans include four more lines, terminating in Gallatin, Franklin, Murfreesboro, and Dickson. All are planned to use existing CSX Transportation railroad lines. The planned five lines meet in central Nashville in a star formation, hence the name of the system, which also alludes to the city's many country music stars.

The Star's locomotives are EMD F-40 locomotives that were previously used by Amtrak. The passenger cars were acquired through federal transfer of interest from Chicago's Metra commuter rail system, originally built in the 1960's and rebuilt between 1999 and 2000. The color scheme is identical to Metra's.

Riders wait for the next train at the LebanonPark-n-Ride station, 32 miles outside of downtown Nashville.

The line is mostly one track, so this limits arrivals and departures to how long each train has to wait for the other to pass. The first "starter line" cost $41 million, which made it the most cost effective commuter rail start-up in the nation.

By comparison: San Diego Coaster, $91 million for 41 miles; Seattle Sounder, $860 million for 33 miles; Salt Lake City FrontRunner, $360 million for 43 miles; and New Mexico Rail Runner Express, $125 million for 29 miles. Locally, JTA's Bus Rapid Transit system comes in at a whopping $750 million for 29 miles of buses that we'll be able to use 20 years from now.

Did we mention that Jacksonville is denser than Nashville?

2000 Jacksonville Urban Area: 882,295

2000Nashville Urban Area: 749,935

Difference: Jacksonville +132,360

2000 Jacksonville Urban Area Density: 2,149.2 residents/mile

2000Nashville Urban Area Density: 1,740.9 residents/mile

Difference: Jacksonville +408.3 residents/mile

For more information:

The "No-Frills" approach: 5 ways to keeprail construction costs down

1. Take advantage of what you have. Use existing rail and city owned right-of-way, when available.

2.Don't double-track immediately. To get a system off the ground, consider single tracking rail corridors and providing passing sidings when necessary. You can always expand in the future as demand grows.

3.Simplify station design. Rail stations can be just as simple as bus shelters. At-grade stations with small covered shelters aresuitable.

4. Consider used rolling stock. Rail has been around for over 100 years. You don't always have to purchase the latest, greatest, and most expensive railcars. Give a neighboring American city a call. They may have a surplus of something you can use and will give you a deal to get it off their hands.

5. Public / Private relationships. Like roads, rail benefits more than just riders. It also increases the value and visibility of property in surrounding areas adjacent to track and rail stops. Considering that stations don't have to be anywhere as elaborate or expensive as the Skyway's, there may be private entities out there willing to fund stops adjacent to their properties because of the benefits they will recieve.



September 18, 2007, 07:47:34 AM
I like where your heads at with the "no frills approach."  It makes alot of sense with the mayor's impending budget "crisis."


September 18, 2007, 08:10:24 AM
The apt word that comes to mind is....DUH.  Nuf said.


September 18, 2007, 08:34:11 AM
Actually, you want to know exactly how much those Chicago Metra railcars were purchased for?  Anyone have a guess?


September 18, 2007, 09:04:47 AM
The were free right?


September 18, 2007, 09:05:06 AM
The East - West route of the Nashville and Eastern (former Tennessee Central) was not even their first choice or heaviest corridor. The City first approached CSX with a proposal to use their North - South (coal) mainline. The traffic on CSX plus the extra costs of laying 2nd and 3rd track was much higher. Nashville planner were discouraged when Nashville and Eastern came along and said, "Such a deal..." They got 20+ miles of used and abused former TC mainline rebuilt to passenger train standards and the City got it's starter rail.

Could "such a deal" be had with CSX in the yard limits of Springfield - Airport? Would First Coast Railroad (Nassau County line - Fernandina Beach) be attracted to make us an offer we can't refuse? What about the FEC? Jacksonville has many more railroad options then Nashville, San Diego, Tampa, Orlando or Miami. What we don't have is a creative Rail transit agency, beyond any "Authority" of JTA. We need a TRANSIT AUTHORITY that does TRANSIT, and let our Transportation Authority, do highways.



September 18, 2007, 09:49:48 AM
Actually, you want to know exactly how much those Chicago Metra railcars were purchased for?  Anyone have a guess?

