Fred Frailey Blog

The Florida East Coast miracle

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We’re learning more about the Miami-Orlando passenger service that Florida East Coast is ramping up, thanks most recently to release of an environmental impact statement covering the 66 miles between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach. Forgive me if I seem to obsess on this subject, but had you told me a year ago that this would happen I would have laughed you down, declaring that no private company would be so foolhardy to attempt this without heavy government subsidy.

As a matter of fact, FEC Industries, the parent company, revealed in the EIS that it may apply for a low-interest RRIF (Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing) loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. But still, FECI is spending at least $1 billion of borrowed money (or that of its owner, Fortress Investment Group), is confident the economics will work, and I respect them for plunging into this when the governor of their own state of Florida is too timid to accept total federal financing of a high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando. But don’t get me started . . . .

The EIS reveals that the startup date will be sometime in 2015 rather than in 2014, as had been originally announced. This shouldn’t surprise you, given the enormity of the work that lies ahead: Just the Miami-West Palm segment will involve double tracking 49.2 miles of railroad (some 16 miles is already two-track), rebuilding three bridges to accommodate a second track, rehabbing four sidings, upgrading 134 of the 183 highway and pedestrian crossings (yes, that’s almost three per mile), building three substantial stations (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach), and converting the present intermodal terminal in Fort Lauderdale into a maintenance base. Seven bridges would continue to be single track, with Number 24 turnouts at each end to connect to the double tracks; such turnouts at other locations have supported speeds of 60 mph or more.

The dozen or more passenger trains running in each direction would be powered by two locomotives and pull seven cars, although station platforms will permit nine-car trains if needed. Both coach and business-class seating will be offered. Speed limits on this segment will be held to 79 mph, probably in light of those scores of roads and the dense urban development of this part of the route. All Aboard Florida, the FECI subsidiary established to run this new service, has said earlier that it plans on 90-mph operation between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and hopes to operate at up to 120 mph between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport on new track it will construct.

Now to the stations: Miami’s four-track terminal is by far the most substantial, occupying some nine acres at the site of FEC founder Henry Flagler’s original passenger station. The illustration on the right shows the space it would occupy; don't take the proposed buildings in the sketch literally. The plan is for a 60,000-square-foot station with another 30,000 square feet for retail stores. The site could also encompass two midrise towers for a 200-room hotel, 400 condominium units, and 375,000 feet of office and retail space, plus parking for 1,050 vehicles. The plan is for the tracks to go beneath the Dolphin Expressway at grade. Immediately afterward, at Eighth Street, a freight lead to the Port of Miami would separate as the passenger tracks rise on a 3 percent grade to achieve a height of 45 feet at station level. The station platform would extend from just south of Seventh Street to just south of Fourth Street, ending opposite the federal courthouse. Design of this station will be done by the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, architects of Freedom Tower that occupies the former World Trade Center in Manhattan.

The stations in central Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach will be far smaller and include no hotel or office development. As in Miami, each would have raised center platforms between the two tracks.

Interestingly, the EIS envisions no adverse impact on Florida East Coast freight trains. The railroad ran an average of 23 through freights a day over this segment in 2006, versus just ten today, due largely to longer train lengths, the report states. The intermodal yard in Fort Lauderdale that will become the maintenance base for passenger trains is being replaced by a new on-dock intermodal facility at Port Everglade that opens before the passenger service begins.

North of West Palm Beach, All Aboard Florida plans to run its trains nonstop the remaining 165 or so miles to and from Orlando. Still to come are environmental impact statements for West Palm-Cocoa (reinstate double track) and Cocoa-Orlando (build new railroad, mostly in the middle of an interstate highway).

We’ve yet to learn who will make the locomotives and passenger cars, and whether the cars will be single or bilevel. And I would dearly love to see the assumptions Florida East Coast uses — the projected fares the service might command and the ridership it might attract. On those assumptions rest the success or failure of this very risky but commendable undertaking. Alas, such numbers are not part of any environmental impact statement. — Fred W. Frailey

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  • OK, Fred, NO politics, but the governor of Florida isn't timid but just plain STUPID!

