Amtrak Florida High-Speed Rail

Amtrak Studies Florida East Coast Railway Service as State Advances High-Speed Rail

» 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.

Florida High-Speed Rail

How Does Lakeland Fit into Florida’s Strategy for High-Speed Rail?

» Nation’s first true high-speed line, in Central Florida, will serve Lakeland on its way between Tampa and Orlando.

After receiving $1.25 billion from the federal government last month for its planned 84-mile high-speed line, Florida is virtually guaranteed to offer the first true fully high-speed rail service in the United States. The state’s project, which will cost about $2.6 billion to complete, will connect the state’s second and third largest metropolitan areas with frequent service along the I-4 corridor. About three million annual riders are expected by 2030.

Though the focus of the system has been on its Orlando and Tampa terminals, it will also serve Lakeland, which will account for about half of all intercity riders. Florida must focus closely on the specific design of its route and stations to ensure the success of the system. Thus, making the right decisions about where the Lakeland station will be located and how the surrounding area is developed is essential.

The choice to build the new rail system along the Interstate highway corridor will make the system relatively easy to implement; the state is unlikely to face delays caused by NIMBYism, since the route is already used by hundreds of thousands of drivers everyday. In addition, the corridor is already wholly owned by the public and a median will allow the construction of an elevated guideway on the majority of the route between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport.

The highway allows a fully independent right-of-way, unaffected by grade crossings and free from the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules restricting the use of fast trains in shared freight and passenger rail corridors. Heavier vehicles (such as the Amtrak Acela) are significantly more expensive and have diminished performance compared to their lighter European peers, which the FRA will only allow to operate in fully separated rights-of-way.

Yet the selection of the Interstate corridor has its own major negative consequences. For one, it means no direct access to downtown Orlando. According to Florida Rail Enterprise’s Chief Operating Officer Nazih Haddad, there is no room in the median of I-4 near Orlando to allow the trains to enter. Meanwhile, the use of existing freight tracks is impossible because it would require removing all freight service from the tracks because of the decision to use non-FRA compliant rolling stock.

Therefore, no connection to Orlando’s center city is planned until the system extends north to Jacksonville in the future. A connection south to Miami is prioritized for now.

Nor is a direct connection to downtown Lakeland planned, despite that city being just off Interstate 4. Florida could improve the existing tracks and run trains directly into the center city, but that solution would engender similar problems as those experienced in downtown Orlando.

As a result, Lakeland will get a stop, but it will be somewhere in the median of I-4. Exactly how it’s implemented will determine whether the network’s projected ridership will play out as expected, and whether trains will be able to induce the kind of spin-off development for which affected cities hope.

Transportation board members in Polk County — whose largest city is Lakeland — weighed in this week on the county’s planned station; it will get only one, at least for now. They agreed unanimously to prioritize a stop at the intersection of Interstate 4 and Polk Parkway, where the University of South Florida Polytechnic is planning a new campus, in the midst of what can only realistically be described as rampant suburban sprawl. The University’s master plan for its new campus won’t help matters much, as academic buildings will be surrounded by parking lots and walkable connections to the future rail station would be tenuous at best.

Commissioners argued in favor of the Polk Parkway stop claiming that it would be better for future development and that it was closer to the county’s other major population center, in Winter Haven.

Yet this approach would do little to leverage the high-speed rail station’s ability to concentrate density, as the area is far from any population centers and the University’s design will eliminate a large parcel of land from development options.

The commissioners’ second choice is a station at Kathleen Road, near downtown Lakeland. This area is already relatively well developed and has transit connections, unlike the other potential site. A high-speed rail station there could serve as a development catalyst, helping to extend the existing downtown, becoming far more than just a place where people catch the train.

But the approach of Lakeland area officials suggests that they wouldn’t take advantage of the ability to densify the neighborhood around that stop either — the board’s members seem secure in assuming that everyone will drive to stations anyway. With that kind of attitude, some of the advantages of the implementation of fast trains simply disappear. It could be a disappointing outcome for one of the major stations on the nation’s first high-speed line.