$1 Dollar a piece!

By far the most bargain-priced aspect of Nashville's rail starter line project has been the rolling stock – 11 bi-level coaches obtained from Chicago's Metra regional passenger rail agency for $1.00 (yes, that's one dollar) apiece. These are high-floor cars, currently being adapted for (internal) ADA compliance. Platform access for mobility-impaired passengers into the car will be provided by pedestal or "mini-high-block" platforms. Each train will consist of two or three passenger cars, each coach seating about 155 passengers. Push-pull operation will be powered by several ex-Amtrak E-8 units (although how many is currently unclear), costing $200,000 each.

[Nashville City Paper, 7 January 2005; Greater Nashville Regional Council, 21 Jan. 2004; WBRY, 18 March 2002; photo: N. Long]


September 18, 2007, 09:51:44 AM
more info on Nashville's bare bones starter rail.

More and more US cities are finding various forms of regional passenger rail – so-called "commuter rail – a viable option, under the right circumstances, for introducing rail transit service on a relatively low budget ... and Nashville, Tennessee is a case in point. Beginning this past November, workers started re-laying about 80,000 feet of track as part of the rehabilitation and infrastructure improvements needed to implement a 32-mile, Nashville-to-Lebanon "commuter rail" line. More trackwork is expected to take place within the next two months.
[WKRN-TV, 2004/11/04; Nashville City Paper, 7 January 2005]

While, as a "heavy" intercity-type railroad project, this is certainly not "light rail", the Nashville project does suggest what can be done on a tight budget with a "can-do" attitude and a determined approach to minimizing design and containing costs. At a budgeted cost of $39 million for the 32-mile line, including infrastructure rehab, stations, maintenance facilities, and rolling stock (including minor renovation), this rail project is about as bare-bones as they come (about $1.2 million per mile), and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is taking pains to keep costs contained. Known officially as the East Corridor Alignment (it heads almost due east from Nashville), it's a single-track line (with a passing siding at one station), owned by the Nashville and Eastern Railroad Authority, that will share operation with freight trains. The project includes track rehab with 110-lb rail; installation of 6 very rudimentary stations; and sharing of a maintenance facility with the current freight operator. (See map below.)

[Greater Nashville Regional Council, 21 Jan. 2004; map: RTA]


September 18, 2007, 09:58:42 AM
Push-pull operation will be powered by several ex-Amtrak E-8 units

This is weird, how old is this piece Ennis? The E-A - E-9 diesels were retired in the 1970's, most have been long since scrapped. They are beautiful, but old, road warriors. I see in the photos, they have ex-Amtrak F-40's, a much newer and super good locomotive. If they really do come up with "E" units, they will create a sensation in the Railroad world, and an instant tourist attraction. The down side is the performance won't be up to the F-40's standards. Another trick is using the "E's" as a control car on the push end of the train. Thus all that comes into play is the engineers controls and not the prime mover (engine). Long Island uses several old locomotives that have been gutted of engine and generators for control cars.



September 18, 2007, 10:23:57 AM
The images were taken within the last year.  The Nashville system opened last September.


September 18, 2007, 03:16:12 PM
How much development can be attributed to the line?


September 18, 2007, 07:33:43 PM
NONE, my hometown is Murfreesboro, and it's between us and Gallatin for the next leg of the railline, which probably won't happen until around 2010. Wilson County, the first leg, now has the longest commute of the whole Nashville-Murfreesboro MSA, they use I-40. Outside of Nashville, Franklin, and Murfreesboro, no other communities have their own public transportation system. The good thing is, as stated, this whole system will use tracks already in place by CSX. The Nashville-Lebanon leg uses a local Nashville to Lebanon rail line, if I remember correctly, called Nashville & Eastern. Unfortunately, the "eastern" leg only met its 1st year goal of around half. The 2 counties that would actually have success are Rutherford(Murfreesboro), and the Williamson(Franklin) legs, which are the 2nd and 3rd most populated counties in the MSA respectively, with a possible extension from Franklin to Columbia.


September 18, 2007, 08:28:13 PM
How much development can be attributed to the line?