    I assume you will report on this miracle in a forthcoming issue of Trains when more information becomes available, and please, make it a full length artical on the FEC and not just a one page report!  Trains should run an All Florida rail issue also including the Walt Disney World RR and monorail operations, as well as CSX and its Port of Tampa connection, update report on the Topicana juice train and current phosphate operations in the Bone Valley of Central Florida.  

    Another Florida Miracle might be in the making if President Obama can finally lift the decades old Cuban embargo and restore rail service to Havana again.  Not everything moves by container.  Witness the rail ferry operations across New York harbor!

    Not wanting to tell FEC how to run their railroad, but a return to the classic red and yellow color scheme would be a welcomed site again, since it was proudly worn by the first fleet of diesels that pulled the streamliners that opened an exciting new era of rail passenger service to the East Coast of the Sunshine State in the 1930s!

  • If the Governor of Florida manages to let the private sector finance this venture, dodging all appeals to spend taxpayer dollars to make it happen, then he should run for President.

  • it seems to me, fred, that the issue of locomotives and cars -- particularly cars -- is going to be complicated.  not impossible, but challenging.  if the cars are newly built (and who will build them?)

    lead time is often two or more years.  if the cars are "heritage", they are at least going to have to

    be modified to suit the service fec intends, and brought up to fra standards for 79 or 110 mph operation.  plus, unlike a tourist hauler or a tiffany operation like the new pullman service, they will need quite a few of whatever cars they're going to use to maintain the frequencies they project.  i suppose locomotives can

    be bought "off the shelf" and modified for higher passenger speeds.  but buying new or acquiring used

    passenger equipment is a puzzle and headache -- one fec must solve and cure if they are to move ahead with the plans they have outlined.

  • Thanks for the great write-up Mr. Frailey.  All Aboard Florida is a plan for passenger rail that I can actually get excited about.  The high-speed line from Tampa to Orlando was a joke from the start and the guv was right to cancel it and refund the cash to the feds.  

    It's obvious what Gene Skoropowski's up to here.  This project is California's Capitol Corridor transplanted to the Southeast US.  Connect large population centers and run trains on frequency, not all out speed.  Make 'em comfortable, make 'em reliable and people will ride them, just as they do in California between Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose.  

    This has always been the Florida intercity corridor that needed to be developed first.  Once it's up and running, then we can start looking west towards Tampa and north to Jacksonville.  I'd personally want to see trains to Tampa continuing through the city, stopping at Tampa International Airport and then crossing Tampa Bay on a causeway parallel to I-275 to St. Pete/Clearwater Airport to tap into the 1,000,000+ people living in Pinellas County.

    The interesting thing is that this doesn't seem to be just about the trains.  It also starts to look like a real estate play.  I would think Fortress Investment could recoup a fair bit of its investment by using the trains as a catalyst in the redevelopment of all that property in downtown Miami.  Along with those conceptual towers in the image posted above, what would stop Fortress from building additional towers using the air rights above the station tracks?  How much would those weedy 9 acres be worth if you had thousands of people living, working, shopping, traveling, etc right there?

    I know we're missing specifics, and as railfans, usually that means equipment.  I don't see why you couldn't use a "California Car/Surfliner"-type bi-level for this service.  I'm sure Alstom would be more than happy to build 60-70 of them for this operation.  As for motive power, Siemens has a diesel version of the Eurosprinter/Vectron line of locomotives that's the basis for Amtrak's new Cities Sprinters.  All of this equipment is good for 125 mph operation and it's based on proven designs.  You're really not having to design/build anything from scratch.

    As I said, I'm excited.  I hope this really does turn into reality.  

  • Niagara484, you touched upon a good point. Not spending tax dollars, FEC will be bargaining hard with the locomotive and car manufacturers. Expect it to piggyback on proven technology at a rock-bottom price. Having moved the startup date to 2015, it has the time. And for those who wonder why two locos for just 7 cars, I say look at Amtrak to Detroit, needing two P42s to get a 6-car train to 110-mph in less than 10 miles. As my friend Davidson Ward would say, here's where we need a modern big-drivered steam locomotive. Cheers,

    Fred Frailey

  • I am wondering if this could partly be a real estate play.  Develop a passenger rail corridor, and then sell real estate around the train stations.  Maybe Fortress Investments is getting into smart growth real estate development.

