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Chattanooga taking the lead in restoring passenger trains to route including Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis

From the Chattanoogan: Chattanooga, a railroad hub since before the Civil War, is taking the lead in bringing back passenger train service that wa

From the Chattanoogan: Chattanooga, a railroad hub since before the Civil War, is taking the lead in bringing back passenger train service that was halted in the early 1970s.


The city earlier this week issued a Request for Qualifications seeking expert help in working out new passenger service between Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis.


The study will be funded by a $500,000 federal grant that was received in December 2023, from the Federal Railroad Administration.


Ellis Smith, of the mayor’s office, said an expert team will be working out a budget for the ambitious project as well as determing which existing rails can be used and where new rails and stations will be needed.


He said, “Chattanooga is the lead applicant for a consortium of cities that include Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis as part of the federal Corridor ID process. The working name for the project is the ‘Sunbelt-Atlantic Connector.’ A successful project will require close collaboration with our partners at the state level in both Tennessee and Georgia, as well as with planning organizations across both states, and with our Class 1 rail host (in this case CSX). We are currently in the first phase (scoping), which will establish the project’s economics and inform the planning, engineering, construction and implementation phases to come.”


He said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly is an enthusiastic supporter of the project and has been working closely for several years with mayors of the involved cities as well as the Tennessee and Georgia Transportation Departments.


Mr. Smith said most of the affected lines will be those currently used by CSX for freight service. He said, “CSX has been a great partner” and is actively cooperating.


Several locations are under consideration for the new Chattanooga train station, he said. The station would likely be placed by an existing CSX line and have the capability for connection with the airlines, taxi and bus service.


The grant provides funding for the initial scoping phase of the program referred to as “STEP 1” at 100 percent federal share and enables continued funding from FRA for subsequent phases of the program without reapplication, provided all requirements of each phase are met.


The Request for Qualifications is being conducted as a two-part request for both STEP 1 and the future STEP 2 phase, though each phase will be contracted and executed separately.


The city of Chattanooga, due to the nature of this work and anticipated future needs, is encouraging firms to partner or consider subconsultants to best meet the services needed.


Mr. Smith said, “This is not a maglev project. A maglev/high-speed train would likely require all-new right-of-way, engineering and construction, which would add billions of dollars and many years to the timeline. Instead, this will be a regular-speed passenger rail system that leverages existing railroad tracks that already connect our cities, with the idea that we will be working in partnership with the Class 1 railroads to explore whether and where additional construction is needed to make passenger rail possible.”


Concerning the length of the project, he said, “The Corridor ID process is ‘on rails,’ so to speak, in that if we follow the prescribed steps in each phase, we will continue onto the next one, eventually resulting in passenger rail. However, each project is different and the steps can vary in time based on engineering and economics.
“We’ve allowed up to two years for the Step 1 (scoping) phase, though it could be completed sooner. As part of the scoping phase, we’ll be building a budget for the next phase, in which we’ll be working with the railroads to create a service development plan, i.e. what needs to be built or improved to allow passenger rail. The following phases will encompass engineering, construction, and finally implementation.”
Mr. Smith said passenger service has been successfully restored in sections of Virginia and North Carolina as well as Pennsylvania and Florida.
He said, “As part of this scoping process, we will be deriving best practices that most closely match our use cases here in Tennessee and Georgia.”