Today is Monday, August 21, 2017

Commuter train continues to pick up steam

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By KEN BECK, The Wilson Post
The way Susan Wilkins and 1,225 other daily Music City Star riders see it, theyre on the right track. The Mt. Juliet resident has been commuting to Nashville for the past 4 years. Riding, rather than driving, has given her plenty of time to count the many blessings of being a passenger.

Theyre too numerous to tell, said Wilkins, who serves as an ideal cheerleader for the Music City Star, which celebrated its fifth anniversary Sept. 18. First off, the convenience. Second, the ease of travel. I dont have to worry about traffic or idiots on the road. I am conserving gas, wear and tear on tires and wear and tear on me.

I am not contributing to the congestion in Nashville. Even the bus systems have improved with the advent of the train, because so many more people are riding the train now. Almost every week, you are seeing new people on there.

Indeed, ridership on the commuter train has increased about 150 percent, from 104,785 riders in 2007 to 250,626 riders in 2011. This past June, the Music City Star set a single-month record for ridership with 26,989 passenger trips, which represents a 53 percent increase from June 2010.

I think this is one of the things that Nashville needs because the parking and traffic is horrendous down there. I get home about the same time, but the experience has been so much more pleasant, said Wilkins, who works at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Lee Strader, a 2000 Lebanon High School graduate, began taking the train nearly five years ago.

I rode it for six months every day. I didnt think it was going to make it, said Strader, who is glad that it did.

Every Wednesday morning the artist pedals his lime green bicycle 3 miles to Lebanon Station on Baddour Parkway and rides the train into Nashville where he sells vintage clothing.

I love the train because it shows you a part of Middle Tennessee that you dont normally get to see, said Strader, who doesnt have a car.

His foot-powered bike and the diesel-powered train serve his transportation needs for now, plus hes found fringe benefits via the Music City Star.

I took a girl on a date on the train to a little ice cream place in Nashville. We had a blast. To someone whos never ridden on a train, its like your first time on an airplanewhoa! he said with a grin.

Conductor Brad Thompson welcomes riders as they board the three passenger cars in Lebanon at 6:40 on a weekday morning. An earlier train departed here at 5:45 a.m. In the cab at the back of the train, Engineer John Kreynus has his hand to the throttle. The two men, along with a dispatcher in the Lebanon office, handle all the chores necessary to get this train to Nashville, and the Music City Star ranks high in the nation for getting its passengers to their destination on time.

Averaging 45 to 50 miles per hour along the main line during its 50-minute trip to Riverfront Park in downtown Nashville, the train may speed up to 60 miles per hour in a few stretches.

The engineer of 2 years also controls three or four different brakes and keeps busy working the horn whenever the Star approaches a street. Two long blasts, one short and one long warn cars that the train is about to cross the road.

Kreynus joined the crew in 2006. You see something different about every day, said the Baltimore native whose life-long ambition was to work on a train. Its not the same routine.

The train jaunts along, shimmying down the line as the horn blows frequently. From Lebanon to Riverfront Park is a journey of 31.4 miles. Concrete markers, put up in 1971, mark each mile along the route.

The tracks are 56 inches wide, and the gallery cars, which have an upper deck (from this perch, passengers can enjoy the scenery from 10 to 12 feet above the ground) and came from the Metro line in Chicago, are 10 feet wide and 85 feet long. They seat more than 140 passengers. This train can accommodate 430, and 364 are aboard this second train from Lebanon this morning. Until the Star hit these rails, it had been 50 years, going back to August 1955, since passengers regularly rode the Tennessee Central from Lebanon to Nashville.

If one were riding the Tennessee Central in 1920, then a few miles west of Lebanon, he would spy the Horn Springs Hotel north of the tracks and the Hamilton Springs resort to the south side. While both have been long gone for years, should Lebanon developer Jack Bells new Hamilton Springs project develop as he plans, it will become Tennessees first transit-oriented development.

The Star shimmies alongside roadways, and as it passes north of Mt. Juliet Elementary, passengers peering out the window may observe a long line of vehicles backed up as parents drop their children off at the school. Most riders are not sight-seers.

