The Florida East Coast miracle

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, November 18, 2012

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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