Florida East Coast Railway Studied for Potential Intercity and Commuter Services

Florida East Coast Railway Map» State applies for stimulus funds to connect Jacksonville and Miami; a Miami-West Palm Beach local service also possible.

In addition to submitting an application for $2.5 billion in funds to speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, Florida asked the federal government earlier this month for some $268 million to restore Amtrak service to the state’s east coast. If the Department of Transportation chooses to reward money to the state, trains could be running between Jacksonville and Miami twice a day on renewed tracks in a few years. A new commuter rail system between Miami and West Palm Beach could follow soon after.

Today, Amtrak serves Miami with two daily trains, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, both of which originate in New York City. The Meteor runs between Jacksonville and Miami on a relatively direct route through Orlando and West Palm Beach, taking 9h32 to complete the Florida segment. The Star meanders, heading to Tampa after Orlando before retracing its steps back to the east coast, increasing journey times between Miami and Jacksonville to 11h10, if the trains are on time. Both routes terminate at the Miami station, which is far northwest of downtown.

In the car, by contrast, the 350-mile trip takes five and a half hours.

The Florida East Coast Railway, however, may hold the keys to better Florida service. Built in 1885, the line is privately owned and used for shipping, having last served passengers in 1968 when it was shut down due to insufficient ridership. It connects to five intermodal terminals and hosts dozens of daily freight trains. Between West Palm Beach and Miami, the line is roughly one mile east of the existing Amtrak route, making it closer to the densely populated coastline. In addition, it passes directly through the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Boca Raton. Further north, trains link Palm Bay, Daytona Beach, and St. Augustine, none of which currently offer Amtrak.

Minor upgrades of the line would provide new service to 12 stations along the coast, serving 8.3 million Floridians living in 11 counties; initial estimates show the route would attract 250,000 annual riders. The Miami to Jacksonville run would be reduced to only six hours. The section between Miami and West Palm Beach would offer new commuter rail service to complement the existing Tri-Rail operations running further to the west in a parallel alignment.

A more comprehensive refitting of the line, which would require double and triple tracking, would cost $5 billion and include forty to sixty stops. That project, however, is nothing more than a pipe dream since Florida’s main priority at the moment is Florida High-Speed Rail, whose second phase would connect Miami to Orlando in a new right-of-way following either I-95 or the Florida turnpike. It might be worthwhile to consider integrating that project with the east coast plan by using the existing Florida East Coast Railway for high-speed services between Miami and Cocoa, where some trains would continue north to Jacksonville and others could run west to Orlando. Freight operations might be shifted to the less-convenient-for-passengers Amtrak route.

Florida’s attempts to get funding from the federal government may stall out, however, if the state doesn’t take seriously recent threats by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood has made clear that he expects the state to contribute to rail project funding if it wants Washington to reciprocate. Though his comments have generally been directed at the SunRail project, which was awarded a New Starts funding guarantee earlier this year but lacks state support, they could also be interpreted in the case of Tri-Rail, which has had fiscal problems of its own. The commuter rail system lacks a stable revenue source and has as a result been forced to raise fares, partially resulting in a quick decrease in ridership at the system’s 18 stations. A new transfer charge to switch to local buses hasn’t helped much, either.

The state may convene a special legislative session in December to consider allocating funds to SunRail and Tri-Rail, but legislators have been reluctant to poor money into such public transit operations. We’ll see whether the appeal of high-speed rail funds from Washington is enough to convince them otherwise.

At the local level, investments in a new commuter rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach would likely raise the ire of Tri-Rail supporters, who would be (for good reason) afraid that the new line would take away many of Tri-Rail’s existing riders. The east coast route is more convenient for more people than is Tri-Rail. Will the services co-exist? Will the affected counties be able to afford operations on both lines?

Despite the attractiveness of new rail service, then, it is unrealistic to envision Florida investing in East Coast service unless the federal government steps in.

Image above: Florida East Coast Railway map, from FEC Railway

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Woody

    If everything is relative, this project looks good. Only $300 million investment gets another 250,000 passengers within two years from today? Compare to the North Coast where $1 Billion and five years — three times the funds and twice the time — gets an estimated 350,000 riders. So it looks good on ROI. Maybe more info will emerge to show how that would stack up on the farebox recovery rankings.

    the Florida East Coast route seems to have something for everyone — those who believe passenger rail should be a national system, those who are only interested in HSR lines, and for those who most desire high-volume commuter routes to replace auto trips.

