Direct Amtrak service between Florida's two largest cities is just a few years away.The state will spend about $118 million to restore passenger service to Henry Flagler's old railroad — the Florida East Coast Railway — between Jacksonville and Miami.That money will help build eight new stations in coastal towns between Stuart and Jacksonville, build a critical connector just north of West Palm Beach and make other improvements to the railroad.The Florida Department of Transportation estimates Amtrak service on the FEC could begin in 2015.Currently, Amtrak service between Miami and Jacksonville runs on CSX Transportation tracks that parallel Interstate 95. But that trip takes about 10 hours because CSX tracks veer into central Florida and then through Orlando.A direct route on the FEC would shorten that trip to six hours.Total cost of the project is $250 million, which includes the trains. But FDOT hopes Amtrak would provide the vehicles or partner with the state to get federal money for the trains.Initially, service would be one roundtrip daily. Eventually, that would expand to two roundtrips."Amtrak has said they don't just want this, but this is its best opportunity to expand," said Kim Delaney, a planner with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. "This is the fastest and least expensive way to restore passenger service on the FEC."The Amtrak project also may open the door for Tri-Rail's long-awaited northward expansion to Jupiter along the FEC tracks. The commuter line now ends in Mangonia Park, just north of West Palm Beach.But the Amtrak proposal is separate from a plan to return commuter-rail service on the FEC between Miami and Jupiter.
Ignoring for a moment the oddity of spending that much money while rejecting an essentially guaranteed and cost free high speed rail system, this is an important and worthwhile investment. With a six hour travel time, travel time becomes competitive with travel by car or faster, depending on congestion (which, by all that I've heard from Floridians, is horrendous). However, a single trip per day will not suffice for high levels of ridership. Four should be considered an absolute minimum with preferentially a higher number of trips per day in order to cater to those who have time commitments or desires which one or two roundtrips will not suffice for. Additionally, an increased number of trips per day reduces worries about missing one's train and being left on the other side of the state.
Provided that Florida DOT is willing to pony up the requisite amount of cash, improving capacity and speeds for the rail service should be a fairly straightforward affair. Florida East Coast Railway has been shipping an increasing amount of intermodal freight to and from the Ports of Miami and Jacksonville and has been investing to expand its ability to capture that market. As intermodal trains are preferentially faster trains, there is no major roadblock to such partnerships.