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