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
A couple more thoughts:
1. I am VERY interested to see if a private investor is willing to pay $3M a pop of passenger cars. I hope not. I'll bet they can get some for half the price...but I won't bet they'll be built here.
2. Two locomotives on a 7 car train. Sigh. The price we pay for rules requiring passenger trains to be built like Abrams tanks, I suppose. At least no one is claiming any environmental benefits....there won't be many.
3. Since profitability of this venture seems to be driven by the RE development, what FEC might do next would likely coincide with where FEC owns land.
The key as always for passenger transport as opposed to a luxury cruise train is to run the wheels off of the equipment. Unlike some commentators I feel you do need to run as fast as possible for a reasonable price. To run faster than 79 mph south of West Palm Beach is too expensive, but 120 to 125mph between Cocoa and Orlando must be the target. If you run slower you will need more equipment to cover the service, at say $27 million for a trainset(locomotives and cars), each additional set needed is costly and reduces the chance of covering operating costs. Ideally they should try to achieve the Swiss system of a memory schedule where the train leaves the station at the same time every hour all day, with possibly a filler train at the peak.
I cannot see them ever adding service to Tampa as they would likely need to build new trackage the whole way, nor to Jacksonville as the market just isn't big enough. Remember Real Estate Development is the End, passenger service is just part of the means.
Several of you contend this is primarily a real estate development. Initially, I did too. However, those 9 acres in downtown Miami are the extent of the property owned anywhere near the three stations. Developing those 9 acres to their highest commercial use will offset some of the costs, but in the end it is the economics of running passenger trains that will spell success or failure. The railroad is saying this to all who ask, and I believe them.
Oldmannd, I agree that FEC won't be paying $3 million a pop for passenger cars. It's their money and not tax dollars, and you can count on their squeezing every ounce of value out of it.
FRED; A factor that just occurred is FEC could not have foreseen but may be the 800 # G--- . The situation that NJ TRANSIT may need many replacement rail cars and locos thereby gumming up availability for FEC to get equipment suitable for their planned service. I hope not but all the ins and outs of the NJT situation has not been revealed ?
...psst. FEC can buy cars from China. (or anywhere else. No "buy American" requirement)
Too bad the European DMU's won't meet
Too bad the Euorpean DMU's won't meet the FRA standards. We just spent the week riding then around scotlandafsd and they would be great...and available.
You may see NJT buying a boat load of cars as a bad thing, I see it as an opportunity to piggyback an order to get a better price.
I can't imagine NJT buying a boat load of cars because of Sandy. (but, then I couldn't see them leaving so much equipment where it could get flooded, either). If the water got as high as the axle bearings, then all you need do is change wheelsets. If it got any of the undercar mounted equipment, then it needs a going over. At worst, a complete rebuild. But, scrap? That would be dumb.
Bombardier built cars for China's line to Tibet for less than $800,000 a pop, new, back in 2005. These coaches had pressurization for high altitude, too. Something FEC won't need... :-). If a 50 passenger bus, complete with integrated HVAC, reclining seats, foot rests, WiFi, diesel engine, transmission, etc. etc. cost less than $500,000, why should a passenger car cost more than a million, give or take?
One thing to remember here is this is an EIS and nothing more. It is not an operating plan nor reveals opportunities that might exist beyond the scope of the EIS.
It it entirely possible that could be other intermediate stops and/or development deals beyond the scope of this EIS that can be developed independently. No need to drag these "maybes" into the plan that gets things started.
One interesting thing in the EIS is that FEC expects freight train counts on the line to remain static over time - about 10 a day - a "permanent condition".
oltmannd: That the nuber of freight trains on FEC might be expected to remain constant should not come as a surprise. Florida is a consuming market. It makes nothing that people elsewhere want to buy, and there are just many carloads of oranges, juice and other fruits and veggies that can be shipped north. So, I would not expect the FEC's freight market to grow much more than population. FEC built a very good business hauling loaded trailers south and empties back to Jacksonville, saving truck driver hours. The only difference of which I am aware is that they haul containers now far more than they haul trailers.
...which leaves me thinking about why FEC is trying to do this. If incremental traffic only has to cover incremental costs, and the high costs of owning and maintaining the line are totally covered by the existing traffic, then maybe there is an incremental buck to be made.
I still can't wrap my head around how you get enough revenue to cover the $1B investment for Cocoa to Orlando, though.
I really, really want to believe...I just can't yet.
I wonder if Amtrak is rooting for or against this endeavor, or just doing their level best to ignore it. It could turn their world upside down.
oltmannd: I understand your consternation. I, too, need a lot more information before I become a disciple of FEC's passenger venture. When all is said and done about variable and fixed costs, any venture must have more revenue than it does costs if it intends to remain in operation. Those of us old enough to remember the Penn Central know the truth of this statement. As for Amtrak, I wonder if Amtrak effectively has been given a "pass" because we all "know" that you can cover variable costs but not the fixed cost of railroading. Is this really true? If FEC can operate a successful passenger operation, might that not put new, added pressure on Amtrak to do the same? I guess we'll find out.
Rail Pundit: Does Amtrak provide first class passenger service from NY to Florida? I understand that even after the ACL/SAL merger the SCL continued to provide excellent service to Miami and Tampa. If Amtrak can no longer provide such service perhaps FEC should take over the NY-Florida passenger market. Are there any figures showing the number of seniors, students and families who utilize this corridor?
Trinity River Bottoms Boomer: Wow! That one came out of left field. Does Amtrak offer first class between New York and Florida? I am reasonably certain that Amtrak offers what it calls and prices as first class. Is it real first class service? I don't know. You passengers can bell me - and Trinity River Bottoms Boomer. Comparisons to ACL/SAL service are a waste of time. That merger occurred more than half a century ago. Hate to break the news, but a lot has changed over the years.