It appears that this development, located in the suburbs will be the first:

Wilson officials hope train riders stay to shop, eat, live

Lebanon project tries to create destination


Staff Writer

LEBANON — The time passengers generally spend at the Music City Star train stations — a couple of benches and a platform — is about as long as it takes to get from the train to their cars.

But city officials in Wilson County hope to give train riders a reason to hang around with a mix of retail, restaurants and dense housing that would put the Music City Star at the center of a destination in itself.

"All it will take is one transit-oriented development and you would at least quadruple the ridership on the Music City Star," said T.K. Davis, design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center.

While ridership on the Music City Star isn't likely to reach its goal of 1,500 daily riders by its one-year anniversary next month, officials say the customer base is steadily growing. An average of 634 trips were taken on the Music City Star in June and July, Project Manager Allyson Shumate said.

"We'd like to see something with higher-density housing that's closer, as well as grocery stores, retail, restaurants and things that go a long way toward supporting the residential area," Shumate said.

The transit-oriented development concept has taken hold in places such as Portland, Ore., and the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where homes and restaurants near the trains are meant to encourage walking or using public transit.

With plenty of open space and a nearby mill complex, the areas around the Music City Star stations are considered ripe for change.

Mill project holds hope

In Lebanon, a French cafe and wine bar is set to open within a few weeks inside The Mill at Lebanon, a mill-turned-commercial-complex that's within walking distance of the train. The building is designed to accommodate a hotel and spa, lofts, restaurants and commercial kitchens, said Diane Parness, spokeswoman for The Mill at Lebanon. A bicycle rental shop and ice cream store are planned for an outdoor plaza, she said.

The development could be a good introduction of higher-density development for Lebanon residents, Planning Director Magi Tilton said.

"When you have a rural county where large tracts of land are still farmed, people can be a little wary of density," Tilton said. "This is still a concept we're trying to get our hands around."

An elementary school once stood in a now-empty lot across East Division Street from the Mt. Juliet transit station. There are no buyers on the county-owned land, but city officials have rezoned it for development as a commercial town center.

"Imagine the heart of the city with food, foot traffic, shops with loft-style apartments above them," said Kenneth Martin, economic development liaison for the city of Mt. Juliet. "The train won't do anything but help that."

Plans include riverfront

If plans to improve the Nashville riverfront near the train station pan out, Davis of the civic design center said, there could be plenty of reasons to stick close to each of the east corridor train stations.

"If it happens, it's what's you dream for," he said. "You get the transit line put in, which in turn helps structure compact and relatively dense growth for the region."

Occasional train rider Dave Miller, of Nashville, said he would enjoy the experience a lot more if there were at least a place to get a quick cup of coffee near the station.

"With the proposed development and improvements to the riverside location down there, you would at least think that they would encourage folks to take the trip to Nashville and make the place more inviting," Miller said.

Growth along public transportation routes also is part of the new strategy Cumberland Region Tomorrow is pushing. The nonprofit planning group sees developing along existing infrastructure — highways and public transportation — as key to keeping transportation options available.

"Looking at opportunities in downtown Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and other points, we can frame the development in a way that it's designed to support the transit," said Executive Director Bridget Jones. "Any time a community or region limits mobility to one mode, one type of infrastructure, what else are we supposed to do?"


September 18, 2007, 08:31:15 PM
This looks like an interesting development....I can imagine one of the older vacant brick warehouses in the Mrytle Street area or Springfield Warehouse District, being converted into something like this, if the S-Line is used as a part of a mass transit system.

Nestled at creek's edge, The Mill at Lebanon will soon be Middle Tennessee's favorite destination for shopping, dining, one-of-a-kind events and big-city loft living in a country setting. Join us as we unfold a new layer in The Mill's rich heritage.



September 19, 2007, 12:13:04 AM
I think this sort of regional commuter rail puts the cart before the horse.  I think it would be best to start with local light rail and then tie into this the commuter rail system out into the hinterlands.


September 19, 2007, 12:36:45 AM
Riverside Gator, welcome aboard compatriot, glad to find you here.

I think I have a way we can do both, and still get out the door for less then 1/4 to 1/2 the projected cost of the BRT. I agree that light rail downtown is a vital part of ANY rail plan if it is going to work. If you would like, i'll post or send you some links and information on the "plan" as I see it.



