A streamliner in middle Tennessee

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, May 23, 2017

If you are along the former Tennessee Central line east of Nashville on a Saturday between spring and fall, you might chance to see an apparition from a half-century ago: a long, gleaming stainless steel streamlined passenger train, complete with a dome car, pulled by a 1953-built ex-New York Central E-unit. You can even buy a very affordable ticket and ride on it on a round-trip from Nashville to a picturesque small town along the route, with eating and shopping to be done downtown during a two-hour layover. This is the excursion service run by all-volunteer crews of the Tennessee Central Railway Museum (TCRM) and hosted by the Nashville & Eastern Railroad, a Class III short line.

The TCRM excursion train winds eastward through Lebanon, TN on May 20, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I had the opportunity to take the museum’s 87-mile round-trip (43.5 miles each way) to Watertown this past Saturday while in Nashville for a rockabilly music festival, along with a diverse group of around 550 fellow passengers spread out over 12 coaches. The train departed the museum, situated along the Cumberland River just southeast of downtown Nashville, at 9:00 AM, laid over in Watertown from 11:30 to 1:30, and returned at 3:00.  Each coach had two volunteer car hosts. There were also snack and souvenir sellers, along with a conductor, assistant conductor, engineer, brakeman and switchman for a total crew of about 30. 

This particular trip also happened to be a train robbery-themed excursion, with members of a local acting troupe dressed up as Wild West bandits who pretended to rob the train as it came to a stop just west of Watertown and had several “shootouts” (firing blank shots) with the sheriff’s deputies on the streets of Watertown. Other themed trips the TCRM runs include wine trains (including ones whose destination is an on-route winery with which the museum partners), yard sale and harvest festival trips, murder mystery trains, Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine, and a North Pole Express.

The museum owns, or borrows from private owners, an impressive assemblage of 1950s-built streamlined passenger cars, mostly of Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe heritage by way of Amtrak, with two ex-UP, one ex-Pennsy, one ex-New York Central, and one ex-CB&Q. All have been re-lettered “Tennessee Central” on the exterior. The interiors are mostly as rebuilt by Amtrak: 1970s red and yellow striped upholstery with leather-like headrests, brown rubberized floors and signage in grey Helvetica lettering over brown, “No Smoking” signs where a panel can be slid to cover the “No,” and dump toilets. But some reminders of the Santa Fe heritage remain, including southwest Native American-inspired designs between the windows in some of the coaches. 

The privately-owned Spirit of Tennessee car, part of the TCRM excursion consist, seen at the museum in Nashville. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
One car is a short ex-Northern Pacific (by way of Amtrak) dome-coach with 20 seats in the dome and 40 seats in the lower level. There are also two dining cars (with the former kitchen area now used as a snack bar), two lounge cars with short swivel seats (one with a currently non-functional piano keyboard once used on Amtrak’s Montrealer), and a baggage car converted into a souvenir shop. At one end of Saturday’s consist was a head-end power car with generators roaring. At the other was a private car named “Spirit of Tennessee” owned by one of the directors of the museum.

Most of the N&E line used by the TCRM trains is also used by the Music City Star, an 11-year-old, weekday peak-hour, peak-direction-only commuter rail service sponsored by the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee and operated and maintained by crews of N&E subsidiary Transit Solutions Group under contract. The 31 miles used by the Star, as far east as Lebanon, were upgraded to FRA Class 3 track with jointed rail, on parts of which the excursion train tops out at 50 mph. East of Lebanon, the line becomes FRA Class 2 jointed rail with the excursion train generally not exceeding 25 mph. In spite of only having trains stop there maybe six times annually, Watertown’s well-maintained passenger platform is in better shape than many served daily by Amtrak, with lighting, benches, porta-johns and an adjacent shelter. The platform stands along a siding, allowing the locomotive to be run around the train on the main line to reverse direction.

TCRM's EMD E8 No. 6902 reversing to the other end of the train at Watertown, TN on May 20, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
A TCRM crew member told me that the lion’s share of the proceeds from each ticket sold go to the N&E in track access fees negotiated between the museum and the railroad, which have a good working relationship. Before the railroad acquired a major freight customer within the last two years, the museum was the short line’s biggest customer by revenue, I was told. Relying heavily on volunteer labor helps keep the museum’s costs low, so it can afford to charge affordable fares while paying the N&E what the host feels is a fair price.

The trip was pleasant and comfortable, and I spent most of it taking advantage of the permission to ride in the vestibule with the Dutch door open, in spite of the day’s heat and humidity. One of the car hosts in my car (the lower level of the dome) was a charming girl about 10 years old who knew a lot about the train and the route. I talked with the train’s engineer while in Watertown and he invited me to join him in the cab while the crew performed some switching upon the return to Nashville, which was fun, in spite of getting completely soaked by a line of thunderstorms that passed through as the work was finished.

The TCRM does a commendable job of coordinating its excursions with three en-route towns to make for complete one-day getaways and of putting together entertaining theme trips. It may not have an operating steam locomotive, particularly unusual equipment, or spectacular scenery, but it makes up for it with broad marketing, good customer service and effective partnerships with on-route destinations. A trip on its train should be included in a weekend visit to the Nashville area. In fact, a ride all the way to Cookeville (as far east as TCRM trains go) and back will be included as part of the itinerary for this year’s National Railway Historical Society convention in Nashville, June 20-24.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.