Fred Frailey Blog

Florida East Coast and rubber-tree plants

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FEC train 101 3-25-2012Yesterday morning near St. Augustine I watched two of Florida East Coast’s blue GP40-2s wheel 177 containers and trailers (yes, I counted) northward at a brisk 55 mph. Two smallish diesels can do that because the vast majority of those boxes are empty. That’s the problem with freight railroading in Florida. The state’s huge population consumes vast amounts of goods that arrive by rail but makes next to nothing that goes out the other way. Passenger railroading is different; what comes in, goes out. In transportation, balance is everything. Even today, if you can just move enough people in each direction between Florida’s population centers, at the right price, you can succeed. Amtrak’s Acela does this in the Northeast.

This same Florida East Coast Railway may be on to something. Its parent company just announced detailed marketing and engineering studies to test the feasibility of operating passenger trains between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando on a for-profit basis, requiring little or no government capital. The bottom 200 miles would be over existing FEC tracks. Forty miles of new railroad would be required to bridge the gap between Cocoa and Orlando.

What gives this idea credibility is one man: Gene Skoropowski. He gained a measure of fame for engineering the runaway ridership growth aboard Amtrak trains between San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento, Cal., as executive director of the Joint Powers Board. He “retired” from that job two years ago, moved to Florida, and looked for new challenges.

Oh boy, did he ever. Skoropowski emailed friends about a month ago that he had become senior vice president for passenger development of the Florida East Coast. I assumed that meant arranging for Florida to underwrite commuter trains between Jupiter and Miami, and helping Amtrak to route its trains down the coast from Jacksonville. No, Gene has something far different and far bigger in mind. “You’re going to have to ask someone else about commuter trains,” he told me over the phone when I reached him.

The press release announcing All Aboard Florida, as this enterprise is called, talks of 110-mph trains. That would be in the future, Skoropowski says. Initially hourly service would be conducted at 79 mph south of West Palm Beach and perhaps at 110 in places between there and Cocoa. The 40 miles of new track are candidates for 125-mph running. In addition, FEC would need to be double-tracked. That’s not as difficult as it seems, he insists. “The FEC once was double track, and all the subballast and the bridges are still there.” At 79 mph, Skoropowski adds, the trip could be made in 3¼ hours. The Acela between Boston and New York City requires 3 hours and 25 minutes.

The figure of $1 billion to launch All Aboard Florida strikes me as too little. I’m thinking at least twice that amount, but what do I know?. “We’ll need a couple more months to say with certainty that this is feasible,” Skoropowski added, but his tone of voice seemed to say, trust me, it can work. “This is one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the country, and I’m not talking about having to pay for a 200-mph right of way. Moreover, we already own the railroad.”

I admit that I am a born optimist, a glass-is-half-full guy. So laugh at me if you want, because I am already infected by this idea. To borrow Frank Sinatra’s words from the song “High Hopes,” it’s not as if the ant has to move the rubber-tree plant. Nor does it require suspension of your disbelief. It requires that the numbers add up. If they do, the capital to make this happen will be there. — Fred W. Frailey

Photo: FEC train 101 near Bunnell, Fla., on March 25, 2012

  • Interesting idea.  I love it, proving passenger trains can be self sustaining.  Go Gene Go!

  • This one just might make sense, Fred.  The distance is short enough that flying is not an obvious competitive choice.  It is long enough that people in the family auto on the parallel Interstate will be watching passenger trains streak by them.  The highway is congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic.  The real question is whether the operation can be built and managed at a price that people will pay.  I have a bit more confidence in FEC figuring the appropriate cost and charge than if it were done by some public agency.

  • It also seems low to me, but I'd venture that with his experience developing the Calfornia service, Skoropowski's suggestion of $1 Billion start up cost could be on the mark.  The issue might be the last 40 miles to Orlando.  

    Mapquest says that the Florida Turnpike is the best route between Orlando and Miami about 240 miles in just under 4 hours.  My guess is gas and tolls would run $40-50 for the drive.  

  • This caught all of us here in Florida by surprise but there are a few “knowns” still lingering from past passenger rail misadventures. Mr. Skoropowski is the past project director for the Florida Overland eXpress. The proposed routing from the Orlando area east to the FEC closely parallels a proposed FOX routing for Orlando - Miami. Mr. Skoropowski will be intimately familiar with this. The engineering should already have been done. The Environmental Impact Statement may, repeat may, still be valid. If those expenses need not be repeated then maybe it could be done for $1 billion.

