Wake up City, your surface logistics dynasty is falling... In the year 1960, Jacksonville was still the railroad logistics center of the American southeast. Ten railroad yards and hundreds of miles of sidings attested to our undisputed role as The Gateway City of Florida. At the onset of mergers and the digital age, much of our importance began to fade; trains didn't need to travel from yard to yard anymore.
The new age of railroading dawned in the 1970's. Amtrak took the money-losing passenger trains off their hands, giving many companies an economic boost. The Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line had merged and decided to keep their headquarters in Jacksonville after a stiff fight from Richmond. In a terrible blow to downtown, we sat on our hands and cheered Amtrak as they built us a new station way out of downtown, almost under an overpass and between two junk yards.
The Jacksonville Terminal during its active days
When the trains left Jacksonville Terminal, it set the stage for wholesale slaughter of the infrastructure that had allowed us our uncontested title as the king of Florida's Rails. We charged ahead, paving over much of the former facility to build a JTA bus yard and pint-size convention center on the property, perhaps sealing its fate. Our local railroad system became a utility much like a water pump, or electric line, when just a few years before, it was a welcoming red carpet.
The second and third decades of Diesel Power allowed massive cuts in personnel, leading to shop closings all over the nation. Amid arguments that the railroads were dying, our own Moncrief, Honeymoon, and West Jax Yards saw the lion's share of the sorting shifted to Waycross. Jobs that could have been retained shifted to Georgia because we were going to be a modern city based on infinite freeways. While the Florida East Coast tore down the Miller Shops and Yard in St. Augustine, it did some expansion of its piggyback facility in Bowden yard. Southern Railway built its smallish "intermodal center," on some unused property at Simpson Yard on the City's northwest side.
Norfolk Southern's Simpson Yard
Into the 80's and 90's, over at SCL-CSX, the company evolved and expanded across the Eastern United States. We saw the abandonment of the shortest route from Florida to Savannah (and thus New York) when the plug was pulled on the old "S" line from Kingsland to Savannah. Meanwhile the same company pulled up more "redundant" trackage when the former ACL West Coast mainline was pulled up which became the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail. These two abandonment's cut our connections with the outside world from 7 routes to 5, and we did nothing. When CSX closed its giant West Jax shop complex out on Beaver Street, we saw it as the "end of an era." And when the rail yard facility went with it, it became a "superfund site."
The West Jax Shops
Today, with the buildings long gone, West Jax is a superfund site
Track was pulled from NAS JAX and from Cecil Field, and the latter left us with a "commerce center" without rail! Springfield yard closed and Export yard was downgraded. We didn't notice because all of the business would be handled at Simpson and Moncrief. Finally the "S" line downtown from Springfield to Jacksonville Terminal was pulled up, leaving the FEC with no possible access to the port, and trains to the South and West poor access to our own northside.
New World Drive was constructed over the old rail corridor to Cecil Field.
As the port expanded, the former Atlantic Coast Line bridge (East of the current Main Street Bridge) was dismantled over the Trout River, further restricting movement to and from the northside terminals. In the late 80's CSX opened it's new Jacksonville bypass and the new Intermodal Yard off Pritchard Road, further reducing the importance of Moncrief.
The new era of railroad came as a surprise to even the best railroad forecasters, when the boom times of the 2000's caught the companies with a slim and trim physical plant unable, in many cases, to handle the sudden increased demands. By the mid-decade economic crash, the railroads were still engaged in expansion all over the nation.
"Capacity" is the catchword of the industry today, but what does that mean to Jacksonville?
Consider that the Florida East Coast and the Norfolk Southern System have agreed on run through trains between Macon and Miami. To completely seal this deal, the two companies just opened the huge new joint container facility in Titusville. Work that was formerly done at Simpson Yard and Bowden yard has left town for Central Florida.
Consider that CSX is now moving again on the giant container and intermodal yard in Winter Haven. This will have no small impact on Jacksonville and Orlando (Taft), where this business was formerly handled. Consider that not only are the tracks moving away, so are the jobs and opportunities to develop along these tracks.
So in a new world where trains race from terminal to terminal to load or unload highway vehicles, will they blow right past us? What has Jacksonville done to encourage railroad infrastructure in the last 50 years? Maybe we should phrase the question, "Has Jacksonville done anything to encourage more local railroad investment in the last 50 years?"
This abandoned Springfield line once served the downtown waterfront
Today, railroads are back on top, and no other transportation mode comes close to the percentage of freight carried on American rails. We seem to have attacked this opportunity as a spectator sport. So is the new facility in Winter Haven really a gift of free tracks for commuter rail or, the sound of distant jobs passing us in the night? It will be hard to be America's premiere Atlantic Port, when all we have to offer is overgrown, vacant, gravel-covered acreage where a gateway dynasty once stood.
Article by Robert Mann