Thursday, December 1, 2011

Good news, but unambitious plans for passenger rail in Florida

Florida is spending $118 million to move passenger rail service between Miami and Jacksonville to the Florida East Coast Railway.

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.

5 comments:

  1. Any word as to whether this would be a state-level line or an extension of a long-distance route—I sincerely hope it’s the former for reliability’s sake.

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  2. Beta, unfortunately according to Amtrak's FY11 Performance Improvement Plan for southeastern trains, it looks like it will be a 'section' of the Silver Star (so it merges going north and splits going south into two seperate trains for two seperate routes). Florida isn't interested in any state-supported corridor service here, only in new stations and some track. So the burden of serving that route would have to fall on long distance trains.

    http://bit.ly/ug7JxF

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  3. 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.

    What does this mean, exactly? Do intermodal freight trains travel faster than other kinds of freight, or something? And why would that matter – is it something regulatory? Or does it just mean trains move faster down the line?

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  4. Intermodal trains are lighter and carry more time sensitive freight than do bulk trains such as coal or grain or oil trains, hence they tend to travel at higher speeds and with higher priority when there are mixed train types conflicting with each other.

    It's really quite a shame that Florida isn't willing to fund this as a state corridor. With a car competitive travel time and the heavy boosts that winter and spring tourism would bring (opposing demographics of course, but both quite receptive to travel by rail), such a train should come very close to meeting its operating costs.

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  5. I really have mixed feelings about this plan. It helps that the FEC route sees passenger service revived to a vital portion of the state.

    However, here are the flaws:
    1. As Nikko_P points out, the Silver Star would be used for the service. The problem is that inland passengers would still have to deal with the dogleg that is backing in and out of Tampa rather than just terminating the inland portion at Tampa Union Station.

    2. Given who's governor in Tallahassee, wasn't he the one who has been yapping about more private sector involvement in passenger service?

    After all, it was just three short months ago that the state wanted to turn all Tri-Rail operations over to either FEC, Veolia or Virgin. Those same forces need to be present in the event the feds don't fund an Amtrak-operated East Coast route.

    3. The liability issue may be a replay of the whole SunRail saga as long as FL is requesting that Amtrak operate the FEC route.

    As that Performance Improvement Plan pointed out, the FDOT is prohibited from entering a liability agreement with the national carrier. Also, Amtrak may decide that a new liability agreement may not be to its liking.

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