The commuters commune in groups of two, three or four. Some sew or read the newspaper. Others talk quietly on cell phones, manipulate iPads or catch a nap.

The time flies on the train. Youre sitting there talking about your day or telling jokes. I see people knitting, crocheting, reading, working on laptops, all kinds of different things, said

Sheila Varga, who began commuting in November 2006 to her job at Louisiana Pacific, between 4th and 5th Streets and Union, where she is an inside sales associate.

Varga, who drives 4 miles each morning to board the 6:05 a.m. train in Mt. Juliet, has become such a rail enthusiast that she serves as president of the Middle Tennessee Regional Commuters Association, which formed in 2009.

I absolutely love it. I dread the thought of even having to drive into work. I think maybe Ive driven a total of five times since I began riding all the way in, Varga said.

As for the main advantage, she said, Its the cost. I save about $250 a month. For me, my company subsidizes part of our tickets on a ride/share plan. I pay about $60 a month before taxes.

Most riders pay $10 a day for a round trip from Lebanon to Nashville. A monthly pass offers a 5 percent discount. But its more than saving money.

Its a whole lot less stress, and you get to make a lot of friends, said Varga, who has built a circle of about a dozen friends from the commuter community.

When she first began riding, she estimates there were about 60 train passengers. Today, its more like 1,225 daily. They reside not just in Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, Hermitage and Donelson but also in Gallatin, Hartsville, Watertown, Alexandria and Smithville.

As for the Commuters Association, she described it, noting, We are kind of a passenger liaison with the MTA/RTA, and our main goal is to study and find funding for the train and public transportation in general. Were more geared toward trying to keep the train going, but we do a few social things. We try to do something once a quarter, she said.

Regan McGahen and her son, Matthew, 3, have been riders from Lebanon for 2 years. She works for the State of Tennessee in the Department of Environment and takes her child to a church-run daycare downtown.

We absolutely love it, McGahen said of the daily rail journey. We enjoy the people and not having to sit in traffic and not having to pay for gas. My son makes lots of friends. People take care of him.

Safety is No. 1 in everything. We want to keep the passengers safe, the crew safe and equipment safe. Thats our No. 1 goal, safety, said Terry Bebout, general manager of Transit Solutions Group, the contract operator of the Music City Star.

The ride in is a pleasant one with stops between Lebanon and Nashville that include Martha, Mt. Juliet, Hermitage and Donelson. Much of the trip is made in the shade as trees line the tracks.

At one point the train spooks a flock of a dozen turkeys as they take flight from the tracks.
Between mile points 14.2 and 17 lies Tennessees only quiet zone, thus the engineer lays off the horn. Here there must be extra protection at the grade crossing.

The Star crosses over the Stones River in Donelson as well as Briley Parkway a few miles closer into town, and then passes the old brick Metro Waterworks just a couple of minutes before chugging into Riverfront Park between the Cumberland River and First Avenue near the towering Pinnacle building and half a block from Broadway.

Once the train stops, morning commuters pour from the cars and either walk or take buses and vans to their workplaces.

Gordon Borck, who lives less than a mile past the Wilson County line in Smith County, began taking the train more than four years ago. His drive to his job at Vanderbilt was a 98-mile commute. He chooses to ride for a variety of reasons.

One is I save money. Vanderbilt pays part of my fare, he said. Two, I think it is socially responsible to pull your car off the road, if possible. It cuts down on emissions, and the less fuel we use, the less dependent we are on foreign oil. I think its good for the environment and good for the country.

Just a lot of people win when we ride the train. It takes me a half-hour longer to get to work, but I use the time on the train to work or make phone calls, and I use that time efficiently. If it were just for me, I would drive, but I think its the best thing to do for everybody involved. And since its there, the more people that ride it, it takes the burden off the taxpayers, Borck concluded.

As for the future of the Music City Star, Bebout said, I think we want to continue to see the service grow and add more cars to the existing trains but adding more trains to offer more servicesin our case, the more trains, the more convenient.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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