Florida is moving forward with its high-speed line quickly. According to Operating Officer Haddad, “We hope to be in the ground within an eleven month period,” with service starting in early 2015. But the federal government’s limited commitment thus far isn’t strong enough, and the state isn’t providing any more money; the conservative state’s willingness to endorse a rail program at all is a serious improvement over the anti-rail policies of former governor Jeb Bush.

Yet as Mr. Haddad puts it, “We’re building something from scratch… we can’t do half of it.” He remains confident that the FRA will find the funds over the next few years to guarantee the Florida system’s completion. Here’s to hopes that it can be done right.

Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail Map, from Florida High-Speed Rail

Florida High-Speed Rail Japan

Central Japan Railway Enters Competition for U.S. High-Speed Market

» JR Tokai, offering the Shinkansen N700 trainset and associated technologies, hopes to win the right to run trains in Florida.

With President Obama heading to Tampa on Thursday, speculation about how high-speed rail grants will be distributed is aimed directly at Florida. The state hopes to capitalize on its recent decision to invest millions in a commuter rail system for the state’s central areas to attract up to $2.5 billion in federal dollars to fund the construction of an electrified fast train system planned for the Tampa-Orlando corridor. Now, a Japanese company is interested in cashing in.

If the President does hand the state a check, Florida will be the first in the nation to offer its population true high-speed rail built in a dedicated corridor. Potential constructors and operators are lining up just in time. Back in September, French national rail operator SNCF proposed major investments in Florida, California, the Midwest, and Texas, becoming the only company to respond with detailed plans for service to Congressman John Mica’s (R-FL) 2008 request for proposals. Earlier in January, Amtrak suggested that as the only current American high-speed rail operator, it had unrivaled experience to offer.

But Central Japan Railway Company‘s (JRC) decision to form an American subsidiary called U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail (USJHSR) in cooperation with a venture capital firm is the clearest sign yet that the fight for control over the Florida line will be a battle of industry titans. The interest of foreign firms in the project assuages any doubts over whether the U.S. is well-suited for high-speed operations.

Also known as JR Tokai, JRC began operations in 1987 following the privatization of Japan’s railroads and it is now the country’s largest operator of high-speed trains, or Shinkansen. JRC carries an average of 409,000 daily passengers on 323 daily trains. The company is investing tens of billions of dollars in a new maglev corridor between Tokyo and Osaka to supplement the existing Tokaïdo route between the cities. But the Japanese market is virtually saturated as there are few opportunities for passenger growth in transport — even the new trunk line will attract few new passengers.

Investing in U.S. operations, then, could be lucrative in growing the company’s revenues. The Japanese Senior Vice Transport Minister, Sumio Mabuchi, has been active in pitching Japanese technology to Washington. And as of last week, JRC replaced bankrupt Japan Airlines on the Japanese Nikkei Average, signaling that the stock market sees a future in the company.

USJHSR, run from an office just blocks from the White House, stated that it sees the Florida route as the most promising for new service in the U.S. A subsidiary, called U.S.-Japan Maglev, will market JRC’s magnetic levitation-based trains to authorities planning corridors like the one between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, though there is clearly less of an interest in that expensive technology.

In the bidding for operations and construction on Florida’s line, JRC may have some advantages over other competitors. Unlike the French SNCF, the Japanese company is offering a complete systems integration package in developing the line, including a proprietary train, the N700-I Shinkansen. SNCF has relied on Alstom to design and produce its high-speed trains — this separation would mean Florida would have to bid separately for trains and operations if it picked the French company for the latter. Unlike Amtrak, JRC is operationally profitable, meaning that problems elsewhere wouldn’t affect trains in the state; similarly, JRC’s reliability record is the gold standard, with average delays within seconds on major routes.

The N700-I trains JRC plans to offer to states like Florida are very similar to the N700 trainsets introduced in 2007 in cooperation with JR West that now make up about one-third of JRC’s high-speed fleet. The vehicles are the least energy consuming per seat-mile of all high-speed trains, likely including Alstom’s upcoming AGV, mostly because of their high capacities, which can reach up to 1,323 on a 16-car train. For the American market, JRC plans to offer trains that may include as few as six cars.

If used in the appropriate conditions, the N700 could be faster than its competitors because of its quick acceleration: it only takes the train 180 seconds to reach 170 mph on the way to a 205 mph top speed. Unlike Siemens’ Velaro or Alstom’s TGV, though, these Japanese trains cannot reach what has become the new standard: 220 mph.

