While ridership on the passenger train WeGo Star plummeted drastically because of COVID-19 ramifications, work continues on planned projects related to the commuter train.

As riders stay home, projects such as the expansion of Mt. Juliet station parking, installation of new ticket vending machines and validators at all Star train stations, and replacement of eight passenger cars on the train are in full swing.

According to WeGo public transit information officer Amanda Clelland, the end of February had an average of 1,300 riders per day on the Star. Even post tornado in early March, daily ridership was just more than 1,000 once the tracks were cleared of debris, and service was restored. 

“With both the state and Davidson County Safer at Home orders, ridership dropped precipitously,” Clelland said. “For the entire month of April thus far, our daily ridership has averaged around 67 rides per day.”

Those 67 riders are spread out across two trains in the mornings and afternoons, so there is plenty of room for safe social distancing during the commute.

Mt. Juliet station parking begins

Work on the expansion of the Mt. Juliet station parking lot started two weeks ago. 

“We want Star passengers to know they'll be seeing work being done and that this work is not anticipated to impede access to the Star or train service in any way,” said Clelland. “This is all in an effort to use this time wisely and advance projects so our customers have something to look forward to.”

The project was approved and awarded to Mutual Contractors at the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee’s Jan. 15 board meeting. According to RTA meeting records, they authorized a project total not to exceed $2.1 million. Funding for the expansion of the parking lot is comprised of federal grants, matched with state and local funding.

According to RTA records, daily ridership at the Mt. Juliet depot increased 8% IN the last three years to 186 passengers each day, prior to safer-at-home measures. However, RTA officials said the current parking lot accommodates 163 spaces.

The goal of the project is to address the parking shortage by adding 99 new parking spaces, which will include three handicap accessible spaces. It is projected to be complete by January.

New fare collection project to start within two weeks

As part of the new fare collection project, platform work for the installation of the validators will begin soon in tandem with the Mt. Juliet parking expansion efforts. Once work at the Mt. Juliet station is complete, work will begin on the Davidson County train stations at Riverfront, Donelson and Hermitage and then on to the remaining Wilson County stations, which are Martha, Hamilton Springs and Lebanon. The particular entire project is slated to take about six months. 

“The RTA board authorized WeGo to enter into a construction contract with Stansell Electric Co., Inc. to install wiring to support the new TVMs and platform validators at all WeGo Star train stations,” said Clelland.

The project is funded in the capital plan with federal dollars matched with state and local funding. Clelland said the project cannot exceed a total cost of $450,314.

The new TVMs, when they are activated later this year, will issue reloadable fare cards and single-use tickets for use at the train stations and buses. Currently riders are issued paper magnetic cards, but with this addition, riders will be able to reload their cards with money at the TVM or add passes, according to Clelland. Each unit costs about $41,000.

“They have a relatively high cost because they are operating in an exposed environment and need to protect internal components against the elements, in addition to potential vandalism or tampering so transactions remain secure, Clelland said. 

Platform validators are the card readers riders will tap their cards on before the train. The TVM adds value or passes to the card, and then the validator deducts the fare upon boarding. The validators can also scan barcodes on a smartphone app that customers may have. Additionally, validators are already installed on WeGo buses. 

Replacing eight ‘new to WeGo’ passenger cars

Testing and cosmetic upgrades are ongoing on eight ‘new to WeGo’ passenger cars. This is happening in the Lebanon rail yard. 

“We’re evaluating the readiness of these passenger cars by testing all components while the cars are in the rail yard prior to being put into service for customers,” said Clelland. “Cosmetic upgrades include any interior repairs needed and branding the cars as WeGo.”

The eight refurbished cars will go into service all at once in early summer. Each has 140 seats per car, the same as the current passenger car seating. The RTA board approved the purchase for $5.6 million. The project is currently under budget. 

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