September 19, 2007, 07:26:43 AM
I think this sort of regional commuter rail puts the cart before the horse.  I think it would be best to start with local light rail and then tie into this the commuter rail system out into the hinterlands.

I think rail is so diverse, it should not come down to a traditional light rail (ex. Dallas' DART) or commuter rail (Nashville's Music City Star) option for Jacksonville.  Instead, I'd suggest studying the potential of a hybrid system, such as Austin's Capital MetroRail or New Jersey's Riverline.  Both of these systems have trains operating on freight railroad tracks.  They also provide service like light rail in denser areas of their communities and act more like commuter rail out in the hinterlands.  Incorporating such a system in Jacksonville would allow us to eliminate portions of the BRT plan, saving hundreds of millions of dollars, without having to spend more constructing a parallelling traditional commuter rail system, as proposed by JTA.

RiverLine route map

In Trenton and Camden, the RiverLine provides light rail like service with several stations located within blocks of each other.  However, in the rural areas between it acts more like traditional commuter rail with stations spaced far apart.

Austin MetroRail

Capital MetroRail (currently under construction) incorporates the same "no-frills" ideas to cutting down implementation costs, while putting a different type of rail vehicle and service on their existing tracks.  They call their hybrid commuter rail system "urban commuter rail".

This is a good way to get something up and running in a relatively short time frame if you live in a community facing a budget crisis that may not be willing to pay for the additional costs of dedicated right-of-way and electrifying lines across Jacksonville from the start.


September 19, 2007, 09:12:55 AM
Why does it seem that every similar metro area to us has commuter rail and we still don't?


September 19, 2007, 09:27:56 AM
That's a good question for JTA.  However, not every metro our size has some form of rail or is planning on having it pretty soon.  Jacksonville along with Louisville and Richmond are the three largest metropolitan areas in the United States with no rail rolling on the tracks or no real rail transit improvement plan already in place.  So in our effort to become a global force, we along with two slowing growing cities that have seen better days lead the pack in the fight to become trendsetting powerhouses.


September 19, 2007, 09:44:38 AM
I think another aspect of public transit that is usually overlooked is the safety record. Everyone is so intent on staying safe from terrorism, meanwhile they hop in their car and drive around, completely ignoring the fact that 45,000 people die each year in this country doing exactly that. Transit is over eighty times safer than riding in a car. The death rate for automobiles is .85 deaths per 100 million miles, while for transit it is .01.

How many people are killed in Jacksonville each year due to traffic accidents?

big ben

September 19, 2007, 06:58:54 PM
i think this sort of regional commuter rail puts the cart before the horse.  i think it would be best to start with local light rail and then tie into this the commuter rail system out into the hinterlands.

maybe.  it's hard to tell for me, since i don't know nashville.  i do know of people that commute an hour or more to the central part of a city for work.  if these people happen to live in a largely populated suburb or large, nearby non-burb, it might be beneficial (perhaps like st. augy). 

and if the tracks are existing and using used equipment would be significantly cheaper (factoring in added fuel costs for these monsters of transit), i'd see no problem with it.  i kinda wonder how they couldn't find similarly used light-rail trains, though.  do they wear out quicker?  surely someone with a name signed in large purple font would know.


September 19, 2007, 09:17:13 PM
Large purple font here Ben,

No they don't wear out quicker. I have photos of a 100+ year old snowplow equiped Interurban (LRT) car clearing the track in Maine, this past winter. The FTA (Federal Transit Administration) applies a 100 year life to the LRT plant and 30+ years to the cars themselves. Since rail equipment comes under different rules, once it's rebuilt it just keeps on running.

I have a large desk fan, that weighs about 10 pounds, that I found in an old church. I cleaned it up, removed 20 coats of paint, reattached a few wires and bingo, it runs like Moodys Goose and blows a hurricane. I share this story because that big motor is built the same way as a electric traction motor on a LRT. When I went to put the old plate on the bottom of the fan I noticed a big metal stamp... It says, "GENERAL ELECTRIC, NOV 1911."

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