    The line could feed passengers to the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star (while providing another reason to extend the Palmetto from Savannah to Jacksonville where it, too, could connect) as well as feeding whatever takes the place of the Sunset Limited to New Orleans. It could take tourists on the slower train through the shore cities to Miami where they could hop aboard HSR to Orlando before heading home. It could provide infrastructure to increase the reach of commuter rail. It could even provide a few passengers (and some political support) for transit systems in Jacksonville and Miami and mid-point cities as well.

    On its own the East Coast Line should fit well with a large demographic of retirees ready to use trains now that their bodies don’t fit so easily into those tiny airline seats but who admit they shouldn’t be driving long distances.

    Politically it gives something to the swing state of Florida — and to Ranking Member John Mica of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It gives the big Florida delegation a good reason to support a major order for equipment to modernize and expand its fleet. Without new railcars, the system can’t really begin to grow — for what will be the first time since Amtrak was formed in 1971.

  • MadPark

    While I agree with your sentiments, Woody, but it really is time for the Governor and the Legislature (and counties and cities) if FL to show some green and some spine on issues of intercty rail. Until then, why bother rewarding FL for having done nothing and spent even less.

  • david vartanoff

    “having last served passengers in 1968 when it was shut down due to insufficient ridership” is technically correct but misses the real history. In 1963 a very angry strike occurred including bombings attempting to discourage the replacement workers. The Atlantic Coast Line which at the time ran through New York Miami trains on FEC tracks south of Jacksonville shifted route in order to keep running. That was the real end of FEC passenger service. Getting union ATK trains onto a one company union FEC will be a delicate dance.

    • Woody

      You explain why this route probably will NOT soon become an extension of the Palmetto, which currently ends in Savannah rather than in Florida. Maybe they could bring the Palmetto on down into Jacksonville, then let riders make a cross-platform transfer to the newly revived NEC train. A “delicate dance” by some for sure.

  • And still no word from Tallahassee on the return of the nations only transcontinental passenger train the Sunset Limited, truncated by Amtrak east of New Orleans since Katrina. Without that link we have no national passenger rail system and Amtrak has lost it’s mission as the national passenger rail corp.
    One now must travel via Washington DC to get from tLA, on the west coast to Florida. What kind of connectivity is that?
    I doubt Gov. Crist has the foresight, like Gov. Jindal, to support HSR and call a special session or if the Florida politico’s would show up if he did.
    And I regret that the quest for high speed rail has put the developement of a long distance national passenger rail system on the back burner.
    We are trying to run before we have learned to walk.

  • Andrew In Ezo

    “We are trying to run before we have learned to walk”

    I understand the sentiments of long distance passenger rail advocates, who feel their (real and immediate) concerns for more investment in legacy passenger rail are being ignored for what may be to them the “flavour de jour” of HSR. However, I think it is essential to fully fund and develop at least one HSR system (California’s, basically) to serve as a showcase to the national public. The difference between true HSR and a current Amtrak long distance train is like night and day- akin to someone getting out of a Ford Model T and stepping into a 2009 Mercedes, not to mention infrastructure. One ride on HSR will make fence sitters and even many skeptics believers in passenger rail- I guarantee it. And that will have a beneficial spillover effect to connecting Amtrak long distance and regional services.

  • Nikko P

    One critical piece of information that I noticed was missing here is that Orlando, FL is far and away the most active non-Auto train Amtrak station (Tampa is second).

    http://www.amtrak.com/pdf/factsheets/FLORIDA08.pdf

    Using the FEC route means cutting out the most active segment of the Florida segments of the Silver Service and instead using only two weaker endpoints. Other than serving the St Augustine – Port St. Lucie coastal segment, there really aren’t so many practical benefits. Shortening Jacksonville – Miami times is nice, but there isn’t much point if that isn’t so strong a market to begin with.

  • Nikko P

    As far as FEC routing from WPB – Miami, however, I really believe that should have been selected at Tri-Rail’s beginning instead of the CSX route, given its more central locations to the ‘downtowns’ of South Florida.

  • Woody

    Nikko P — Isn’t the plan for the FEC to be a third route for the Sunshine State, in addition to the Silver Star and Silver Meteor?

    It would seem to cry out for the Palmetto to be extended from Savannah down to Jacksonville, for those who want to connect and transfer. But Orlando already gets service and the small cities along the Atlantic shore do not. And when or if the Sunset Limited is restored east of N’awlins in some fashion, that route, too, will serve Orlando.

  • If Florida is willing to subsidize the Jacksonville / Miami run on the East Coast, and can’t get their act together on local transport connections for Express HSR, then it seems a likely consolation prize.

