A glimpse of the old Tennessee Central

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Music City Star train at the Nashville station in early April 2018. Kevin P. Keefe
Bilevel commuter trains and short lines normally don’t have much to do with each other. That is, unless you’re standing on the station platform of the Music City Star on a nice spring afternoon in Lebanon, Tenn.

That’s where my friend Dave Busse and I found ourselves earlier this month. We were in Nashville for a few days, attending the annual convention of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. But the lure of Nashville’s unusual commuter train got the best of us, and so we grabbed an Uber ride out to Lebanon to catch the 3:55 for the 29-mile ride back into the city.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes a nifty little commuter train rolled into view, its two former Metra bilevels running in push mode ahead of an F40PH. We had only moments to photograph the train before the conductor gave the highball. Standing in the aisle a few minutes later, he did something I hadn’t seen in awhile: he punched our tickets by hand, the old-fashioned way.

The Music City Star might be unique among so-called heavy-rail commuter haulers, dependent as it is on a bona fide short line, the Nashville & Eastern, to serve its approximately 1,200 daily riders. The N&E was formed in 1986 during the first big wave of post-Staggers short lines, and it prospers today, partly because of its relationship with the Star. But more on that in a moment.

One of the reasons Dave and I headed for Lebanon was to travel the original line of one of the South’s celebrated railroads, the old Tennessee Central. Formed in 1893, the TC had a good run for most of its 75 years, hauling a lot of coal out of the eastern part of the state. At its peak, TC operated over 284 miles of track, including a key branch that ran northwesterly 85 miles from Nashville to Hopkinsville, Ky.

For most of its history TC operated with an interesting collection of steam locomotives, including some ex-Norfolk & Western 2-6-6-2s, but it really began attracting photographers in the 1950s, when it was home to a collection of classic Alco diesels. Among the gems on its 31-unit roster were a bunch of RS3s, five RS36s, a pair of C420s, and six FA1 and FB1 cab units.

Tennessee Central's Nashville shop in April 1962. J. Parker Lamb
Among the many shooters drawn to the TC in its last years was J. Parker Lamb, who lovingly portrayed the Alcos on just about every stretch of the railroad. Note the two excellent examples here, showing three hood units led by an FA creating a cloud of exhaust as they climb through a tight cut near Lebanon, and a family portrait of Schenectady power at rest in the TC roundhouse.

The Tennessee Central went out of business in 1968, some of parceled out to various Class I railroads, some of it abandoned. Today, the best piece — 130 miles of the old main line extending east from Nashville — survives as the N&E, which busies itself with a traffic mix typical of the modern short line: rock, sand, plastic pellets, and steel.

The commuter train arrived in 2006, owned by the Tennessee DOT and operated by its Regional Transit Authority. Today it runs six trains a day, four between Lebanon and the downtown Riverfront Station in Nashville and two that flip between Nashville and Mt. Juliet, 20 miles from the city. It’s strictly a rush-hour operation, except for trains that run each way late on Friday night.

There appears to be a successful coexistence between the Star and N&E’s freight operations. “It works well,” says N&E General Manager James Craig Wade. “We just give them a three-hour window in the morning and another one in the afternoon, and that works for everyone.”

Things certainly seemed to mesh the day Dave and I took our ride. Although the Star’s equipment is modest — it appears those old C&NW cars haven’t changed much since the days of Ben Heineman — the coaches are comfortable. The old green vinyl seats have held up well, and when you settle in it’s like you’re back in Chicago on the 5:15 to Waukegan.

Dave and I weren’t content to stay in our seats, though, and once underway we took up the preferred position at the front of the cab car. There, rushing at us through the window, was a railroad that’s anything but the North Western in Chicago. The entire ride I kept thinking of an old Trains magazine headline: “When it’s shortline time down South.”

Tennessee Central Alco FA No. 801 and three RS3s struggle to lift a freight upgrade near Lebanon, Tenn., in May 1962. J. Parker Lamb
The N&E in commuter territory is smooth and fast, but also folksy in its way, wandering hill-and-dale style along a right of way that curves over fills, dives through steep cuts, slices intimately through the old towns of Hamilton Springs, Mt. Juliet, and Hermitage, and rumbles across substantial bridges over the Stones River and Mill Creek. Thanks to millions of dollars in public investment, the track is generally in excellent condition, but the modest, twisting old TC engineering screams “short line.” I can’t remember riding a commuter train as delightful as this.

Although our westbound afternoon train was mostly empty, we were heartened to arrive in Nashville and see a large crowd waiting to board once our train became an eastbound. Hundreds of commuters were in the queue at Riverfront, evidence of the Star’s steady climb in ridership.

I hope most of those same people turn out next week, on May 1, the day Nashville holds a referendum on a $5.4 billion proposal to expand transit, including the extensive use of light rail.

I don’t know Nashville very well, and I have no idea whether the referendum will pass. There certainly are powerful interests aligned against it. But I also got a taste of the city’s traffic on a late afternoon, across not only the 30-mile stretch of I-40 out to Lebanon but also on some arterial streets. It would be an understatement to describe the congestion as ridiculous.

Whatever happens, I hope the Music City Star keeps rolling. It has obviously found a market for at least a small slice of the metro area’s commuting public. And whether they know it or not, those passengers are privileged to be riding one heck of a short line — the historic Tennessee Central — a railroad author Gary Dolzall once described as “worthy of acquaintance.”

Even if it was only 30 miles of the old TC, Dave and I were glad to make that acquaintance.

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