  • The 40 miles of new route between Orlando and Cocoa makes me wonder if they hope to use the Bee-Line Expressway ROW between the two towns.

  • For a 2014 startup, where is the passenger equipment?

  • I know where they can get a couple of TALGO trainsets in Milwaukee pretty cheap......

  • There's year 'round freight for nothbound containers.  But it would be reefer business.  Bananas north.  Dry freight south.  

    They just gotta' work a deal with Dole and Chiquita.  People do eat a lot of bananas.  Trust me.  I know what I'm talking about.

    That's unlike Skoropowski, who is selling a bill of goods to FEC.

  • "That's unlike Skoropowski, who is selling a bill of goods to FEC."  Come on, now, do you really think the FEC management is so stupid ang gullible as to be "sold" a bill of goods?  "Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."  Oh?  Last time I checked, FEC had a very nice business hauling full trailers and containers south and empties north.  It seems the ever-growing population of Florida, particularly south Florida, consumes a lot of goods, but doesn't really make much that people to the north wish to buy or use.  Let's start screwing up the FEC's nascent passenger business before the first train ever runs by adding intermodal stuff.  Freight is handled efficiently by FEC by running stuff between Jacksonville and Miami using one shift in the cab.  I learned many years ago at DOT that you can screw up any transportation system if you put enough stops and transfers in and the accompanying cost of handling.

  • "That's unlike Skoropowski, who is selling a bill of goods to FEC."  

    Let's get something VERY clear here: The FEC has been pursuing this for a couple of years and only recently hired Mr. Skoropowski to make it happen. Gene Skoropowski is no Harold Hill and a passenger train is not 76 trombones.

  • A couple things:

    I can see a need for additional passenger transportation options in Florida.  The price of gas will eventually get people out of their cars.  But building a new railroad with its high investment requirements and inflexibility doesn't seem to be the best option.

    The proposed rail service would not be an incremental cost.  It would not make use of unused existing track capacity.  When someone starts talking about laying down a second main track and building 40 miles of line for passenger traffic you can bet the farm that the numbers won't work.

    Especially when highway carriers such as Megabus and Bolt Bus can offer competitive quality service that is more flexible, more frequent, and can use existing highway infrastructure at an incremental cost.  

    Second:  I did not say the FEC could haul northbound freight that was manufactured in Florida.  I said they should try to haul bananas.  Bananas aren't grown in Florida.  But the banana boats stop at Pt. Everglades.

    What Dole Ocean Exporess does is make weekly calls at Pt. Everglades where banana containers are unloaded.  Containers being returned to Central America are also loaded before the ship continues north to Willmington, DE.  The ship does not call at Pt. Everglades on the return voyage to Central America from Willmington.

    So that means that every week there are 700/800/900 loaded containers in Pt. Everglades that need to go north.  No reason on earth that FEC shouldn't get a good chunck of those northbound loads.  

    All they gotta' do is talk to Dole.  It makes more sense than trying to make money running passenger trains.

  • Bravo, D.Carleton.  A voice of sanity in an insane world.

  • A comment about intermodal balance.  It matters when the trucker can triangulate to find return loads and the railroad cannot.  That's much of the country.  It matters less when both are hemmed in by the map, e.g., Florida.  In the latter case even the trucker has to cover the cost of empty returns, leveling the playing field vs. intermodal.

  • Thank you, Rail Pundit, for that unsolicited testimonial. Not to blow our own horn but (and with the indulgence of Professor Frailey) myself and my cohorts are following this closely:

    Not quite two years ago Mr. Skoropowski explained to a group of us what usually happens when a new service is proposed: The railroad learns about it after reading a story in the newspaper. Generally a state or municipality hires a third party who comes up with a proposal the railroad later deems “not worth the paper it’s printed on.” In other cases the would-be sponsors get a snow job from Amtrak and buy it hook, line and sinker because, after all, Amtrak is the here all, end all, save all of domestic passenger trains.

    This is something different; the railroad is proposing this themselves. They seek private financing and intend to operate as a private business. The rules-of-engagement for the above DO NOT APPLY. This is hard for many to fathom as it does not follow any known post-war precedent. Hold on folks, we CAN make it through this.

  • If this works, even half way, it could be a game changer.  

Florida East Coast and rubber-tree plants