  • Nikko P

    Woody — That’s possible that the Palmetto could be extended to Miami via the FEC. I was just under the impression that they would reroute the Silver Meteor to bypass Orlando.

    Frankly though, I’m not sure if the investment is worth it. The money might be worth more bang for the buck if it were spent on an HSR system between Orlando, Tampa, and South Florida (and not the current system they are proposing mind you). But if money can be found for both, I don’t see why not.

  • Nikko,
    One thing that I have noticed is that as you increase frequency on a line (Amtrak’s NEC and Keystone are great examples of lines that have increased frequency and also increased ridership to the extent that both lines are funding themselves or are close to that point) you will get a significant increase in ridership, that will(hopefully) mitigate the effects of pulling passengers from the long distance corridors (Meteor, Silver Star) and possibly provide more incentive (due to increased amount of connections) for people to take those routes, knowing that there is going to be a connection that will get them where they want to go. Wow…ultra run on sentence!

    For example, in Lawrence, KS, where I am from, you could take Amtrak to Kansas City, but would have to wait hours before the KC Mule heads to St. Louis, thus making it a difficult trip considering drive time is 4 hours. If frequency was increased and schedules were coordinated, the trip would seem much more realistic thus attracting more riders.

    This is part of the problem with Amtrak to begin with. Congress is unwilling to spend any more money than they have to on the service, yet they are unwilling to get rid of it. You end up with a far inferior product that becomes the whipping boy of anyone on the right side of the political aisle, yet they know that they can’t get rid of Amtrak as that would be a politically poor idea. If service was expanded on popular routes with good endpoint transportation solutions (local transit), I would imaging that those routes would be less of a drain and more than likely potential money makers, especially in a place such as S. Florida, where density already exists in many places.

    Your point about extending the Palmetto to JAX is a good one and again could be seen as a boon to ridership if the right connections are made. Also, there is nothing wrong with a long distance daily route such as the Palmetto service sharing a line with a more frequent local service such as the FEC is meant to do. You would only be increasing the frequency of trains through the area and making rail transit more feasible for passengers, giving them more options to choose from.

    My 2 pennies.
    Scott

    • Woody

      Scott — The Lincoln service St Louis-Springfield-Normal-Chicago is another great example where greater frequency made for a better-than-breakeven success. When the route went from three trains a day to five each way — a 66% increase — ridership went up by more than 100%.

      To Missouri’s credit, in the first go around they asked for stimulus money to buy a Talgo trainset and run three River Runners instead of the current two daily. Maybe they will get it in the next cycle — or if the Party of No in Ohio derails the 3-Cs and that money needs to move to another swing state or two.

    • Ocean Railroader

      That was one of the big promberms I ran into when I used Amtrak if they would run more trains it would get rid of these three to five our waits where you get hung up at the train station. Waiting around a train station in some strange city for five hours is not a pleasent thing to go though.

  • Thad

    The FEC corridor should have been used as the primary route for Tri Rail, but they used the CSX route because it is closer to MIA, FLL, and Palm Beach airports. HSR service between Miam and Jacksonville isn’t really necessary; there is more traffic between Miami and Orlando and even Tampa because of the theme park attractions, business and the west coast beaches.

  • Thad

    I also would like to say it does not take 5 1/2 hours by car between Miami and JAX, it’s like 8-9 hours, nearly as long as the train,especially if you take 95 because there is always construction somewhere along there. You would have to drive like 100 to make it in 5 1/2 hours.

  • Richard Alexander Duda

    @Thad: about travel time Miami-Jax, you’re just plain wrong. I lived in WPB, 300 miles from Jax, and with LEGAL 70 MPH speed limits and travel at 9 over the limit (which FL State Troopers will NOT stop you for–it’s in the traffic code), the WPB to Jax trip is EXACTLY 4 hours. WPB to Miami is 66 miles. Do the math. That adds an hour, maybe 75 minutes, plus another fifteen here and there, which is 5.5 hours.

    TriRail, which I rode only out of DIRE NECESSITY, is an abortion and a joke. Travel time from WPB (downtown, the ONLY downtown served! Also of note, there USED to be a “PBI” Airport station on Belvedere Road–CLOSED. Now you need to go downtown WPB, and take a bus or a cab. STOOOPID.) to the Miami “Metro-Rail Transfer” (which is ACTUALLY IN HIALEAH, for CRIPES SAKE!) takes nearly 1.75 HOURS. That’s NEARLY DOUBLE THE TIME, if there’s no or typical traffic. (At not-so legal speeds, I’ve driven from Mid Beach, Miami, to Delray, 15 miles south of WPB, in 37 minutes!)

