Stunning Things Are Happening As Florida Goes Rail

April 10, 2012 15 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The announcement from Florida East Coast Industries of a new private passenger rail service is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In an article that started as the mere musings of a retired railroad consultant, Metro Jacksonville blows the lid off huge changes in the Sunshine State. This is bigger than Jacksonville, bigger than 'All Aboard Florida' - this is just the start of an epic change in thinking as Florida goes rail.

A Brief History of the "Speedway to America's Playground."

Historically to board a train to the east coast of Florida from any point in America, involved a trip through the massive Jacksonville Terminal. It was said at that time, the impressive station made one feel as if he had entered Jacksonville like a Greek god. A short history of Passenger Rail on the Florida East Coast Railway, a destination for most of these grand old trains is in order here.

Built primarily in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, the FEC was a project of Standard Oil principal Henry Morrison Flagler. The story goes that Flagler originally intended only to develop world class hotels, resorts and industries in Florida, until the narrow gauge Jacksonville and St. Augustine Railway decided to charge exorbitant amounts to carry his construction materials. Flagler bought the railroad, extending it all the way from Jacksonville to Key West and never looked back.

After the death of its benefactor, the Florida East Coast made only 25% of its income from passenger service, which represented 75% of its operations.  Regardless of 30 years of weak financial performance, the FEC RY was still seen as the premiere passenger railroad in the south, indeed it was known as "The Speedway to America's Playground." The railroad played host to many of America's finest and fastest passenger trains, a legacy that probably would have continued had Jacksonville's own Ed Ball not decided to take on the railroad labor unions.

Love him or hate him, the late Mr. Ball converted the FEC RY into what might be termed America's first modern 'super railroad.' Passenger trains were swept aside as Ball's philosophy of 'Negate the negative, accentuate the positive,’ started to take effect. In 2007 the railroad was purchased by, Fortress Investment Group, which acquired it for over US$3 billion (including non-rail assets). Fortress owns Flagler Development and for the first time in years, the famed development monolith and the railroad are back in the same hands.

Keep in mind that FECI, Flagler and Florida East Coast Railway are separate companies. The State of Florida, Port Canaveral, Sunrail, Tri-Rail, The Southeast Florida Corridor Project, CSX and Norfolk Southern ultimately, will all be players.

The FEC RY has experience in doing the impossible as evidenced by the Bahia Honda Bridge on Flagler's railroad across the sea.(

Was FEC sending a subliminal message when they recently rolled out locomotive 714 in the classic passenger colors of the past? (Kevin Andrusia Photo)

From the news release: “All Aboard Florida is unlike any other rail project proposed in the last several years.  It is a private passenger rail venture that will be privately owned, operated and maintained with no risk to the state.”

What I suspect the Project is, and what it is not.

“It is incorrect to refer to All Aboard Florida as a high-speed rail project.”

“All Aboard Florida will be a privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail system. The existing Right of Way and track infrastructure All Aboard Florida will be operating on is privately owned. It is not owned by the State.”

Don't get caught up in the tricky wording in the mainstream media, what FECI is saying is they will manage the project at no risk to the taxpayers. They never said they would own the right-of-way between Cocoa and Orlando, just “the existing right-of-way.” FECI is not going out on a limb in a venture this risky unless there are some solid guarantees and in following my hunches, I have found the collective dividends will be huge. Rapidly growing real estate markets near the tracks is a strong incentive for a company like Flagler Development.

Nowhere in the press release do I actually read the words; FECI will own the right-of-way, tracks, or even the trains, (again except for the historic Miami-Cocoa portion which is owned by sister company FEC RY). All of the indicators point to heavy state involvement in zero risk infrastructure improvements. All Aboard Florida, could easily own the operating rights, maintenance contracts, staffing, and through the complex family tree, 200 miles of the Florida East Coast Railway itself, without really owning the balance of the 40 extra miles of new right-of-way between Orlando-Cocoa, or the tracks, or even the trains.

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