JRC’s entry into the American market could result in a lobbying brawl to win the construction, operations, and train provisioning contracts once states like Florida have assembled adequate financing to implement their high-speed plans. It could also mean more jobs, as current federal law stipulates that vehicles bought with government aid be built in the U.S. Companies winning the right to supply the trains for American high-speed corridors will have to build them in the States — exactly the message an underemployed nation needs to hear right now.

Amtrak Florida High-Speed Rail

Amtrak Plans to Compete for Florida Service, Purchase Dozens of New Trains

» “America’s railroad” is not going to let foreign operators get all the good stuff without a fight.

In a conference call and press release yesterday, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman made clear he wouldn’t let his company’s current dominance of the American intercity rail market simply fade away with the expansion of high-speed rail on corridors across the country. Notably, Amtrak intends to offer its services to the State of Florida for the operation of the planned fast train line between Tampa and Orlando, likely to receive billions of dollars in funding from the federal government later this month.

In the interim, the government-owned railroad will ask Congress for billions of dollars in additional funding to pay for upgrades of the Northeast Corridor and hundreds of new locomotives and passenger railcars, both long awaited investments.

Amtrak’s interest in the Florida corridor is further evidence that the project is set to receive a large chunk of the stimulus’ $8 billion devoted to high-speed rail. Mr. Boardman’s position — that his is the only company with experience in operation of high-speed trains in the U.S. — suggests that he feels the heat from foreign competitors, some of which have already produced in-depth studies of potential American rail operations. Indeed, it would be dangerous for the company to be relegated to providing slow-speed services along the country’s least-frequented routes while private operators such as Veolia or public providers from abroad such as SNCF pick up the profitable new main lines.

But whether Amtrak will be able to move past its mediocre reputation for service and persuade conservative politicians in the Sunshine State not to engage in the current fad of public-private partnerships is another question. Mr. Boardman will have a lot of convincing to do before the Florida service opens in 2014: Existing Amtrak lines in Florida are slow and frequently late.

California, the other state eagerly pushing for new high-speed trains, has yet to determine how service would be provided on its tracks.

In the shorter term, Amtrak plans to upgrade its existing corridors with improved tracks, renovated trains, and new equipment. This year, the company will increase speeds from 90 mph to 105 mph between Porter, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan, affecting Blue Water and Wolverine routes most directly. In addition, Acela Express trains on the Northeast Corridor will get wireless internet in March and new seats later in the year.

Amtrak recognizes that its train fleet is ancient; apart from the Acela, no new passenger cars have been purchased since the 1980s. As a result, the company will release a plan in February to replace all of the nation’s locomotives and railcars over the next few years; there are some 1,400 in all, including more than 100 locomotives as well as single and bi-level railcars. The report will coincide with the agency’s Congressional budget request for FY 2011. Amtrak will probably demand a multi-year financial commitment from the federal government to pay for the new equipment.

It will also move forward with the already studied $16 billion plans to upgrade the Northeast Corridor and reduce travel times by 15 minutes between both Washington and New York and Boston and New York. Such a project would require a huge governmental commitment that could be partially financed by high-speed rail funds in the future. However, since Amtrak owns the line already, it could simply ask for an independent allocation that the currently rail-friendly Congress may well produce. Difficult budget conditions, however, may make such a project impossible over the next few years.

After years of retrenchment during the Bush Administration, the news that Amtrak has become newly entrepreneurial is good for the system’s users, who will eventually benefit from more comfortable and modern trains and faster travel along the Northeast Corridor. The railroad’s ambitions, however, have yet to be accepted by Congressional officials and there is no guarantee that the company will be provided the funds to complete its upgrades. If it does so, however, Amtrak will have a leg-up on operating fast routes in other parts of the country like Florida,  proving that it has the organizational resources to provide a high-quality service and the governmental resources to ensure adequate maintenance along existing lines.

In other news: I’ve altered the look of The Transport Politic significantly over the past few days, as you’ve probably noticed. If you have any comments or requests for changes, please email me (yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com) or leave a comment here. Thanks.

