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 regional freight benefit for that ‘other’ Fortress property?

While I don’t think a new freight connector is a driving force in the ‘All Aboard Florida’ plan, it will be region wide benefit. As far back as 1980, the Federal Government frowned on a $600 million dollar plan to create a major coal port at Port Canaveral that would be served by the Florida East Coast Railway using segments of the NASA Railroad. At that time they were afraid of train interference with the Space Shuttle program. The project was being pushed by Hvide Marine, Florida East Coast Railway, Canaveral Port Authority, joined by Florida Power and Light, when the companies studied the costs of building the rail link themselves across the Banana River, Merritt Island, Sykes Creek and the Indian River a $20 million (1980's) dollar cost was a project killer. Unbelievably among the potential customers released by Hvide, one finds the Jacksonville Electric Authority.

Luck is changing for Port Canaveral, and this railroad project, could be its ticket into the big leagues of world cargo ports. Today the Florida East Coast, like Flagler Development and FECI are part of the Fortress Investment Group LLC (NYSE: “FIG”) a leading global investment manager with approximately $43.7 billion of assets under management as of December 31, 2011. That Fort Lauderdale based marine operator is now part of Seacor Holdings, a company with revenues of $2.1 billion. Florida Power and Light became FPL holdings with power generation assets in 20 states, now called Nextera Energy a fortune 200 company. This time around the players are different, Port Canaveral will be joined by the full power of the State of Florida and the Federal Government, not to mention tossing in CSX, Norfolk Southern and a host of other players.

Tampa is not on the initial route, but it's Union Station is up, ready and waiting. (Photo

Is Jacksonville another collateral beneficiary ?

“The plan is to have the South Florida-to-Orlando route service running in 2014. The feasibility studies currently underway will better crystallize the next steps to move the project forward.  Any inferences to a temporary connecting service would be incorrect.”

It appears from this communication that FECI has no intention of running a train until the entire route is complete from Miami, Cocoa and Orlando. So what about Jacksonville?  It is almost a certainty that if Miami–Orlando is a success, some of these trains could be running through to Jacksonville in the near future and we won’t have to wait for 40 miles of track construction.

Jacksonville in the bigger passenger train picture?

Aside from and unrelated to what is going on, on the FECI project, there is the Orlando Sunrail system, an actual commuter rail operation (think more passengers and less amenities) stretching from Deland to Poinciana. Sunrail will be up and running within the same rough time frame. Could it be that Tallahassee and Central Florida has discovered train operation is cheaper than building more freeway lanes?  Once Sunrail is running, you can bet Tampa and hopefully Jacksonville will be onboard.

Remember that trains from the north and trains from the south all converge within shouting distance of Jacksonville Terminal Station. Florida East Coast Railway has agreements to operate on the Norfolk Southern all the way to Atlanta, and the CEO of NS recently said something to the effect that they will operate any future passenger service over their own tracks. Where do they go? The Norfolk Southern runs from Jacksonville to Atlanta via Valdosta and is fairly close to I-75. Miami-Atlanta anyone?

Florida is an originating or terminating state for all railroads, that cross its borders and every line that enters the peninsular, passes right through Jacksonville. Jacksonville's geographic position as the hub between all lines north, Midwest and west and all lines south into peninsular Florida, makes us a natural hub even with the apathetic tendencies at City Hall.

Jacksonville is solidly on the map of the Southeast High Speed Rail System as it's southern terminus. SEHSR, like its cousins in Illinois, Michigan and New York, is actually moving along at a fairly rapid pace. The railroad is being built logically, in incremental steps, including a recent announcement of a grant allowing the next step toward restoration of the old Seaboard Railroad, Virginia - North Carolina 'S' line link. If this sounds familiar, it should, that's the same 'S' line that passes alongside north Main Street from Jacksonville, into South Georgia. The day might be approaching when the entirety of the old Seaboard route between Jacksonville and Savannah is reconstructed.

Meanwhile in schizophrenic spurts, Amtrak is talking of more service between New York and Florida. The number I’ve heard from Amtrak officials is 6 trains to the northeast within a ‘reasonable time.’ Consider that those trains, while not high speed, could easily be the start of extending the Northeast Corridor into Florida.  Even if the Republicans take complete control of the government and kill Amtrak’s national long-distance system, it is unlikely that those senators and congressmen will scrap this link in their Florida vacation plans.

(MetroJacksonville photo)

How do we get to the Temple?

To achieve any of these goals there has to be a single, central, downtown, Jacksonville Terminal Station and if I'm not mistaken, that's what is carved in stone above those 14 massive sandstone columns at 1000 West Bay Street. Done right, that substantial head-house, as a multimodal station building would allow travelers to, as they once said, "Enter Jacksonville like a god."

Article by Robert Mann

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