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