  • We had the pleasure of having a presentation from All Aboard Florida at the Florida East Coast Railway Society annual convention in September.  We asked specific questions about the rolling stock.  The entire presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch

  • That's a good comment about the need for 2 units to quickly accelerate a 7-car trainset.  Here's where I could see a very useful application of a genset philosophy of "power on demand."  When accelerating out of a station (or siding) both locomotives are online.  Once at cruising speed one of the locos shuts down and the the other provides all propulsion to keep the train moving at max speed.  

    This would potentially have several additional benefits besides the increased fuel economy of not having both prime movers running the entire time.  From a reliability standpoint, you have redundancy.  Your train won't be crippled if one locomotive suffers a mechanical failure.  It will just take a schedule hit due to slower acceleration.  And with a locomotive on each end of the trainset you get better crash protection than you do with just a cab car.  I think that has to be of some consideration given the number of grade crossings on this line.

  • Can't wait! Alaska RR does a great job of it, maybe the execs can collaborate. Do you know if they will have first class service?

  • What do these people know about the economics of passenger trains that have eluded Amtrak management for three decades? Perhaps that question is also on the governor's mind.

  • Given the large amount of capital investment planned here, FEC's ridership and fares projections must be pretty solid. Amtrak's recent, consistent ridership gains give us a hint, I think. As for real estate, FECI-owned and otherwise, I don't know the estimates for inter-city transportation, but I believe urban transit planners claim around six dollars of related development follow every dollar spent on transit projects. Imagine how convenient it will be to travel to or from Miami by rail and stay at that hotel right in the station complex. A note to FEC: take a tip from European operators and start negotiating with rental car companies for counter space at the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando stations. Give this operation 10 to 15 years of success and I'll bet other freight railroads with similar market conditions will be setting up passenger ops of their own. Hauling passengers at a profit!... "Miracle," yes. Maybe even a "Renaissance" in the making.    

  • Looking at this from the passenger's point of view, I don't see a compelling reason to take the F.E.C. train from south Florida to Orlando versus the existing Amtrak service. I haven't seen the proposed schedules, but if F.E.C. plans to offer more frequent service then that would be a big win; as it is now Amtrak has 2 trains leaving in the early, then the late morning and the southbounds return in the afternoon and usually evening with the usual delays farther north.

    But if F.E.C. won't serve the cities between West Palm Beach and Orlando, skipping Stuart, Vero Beach, Port Fierce, and Melboring then the biggest question for this service becomes "Why bother?" In fact, I would think there's a bigger contingent of folks wanting to travel along Florida's east coast between Miami and Jacksonville with the additional possibility to connect to Amtrak in Jax to continue north. Take the train to the Daytona 500, for instance.

  • It's all about baby steps...of course we're talking about a huge baby.  However, it's obvious FEC has a vision beyond this startup system. So assuming the numbers pan out and the starter line is successful, it'll really be exciting to see what follows in successive phases.

  • It is surprising what is happening, just look at the Iowa Pacific, where to they get the money to keep expanding?

    As for the Florida East Coast, if private passenger railways (and a few public ones) can be run on a for-profit basis, why not in America, at least in a few places.

    The key I think is to keep it simple. There is a lot we could learn from Japan's conventional railway modernization.

    Florida East Coast should consider using modern Intercity DMU built by an expercence manufacturer like Nippon Sharyo, which as designed a US FRA crash and envirmentally compliant commuter DMU. Could it be scaled up for intercity.

    DMUs have a lot of advantages in operations and economy, it seems that all intercity trains in Japan that are not EMUs are DMUs. And let's remember how well the old Budd RDCs worked.

  • Flagler would be smiling.  Using the RR to improve the value of real estate you own.  Brilliant!

The Florida East Coast miracle