» Pushing to establish a foothold in a potentially profitable market, Amtrak suggests it could begin running trains between Miami and Jacksonville in a couple of years. But will it get the lucrative high-speed contract?
Though Florida’s 84-mile high-speed rail project to connect Tampa and Orlando has gotten most of the attention recently, having received a $1.25 billion stimulus grant, the state’s largest metropolitan area remains on the back burner when it comes to improved train operations. High-speed rail services could theoretically reach Miami by 2018, but with a more than one billion dollar gap in funding for the first phase and a completion date of 2015, the Gold Coast can be expected to wait quite a few more years for true high-speed services.
Existing passenger services are miserable. Today, the fastest train between Jacksonville and Miami takes more than nine and a half hours, a consequence of a circuitous route that includes a jaunt west of Orlando. And Florida’s east coast north of West Palm Beach and south of Jacksonville — despite its relatively dense population — remains entirely unserved by passenger rail.
On Saturday, though, Amtrak made a show of its interest in running faster trains to Miami, opening the possibility of better services even before high-speed rail is implemented.
The state has been working for several years on restoring service along the Florida East Coast Railway, which runs a direct route from Miami to Jacksonville. In 2009, it asked the federal government for $268 million in aid to restore trains to the route (not seen since 1968), but Washington dismissed the idea, despite the fact that it would reduce running times to six hours and increase annual ridership by 250,000. At an average speed of about 60 mph, it wouldn’t exactly be high-speed, but it would be no slow-poke either.
Tri-Rail, south Florida’s commuter rail agency, has suggested it would run services between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach along the route, leaving its current, less-convenient operations in doubt.
The federal Department of Transportation’s rejection of aid for the East Coast corridor hasn’t dimmed hopes for proponents of the line, and on Saturday Amtrak ran a “test” train along the entire route, completing the trip in 8h30. The national rail operator’s board chairman Thomas Carper suggested that the company would be able to start operations within “a couple of years” — if financing for necessary track improvements can be lined up. The state intends to apply for a second round of intercity rail grants later this year, with the east coast investments topping the state’s priorities.
Having received so much money the first time around, however, Florida may not get what it wants now considering the intense rivalry from other states.
Amtrak’s show of interest in operating the route provides a window into the company’s thinking on its role in the future of American train travel. Though it faces stiff competition from a variety of private organizations interested in funding the potentially profitable Tampa-Orlando high-speed line, Amtrak has repeatedly put its name out as the natural future operator of the state’s trains. With its display this weekend on the East Coast Corridor, it is attempting to show that only it has the capability to run passenger trains in the United States. Amtrak has made clear that it is willing not only to invest in profitable corridors such as the one between Tampa and Orlando, but also that it wants to improve services on the state’s less popular lines.
None of the foreign companies in line for the high-speed contract has demonstrated any serious interest in the East Coast line. We’ll see whether Florida bites Amtrak’s bait when the state chooses an operator for the high-speed line next year.
The Tampa-Orlando project has a number of problems that remain to be resolved, even dismissing the system’s huge budget gap. The state’s current plans would provide no service into downtown Orlando or Lakeland, and Orlando’s planned SunRail commuter system does not connect with the high-speed trains according to current plans. These issues must be resolved, or the opening of the nation’s first true high-speed system will be marred by inconvenience and low ridership.
Fortunately, the route appears to have the support of both the Republican and Democratic Party front-runners for the Governor’s seat, a toss-up this year now that current governor Charlie Crist (an Independent, but a Republican a month ago) has moved on to the Senate race. Mr. Crist, unlike his predecessor Jeb Bush, has been a proponent of investment in passenger rail.
But the East Coast Corridor has a number of issues an order of magnitude more difficult to overcome if the state expects to get service between Jacksonville and Miami. In December 2009, the state called an emergency legislative session to ensure the future of the SunRail system (and guarantee itself federal funding for intercity rail), in which it agreed to assume all liabilities for train accidents along the route from track owner and freight rail operator CSX. This was a bit of a giveaway to that company, since it will force the state to take responsibility for any problems that occur on the line, even if they’re the fault of CSX.
The high-speed line, to be almost entirely constructed in the median of Interstate 4 in a publicly-owned right-of-way, faced no similar obstacles.
This deal was made in the state’s worst interests but it was necessary to get commuter rail operations going because of the intractability of CSX, which has proven itself willing to take complete advantage of the government’s growing interest in passenger rail. Unfortunately, the Florida East Coast Railway, the private company that owns the Miami-Jacksonville corridor, wants the same deal. Considering the heated opposition to increased rail investments from certain parties in the state, it’s unclear whether the legislature would approve such a contract — and it’s not even obvious that it should, since Florida set for itself a bad precedent.
Until negotiations about track rights are completed, the feasibility of east coast services remains unresolved. But Amtrak may have used this opportunity to wiggle itself into the driver’s seat of the state’s high-speed trains.