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