Jay Fox stood close to a FrontRunner platform as a pair of commuter trains locked in place behind him, replicating a modern form of the famous "Wedding of the Rails" photo at Promontory Summit taken nearly 154 years ago.

While FrontRunner service came about 139 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, its origin is connected to the famous moment in U.S. history through the lines these two trains are on. The line dates back to Brigham Young, who approved a railroad line from Salt Lake City to Ogden in 1870 so that the newly-formed Utah Central Railroad could link up to the much larger transcontinental service.

"That's this railroad," says Fox, executive director of the Utah Transit Authority, looking back at the parked trains.

The line ended up in Union Pacific's hands in 1878 and remained a piece of its freight corridor for over a century before the company sold the right-of-way to UTA, which became a pivotal moment that paved the way for FrontRunner to begin. The commuter rail service officially turned 15 Wednesday, prompting Fox and UTA employees to celebrate the start of a system that continues to grow in popularity along the Wasatch Front.

The agency also outlined its future plans for the system, which include service frequency increases, Sunday service and expansion to more cities in the not-so-distant future.

"We are FrontRunner, tied through history to a railroad envisioned by Brigham Young, built by Utahns of the past, connecting us to today, and creating a dynamic and exciting tomorrow for our region and our state," Fox said.

How FrontRunner came to be

FrontRunner's story began well before UTA ran its first commuter train.

UTA first tested a locomotive on the rails in 1998, as the agency began to outline a 30-year long-range transportation plan that included commuter rail service, said Carlton Christensen, the chairman of the UTA board of trustees. Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties all passed a sales tax measure to help finance transit projects two years later.

"This was a wise move and an extraordinary community investment," he recalls.

Two years after that, UTA acquired about 175 miles of railroad right of way from Union Pacific for $185 million, the line originally created by the Utah Central Railroad. The purchase allowed for a future commuter rail, light-rail expansion and a trail system between Payson and Brigham City, the Deseret News reported at the time.

FrontRunner began collecting riders six years later, using a portion of the possible route. The first trains ran from Salt Lake City to Ogden, with five additional stops along the route. Service from Salt Lake City to Provo began a little more than four years later, helping expand the current route to 83 miles.

Its popularity continues to rise as Utah grows. On average, more than 12,000 people rode the train every weekday last year, and the total FrontRunner ridership since 2008 is expected to surpass 50 million this year, according to UTA.

"It's become a really critical part of our transportation system," said Teri Newell, deputy director of planning and investment for the Utah Department of Transportation.

This is just "FrontRunner 1.0," though, Christensen says. The wheels are in motion to make major improvements in the future, which will ultimately create what he calls "FrontRunner 2.0."

Looking at 'FrontRunner 2.0'

Double-tracking is the next step in FrontRunner's future. The Utah Legislature approved $300 million toward laying down tracks next to the existing line, while another $316 million for double-tracking is included in President Joe Biden's proposed 2023 budget.

UTA officials say they are currently working with UDOT to analyze the "potential locations of these double track segments" throughout the system, doubling the amount of double-tracking that currently exists. It may sound small but they say it has the ability to unlock 15-minute service, faster commute times and allow UTA to run FrontRunner on Sundays on a regular basis.

The agency is currently unable to run trains faster or have frequencies less than 30-minute service because 75% of the service line is single-tracked, meaning trains are sharing the same line in both directions.

This is also why trains don't run on Sundays, aside from special occasions. Fox explains that there isn't enough space for trains to get past maintenance workers at the moment, so the agency holds off all its maintenance to be conducted on Sundays.

"So when we get to 50% double-tracked, it means that we're going to be able to maintain (rails) during the week, which means that we'll be able to do service on Sunday," he said. "Sort of the untold story of the effort to double-track is the fact that we will be able to do Sunday service, which is really exciting for us."

But don't expect those changes overnight. He told KSL.com that if all goes as planned, the massive $966 million double-tracking project may be completed as early as 2028 or 2029. Part of the project also involves purchasing more locomotives and cars for expanded service.

Meanwhile, UTA is also looking into extending FrontRunner farther south and farther north than its current route, utilizing more of the right of way that it acquired in 2002. Future plans call for service to Payson and Brigham City by 2040, though the timeline is less clear for either expansion.

Fox said the agency is still working with Union Pacific to clear up the final hurdles before FrontRunner can reach Utah County communities south of Provo. The agency is also acquiring property north of Ogden so it can eventually reach Brigham City without any constraints.

At the same time, UTA is also looking at alternative fuels to power future FrontRunner trains, including electric or hydrogen engines.

"It'll all be (figured out) in the next couple years," Fox said, "as we dig in with UDOT and decide with what's best for us ... in the future."