    What should be done about Florida rail is different for each corridor and each purpose. Tri-Rail, as it exists now, west of the now freight-only SAL/ACL line, should be upgraded for HSR use Miami-Ft.L.-WPB-Okeecobee-Sebring-Orlando, with ALL intermediate stations other than MIA (airport, which is not getting a Metro-Rail branch!), FLL, and WPB >ELIMINATED<.

    LOCAL Tri-County service should be brought EAST to the SAL/ACL line, which is WALKING DISTANCE to the Intracoastal, where the majority of SE FL people live. Also, they should have at least passing sidings or a 3rd reversible express track, for "limited" service, stopping ONLY Miami, Ft.L., (maybe Boca Raton, maybe Deerfield, maybe Delray) and WPB. BTW, another irony of having only FREIGHT service on the SAL/ACL is that while waiting on "The Quadrille," where nearly ALL PalmTran buses turn or terminate, you are literally standing on what used to be the easterly passenger station, watching long freight trains barrel through and not stop, tying up traffic!

    If you want to get real sexy for the tourists and get locals of the OVER-CROWDED and ABYSSMALLY SLOW PalmTran Route 1 bus (always less than 2 blocks from the SAL/ACL), put light rail outside the SAL/ACL heavy rail, and stop at Indiantown Rd (Jupiter), PBGardens, Blue Heron (Riviera Beach), 45th, PBLakes, Clematis, Belvedere, Southern, Forest Hill, (ALL in WPB) 17th N., 10th N., Lucerne/Lake, 6th S. (all in Lake Worth), etc., all the way to appropriate turning points.

    Amtrak should upgrade the Jax-Sanford-Orlando-Tampa line, and keep ONE Silver Service train on that route. The other should STILL go thru Orlando, then back SSE thru Sebring, Okeecobee, WPB, etc., to Miami, but at 45th Street/Mangonia Park (TriRail's current northern terminus) it should switch to the SAL/ACL easterly line, and run express. If the Sunshine state wants to PAY for Amtrak service thru Jax, St. Augustine, Cocoa/Canaveral, Melbourne, Daytona, etc., then they will have to do a 403 agreement. Or, let FLDoT run a Jax-Miami SAL/ACL service to augment and feed a revised & upgraded Amtrak service at those endpoints ONLY, with local riders switching to easterly local and/or "limited" trains at WPB or Miami.

  • Richard Alexander Duda

    @NikkoP: See my other post, and replace “SAL/ACL” with “FEC.”

    The Amtrak service to Tampa STILL needs to go through Orlando–that should NOT change. What SHOULD change is Miami trains going ALL THE WAY to the Gulf Coast, in to Tampa, then a reverse move OUT of Tampa, onto a wye, and THEN BACK past E.N.E. past Lakeland and ONLY THEN, turning south-southeast toward WPB and Miami. That, again, is an abortion. And needless torture. Taking WPB & Miami Amtrak pax thru Orlando is not so bad, but DON’T force SOME of Amtrak’s Miami & WPB pax (one of the two Silver Service trains) to go through that, because they are NOT likely to do that again, especially if they started in the Northeast (PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA) where the through time to Miami gets to be 28, 30, 31, 32, 36 hours. That’s pretty sadistic, considering you could drive it and spend a night in a hotel, rest 8 hours, shower, have meals seated, pay for the motel and gas, have money left over (if you bought a sleeping car accommodation, you arrive broke) and do it in less time.

    Use DC as the example, because north of there the NEC trains are going 110, 125, 135 MPH most of the way, so you can NOT drive from NYC to DC faster — under three hours. (225 Miles)

    BUT… as soon as you go south of the Potomac, the service grinds to a halt in comparison. That’s probably why those Palmetto people are not going to want to stay on that train to Jax. The other reason is that NC $upport$ the service with 403 funds. SC, GA, and FL do NOT do that. And THAT is why you don’t have Palmettos to Jax; why you still have no Jax-NOLA service, even though it was the ONLY Amtrak service to the Flah-ree-DUH state Capitol, Tallahassee. FL doesn’t want to pay for it, it’s abysmally slow, and the connections are AWFUL. It used to start in Miami, which made some sense, but for some reason, (maybe that it takes twice as long as driving, I don’t know, maybe THAT could be IT!) they cut it back to Orlando, and, as others have stated very well, if you have only one train each way every OTHER day (The Sunset “Limited”–yes, limited SPEED, limited SERVICE DAYS, limited LIFESPAN…) it just makes no sense. And, so, it died.

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