Trains On The Florida East Coast One Step Closer

October 7, 2011 18 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In accordance with Section 210 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), Amtrak has developed and commenced plans to improve the performance of five of its Eastern long-distance routes: the Silver Star, Silver Meteor and Palmetto (collectively the Silver Service), the Crescent, and the Lake Shore Limited. The study indicates that, not only should restoring rail service between Jacksonville and Miami be Amtrak's top prioity, but that the route would actually turn a profit.

Potential Service on the Florida East Coast

The Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) connects Jacksonville and Miami via the population centers on the eastern coast of Florida. The FEC, which was historically the primary passenger rail route between Jacksonville and Miami, is shorter and faster than the current Amtrak route through Orlando on CSX, and serves a significant intermediate travel market along Florida’s rapidly growing east coast.

Amtrak evaluated several alternatives for extending or routing existing Silver Service trains over the Florida East Coast. Preliminary analyses suggest that the most promising alternative would be splitting the Silver Star at Jacksonville and operating a separate section of the train to Miami via the FEC to supplement the Silver Star’s current Jacksonville-Tampa-Miami service. Operating a section of the Silver Star over the FEC is projected to attract over 100,000 new Silver Service riders, and increase revenues by $7.9 million annually. Since projected revenues would slightly exceed the anticipated additional operating costs, the route’s financial performance would improve as well.

Operation of a section of the Silver Star over the FEC is not included in the plan because it cannot be implemented at this time. Significant capital funding would be required for rail infrastructure upgrades on the FEC route, including additional equipment, mobilization costs, and other necessary investments. In addition, Florida DOT, which owns the rail line between Dyer (West Palm Beach) and Miami, over which additional service routed via FEC would operate, is prohibited by Florida law from entering into the liability apportionment arrangements that Amtrak has with nearly all of its host railroads. Initiation of additional Amtrak service over FDOT-owned lines would subject Amtrak to additional unacceptable liability exposure.

However, the State of Florida’s current capital budget includes funding for investments to restore passenger rail service on the FEC route. The State has also committed to working with Amtrak to secure enactment of an amendment to Florida law that would allow FDOT to enter into a liability apportionment agreement with Amtrak.

Restoring passenger rail service to the FEC route is the most promising initiative for the expansion of Amtrak’s route network, identified during the first two years of the PRIIA 210 long-distance performance improvement process. Amtrak will continue to work with the State of Florida, including the FEC, municipalities along the FEC route that have committed to fund station costs, and other stakeholders to pursue efforts to bring Amtrak service to the Florida East Coast.

Amtrak/FEC Fast Facts

Estimated Capital Costs: $260 million

Project Length: 326 miles

Maximum Speed: 90 miles per hour

Estimated Jobs Created During 3-year Construction Period: 2,100

Estimated Amount of Jobs Created Through 2025: 6,300

The trip to South Beach would be strengthened with the return of passenger rail to the Florida East Coast Railroad.

Other Initiatives

Amtrak's plans indicate that more services could soon be on their way to Jacksonville.  These additional projects include a Chicago-Florida train, extending a New York-Savannah train to Tampa, and Thruway Bus service to the University of Florida.

Chicago-Florida Service

Amtrak is considering plans that would connect Jacksonville to Chicago.

From 1971 to 1979, Amtrak operated a Chicago-Nashville-Miami train, the Floridian, that was plagued by slow schedules due to deteriorated track on segments of its route which resulted in low ridership. More recently, Amtrak provided a popular connection at Washington, DC for passengers between the Capitol Limited route from Chicago to Washington and the Silver Star route to Florida. This connection was eliminated due to missed connections that resulted from late trains. While Chicago-Washington-Florida connections are still offered via the Capitol Limited and Silver Meteor routes, this connection entails a long layover in Washington, and the Silver Meteor does not serve Raleigh, N.C., or Columbia, S.C.

Amtrak has studied providing a faster “one seat ride” from Chicago to Florida by consolidating the Silver Star and the Capitol Limited routes as a run-through service. The train would operate from Chicago to Washington DC, via the Capitol Limited route, continue south via the Silver Star route to Orlando, and then operate without passengers back to Sanford, Fla., where it would be serviced at the Auto Train mechanical facility. Because this proposal would reduce the number of direct New York/Philadelphia-Florida trains from two to one, Amtrak would also extend the New York-to-Savannah's Palmetto to Tampa and Miami. These service changes would significantly increase national network connectivity and are projected to increase ridership by over 55,000 passengers annually.

Although this concept has many positive aspects, Amtrak is not able to pursue it at this time. While it would increase revenues and improve cost recovery, additional costs are projected to slightly exceed revenues, increasing operating funding requirements. The imminent acquisition of the DeLand-Orlando-Poinciana, Fla. portion of the Silver Star route by the State of Florida for SunRail commuter rail service would impede additional Amtrak operations in the Orlando area during commuter rail-related track reconstruction. It would also raise the same liability issues noted in connection with the proposed FEC service. Amtrak will continue to explore options for improving route network connectivity between the Midwest and Florida.

Thruway Feeder Buses

A connection between Jacksonville and Gainesville is on the horizon as well.

An existing Amtrak Thruway bus provides a daily round trip from Jacksonville to Lakeland. It connects with the Silver Star at both ends of the route, and serves communities that were formerly served by Amtrak’s Palmetto route before it was cut back to Savannah in November 2004. Amtrak proposes to add a new bus stop at a development named The Villages, one of America's largest and fastest growing active adult retirement communities located near Wildwood, Fla., and also to relocate the Gainesville stop to a more attractive and convenient location at the University of Florida.  Amtrak anticipates that the new stops will modestly increase ridership and revenues. They will also provide improved access to Amtrak’s long-distance network to large populations of two important demographic cohorts: college students and retirees.

A Message From Robert Mann (Ocklawaha)

With vision, the old terminal's (Prime Osborn) ghostly tunnels could be buzzing with activity again.

Want to make Jacksonville a destination and not a pass through? Bringing Amtrak back downtown as soon as possible would be a strong step toward achieving that goal.  Amtrak's plans mean jobs for Jacksonville and could be a game changer for downtown, with the old terminal becoming the railroad passenger hub of Florida again. While we may no longer have the 56 daily trains or the 15 million annual passengers we hosted through the 1960's, Amtrak's plans would result in hundreds of thousands of passengers moving through downtown Jacksonville and being exposed to its businesses and attractions.  Add to this the possibility of some sort of restoration of either the Sunset Limited between Jacksonville and Los Angeles, or a currently proposed Jacksonville - Atlanta route that is certain to end in Chicago, and the pulse of LaVilla will start to beat again.

Article by Robert Mann and Ennis Davis.

Source: Pages 65-72 of Amtrak's recently released (September 2011) PRIIA Section 210 FY11 Performance Improvement Plan