On the Right Track at Last

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, December 11, 2012 No Comment(s)


Too bad it isn’t 25 years ago. That was a time when the lass editing this column was barely alive, if at all. It was also a time when a reporter, noting that plans were underway for a commuter train from Miami to Palm Beach, called the Florida East Coast Railway to find out why that railway, the perfect track through the old downtowns along the way, did not want the new service on its tracks. Asking for the company’s public relations department, he was told there was none. He was told somebody would call him back.

Somebody did, about two weeks later, and the somebody turned out to be the president of the FEC. An amiable fellow in a gruff sort of way, he said the FEC was a freight railroad, and wanted no passenger trains. Period. Today, after two changes of ownership (the current owner is Florida East Coast Industries), the answer would have been quite different, and had it come 25 years ago, all the money and energy that went into building Tri-Rail on the western CSX – the double tracking, the modern stations with overpasses and the improved signals – would have been directed to the FEC and Tri-Rail would serve the heart of downtowns along its route, and be a much busier service. And after 25 years, the economic development associated with it would be impressive.

Well, as the papers are telling us with increasing enthusiasm, that is beginning to happen. The first shot was the FEC’s announcement of a fast train from Miami to Orlando. The press has carried maps of prospective station locations, and land purchases by the railroad in the most important locations, including downtown Miami and West Palm Beach. Not only does the FEC, or its parent company Florida East Coast Industries, want passenger service, it wants it so badly it is willing to pay for it. That is pretty much unheard of these days. Just about all the rail commuter lines and long distance passenger service has been taken over by Amtrak or regional authorities like Tri-Rail. But the FEC is willing to foot the bill and the reason appears to be not so much the joy of running a train from South Florida to Orlando’s Disney World, but rather the enhanced value of the railroad’s considerable property along the route.

Almost immediately after the FEC’s announcement of its privately funded venture, All Aboard Florida, the very publicly funded Tri-Rail began discussing moving some trains over to the FEC tracks. That only makes sense, and initially need not be too costly if it uses an existing connection between the two tracks in the Pompano Beach area, and piggybacks the stations the FEC plans for Fort Lauderdale and Miami. North of Fort Lauderdale, Tri-Rail on its present tracks is useful. There is considerable commercial activity along the I-95 corridor in Palm Beach County. Existing stations, such as one near the Cypress Creek office complex, are nicely positioned. Tri-Rail need not abandon its present infrastructure, for it serves the Miami International Airport, but it would be less busy.

Ultimately Tri-Rail could expand north on the FEC. That would likely involve public/private financing to upgrade the railroad for much heavier and faster traffic. Some grade crossings, numerous on the FEC, would have to be eliminated or made safer, which would be a great benefit for the railroad’s freight activity. There has also been consideration of Amtrak running some long-distance trains on the FEC, especially north of Palm Beach where its coastal route to Jacksonville is far more direct than Amtrak’s current route through the center of the state. These other uses of its tracks are welcomed by Florida East Coast Industries, a sea change from 25 years ago.

After years of everybody knowing this transportation revolution needed to happen, it appears to be underway, and fast, maybe within two years. And yet the long-range benefits far exceed the short-term value of a good rail system. Areas near proposed stations are often seedy or undeveloped. We can foresee an explosion of office, hotel and high-rise residential development all along the FEC corridor. This has happened in many places where rail service has been modernized. Our guess is the FEC sees it more clearly than anybody.

This could be a big financial story for all of Florida’s east coast, maybe the biggest story since, well, since Henry Flager brought his railroad through more than 100 years ago.

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