An Amtrak train in Roanoke. Bristol officials have been working to get the passenger rail service that runs through Roanoke extended to their city. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

A commission tasked with studying the potential for passenger rail service in Tennessee will recommend that the Tennessee Department of Transportation determine the cost and technical requirements needed to implement service from Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol, the commission’s research director said in Bristol on Thursday.

Bristol officials who have been working for decades to bring passenger rail back to the city have been collaborating with their Tennessee counterparts in hopes of getting service to and through the city.       

However, the Bristol line won’t be the top recommended route. Mark McAdoo, who works for the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, said it will be a tier two recommendation, as will a Memphis-to-Nashville route. The first tier recommendation, which will be the priority, will be from Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta, and the tier three recommendations will be Memphis to Chicago via Carbondale, which is already operating but could be expanded, and Nashville to Louisville, Kentucky, he said.

McAdoo was part of a panel that participated in the “To and Thru Bristol Rail” forum held by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. The event drew more than 100 people to the refurbished train station in downtown Bristol.

Thursday’s panel included (from left) Dan Pallme, assistant chief of environment and planning director of the Freight Logistics Division of the Tennessee Department of Transportation; Mark McAdoo, Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations; Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation; and Santiago Cruz-Roveda, with the Federal Railroad Administration. Photo by Susan Cameron.

The purpose of the forum was to discuss where Bristol is in its decades-long effort to bring passenger rail back and what’s next. The city’s last passenger train ran on May 1, 1971.

City leaders who have been trying to persuade Virginia officials to extend passenger rail to Bristol have been encouraged recently to get Tennessee on board the effort because rail projects that involve more than one state are viewed more favorably.

The panel included two Tennessee officials, McAdoo and Dan Pallme, with the Tennessee Department of Transportation; one from Virginia, Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and chair of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority; and a federal official, Santiago Cruz-Roveda, with the Federal Railroad Administration.

Currently in Virginia, Amtrak passenger rail extends as far west as Roanoke, with plans to add service to the New River Valley in 2026.

Virginia’s 2022 rail plan includes no funding for extending service beyond the New River Valley. But the study by Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation does state that it hopes to partner with Tennessee to expand passenger rail through Bristol.

A 2021 analysis of extending service to Bristol by DRPT said it would cost at least $535 million and likely take until at least 2030.

The Tennessee study recommends that the state’s Department of Transportation collaborate with the Virginia DRPT to identify opportunities to maximize the viability of the Chattanooga-to-Bristol route and Virginia’s efforts to go to and through Bristol.

It also recommends that the department establish its own office of Rail and Public Transportation, or otherwise provide staffing resources to oversee and manage passenger rail, as Virginia has already done.

The study recommendations will be presented to the commission June 28. 

Cruz-Roveda explained the Federal Railroad Administration’s new Corridor Identification and Development Program, which he said will help implement passenger rail corridors throughout the country. It will result in a national passenger rail map that will be released around October, he said.

According to the FRA’s website, the program is a comprehensive passenger rail planning and development program that will create a “pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects ready for implementation.”

Bristol has applied to be part of the program, and Cruz-Roveda urged those attending to send letters of support.

As Norfolk Southern freight trains noisily passed by the train station several times during the forum, a couple of people noted that officials with Norfolk Southern and CSX should be part of the discussions, since passenger rail would be dependent on using their lines.

DeBruhl said Virginia rail officials are in constant contact with the railroads, and she said the conversation with them about bringing passenger rail to Bristol will be long and delicate.

Chamber President and CEO Beth Rhinehart and several others mentioned the need for collaboration and partnerships — and for patience, because it could be years before passenger rail is back in Bristol.

“Have you ever seen a train start when it’s in the station?” asked Tennessee Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. “It starts out very, very slowly. … But one thing about the train is once it gets going, it’s candidly very difficult to stop. And I think that’s where we are now.”

A new website dedicated to Bristol’s efforts to get passenger rail back was unveiled Thursday:


Correction June 23: Sen. Jon Lundberg’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It has been corrected.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...