Florida High-Speed Rail Miami Orlando

Florida Convenes Special Legislative Session for Sunrail, Tri-Rail, High-Speed Rail

» Newfound support for rail investment likely a result of push by DOT Secretary for the state to prop up train travel.

Update, 9 December 2009: Florida Senate passes the bill 27-10, an unexpectedly large majority, prepping the legislation for a signing by Governor Crist. Florida has put itself at the top, with California, in demanding federal funds for HSR.

Earlier this fall, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave Florida officials a choice: either buck up and support funding for the state’s commuter rail systems, or lose out on potential federal funding for a proposed high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando. Mr. LaHood’s challenge seems to have paid off: this week, state legislators began debating a law that would create a new Florida Rail Enterprise that would fund the existing Tri-Rail commuter system in Miami, ensure construction of the Orlando-area SunRail line, and take command of high-speed rail development. If the proposal passes next Wednesday as planned, Florida’s bid to host the nation’s first built-from-scratch high-speed line seems likely to win out.

With California, Florida has presented itself as a top competitor in the race for some of the nation’s $8 billion in stimulus money for fast trains. The state’s initial proposal has a $3.5 billion corridor between Tampa and Orlando along I-4 being constructed for an opening by 2014; it has asked Washington to cover $2.6 billion of those funds. The remaining costs would be covered by affected municipalities and corporations. Though the project lacks direct connections to downtown Orlando or Lakeland and would likely encourage sprawl in areas around Disney’s theme parks, it offers the possibility of up to 168 mph electric rail service and more than three million annual riders by 2025. An extension to Miami along the east coast could be built by 2017, the year before California’s phase one opens for its first riders.

Mr. LaHood’s suggestion earlier this year that Florida must fund its local rail systems before it is considered for high-speed funding encouraged the state assembly to hold a special week-long session on the matter, beginning yesterday. Most prominent in its goals: creating a new Florida Rail Enterprise organization that would operate as a division of the state DOT. FRE would develop a statewide intercity rail system and manage all of the state’s commuter rail lines, including Miami’s troubled Tri-Rail, which has been threatened with a shut-down if it is not adequately funded. Under the law, Tri-Rail would receive $15 million in state money annually for its survival.

Most relevant for Orlando-area residents, FRE would ensure the construction of the 61-mile SunRail corridor, which would connect the city’s northern and southern suburbs at a cost of $1.2 billion. Governor Charlie Crist (R), who has become a supporter of the project as he runs for Senate, sees it as a stepping stone towards high-speed rail. Not approving a bill supporting the project would be a “catastrophic” loss for the state according to the governor; indeed, it would mean Florida would lose its federal New Starts commitment to the project and it would probably be eliminated for consideration for the fast rail system. Politically, he would love to be able to announce a massive grant for the state; so would Mr. LaHood, since President Obama undoubtedly wants to repeat his 2008 victory in Florida in 2012.

Of course, passage of the bill won’t be as easy as it sounds, since similar legislation has failed in the state senate twice over the past two years. Though Senate President Jeff Atwater (R) claims he has the votes, he faces some in-party disgruntlement. Lakeland Senator Paula Dockery (R), who has been one of the major anti-rail advocates, continues to fight party leadership, arguing that the SunRail project is basically a pay-off to track owner CSX in the form of a massive $200 million-a-year liability policy for accidents on the line. Ms. Dockery is currently running for Governor against state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), who is a supporter of the project. Ms. Dockery hopes to excited anti-tax tea partyers to her cause and win the campaign in 2010.

Meanwhile, the senate’s 14 Democrats (there are a total of 40 members in the body) are being pressured by the AFL-CIO to reject the plan. The union argues that the project does not guarantee stable, well-paying jobs. So it could be a close vote.

The senate’s passage of the proposal would basically ensure the creation of the FRE, since the house has signed through similar legislation repeatedly and will do the same this year. Mr. Crist will sign the bill into law.

If Florida passes the legislation, its application for high-speed rail funds is virtually assured acceptance by the Department of Transportation. If its proposal and California’s, at $4.7 billion, are chosen for full grants, that leaves $700 million for the rest of the country. That is, until the U.S. Congress expands its commitment to high-speed rail by dedicating $1 billion or more for the mode in the annual transportation appropriations process, a decision expected to be made early next year with the support of strong majorities in both houses.