So What's The Difference - A Transit Reference

October 21, 2015 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Just when you thought you've heard it all, Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann takes another look at transportation alternatives being advanced in Florida, a critical look at the differences in mass transit modes, and the possibilities afforded Jacksonville by the Skyway; with some of the positives and negatives of each.


Amtrak, High Speed Rail (HSR), All Aboard Florida and Higher Speed Rail (HrSR) are all derivatives of the great American passenger train network. Amtrak itself proved to be a bumbling savior and of the 364 trains operated previously, Amtrak only continued 182. Out of this, only about 30 trains served anywhere outside of the Northeast Corridor. States have been stepping in and adding state supported services with California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina leading the way. Florida made an anemic attempt at a state supported service between Tampa and Miami.

Amtrak introduced the first Silver Palm as a single round trip service between Miami and Tampa, Florida, on November 21, 1982. The train was subsidized by the Florida Department of Transportation as a 403(b) service. The train operated over the tracks of the Seaboard System Railroad between Miami and Tampa via Auburndale. The northbound train departed Miami in the morning and returned from Tampa in the afternoon. Travel time was approximately five hours in each direction. A bus connection was provided between Winter Haven and Orlando. The Silver Palm was the first intrastate train to use the then-new Amfleet II coaches. The initial consist was two coaches and a cafe car.

After a two-year trial the Florida Department of Transportation recommended ending subsidies for the Silver Palm. State law required that state-sponsored services maintain a farebox ratio of 60% to continue funding. FDOT announced on October 20, 1984 that the Silver Palm's ratio was 45.3%. The Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers sued the state, arguing that the Department of Transportation had calculated the operating ratio incorrectly, and won at the district court level. This decision was overturned on appeal by the Florida First District Court of Appeal on March 28, 1985. The Silver Palm was discontinued on April 30, 1985. (Wikipedia)

With Florida's population booming once again, and a myriad of highway and turnpike projects on the table, it only makes sense to revisit a state supported system. The capacity for rail is nearly unlimited and when properly built, in many ways it could be considered the super highway that doesn't need to be widened.


Sunrail, operating between Debary and Sand Lake Road in Orlando, is Florida's newest commuter railroad and an excellent alternative to the perpetual traffic jam on I-4.  This type of system is NOT light-rail, it's basically the same as Amtrak as far as plant and equipment is concerned. In Jacksonville, a limited service in the AM and PM between downtown and Palm Coast and Palatka have long been considered. With the Florida East Coast going back into the passenger train business on their own via All Aboard Florida, and CSX shifting traffic off of the 'A' line along US-17, we may see increased opportunities to make these train trips. However, in our case, it might not happen in the form many expect. In Jacksonville's case, a somewhat shorter goal might make more sense with lines to St. Augustine and Green Cove Springs as terminals.  And a single Diesel Multiple Unit or Rail Diesel Car making up a one to two car train during rush hours providing the economy. Infrastructure in a commuter rail LITE approach, similar to JTA's First Coast Flyer could well be the key to adding this to Jacksonville's mix.


This is an image of The Metro de Medellin, in Colombia. Medellin's immaculate Metro is the envy of South America. Bogota, Colombia and Curitiba, Brasil; (both cities considered 'world poster children' of highly developed/successful Bus Rapid Transit) are both well along in replacing large swaths of BRT with a true heavy rail metro.  

The Miami Metro, massive capacity, high speeds, and enormous infrastructure investment are all part of a true heavy rail investment. Heavy rail is typically installed to maximize speed and passenger per direction per hour capacity, thus most modern systems are elevated or in subway tunnels though heavy rail is capable of running on the surface use of a third rail makes for a real hazard for trespassers. Medellin avoided this pitfall with the use of overhead catenary. In any case, Bogota with a population of nearly 9 million and Curitiba with nearly 3 million set the imaginary perimeter for heavy rail to be even remotely feasible. Regionally, Miami, Atlanta, Wasington, DC and Baltimore have heavy rail and it's unlikely we will see funding for any new systems in the foreseeable future.


If Metro Jacksonville were teaching a class, we'd call Light Rail Systems a 'family,' as this photograph illustrates so well. Here, we see a Charlotte Light Rail (LYNX) train next to an original Pearl Thomas New Orleans Streetcar on the same tracks, same system, same time, and using a pantograph on catenary wire for the Light Rail and a traditional simple trolley pole on the catenary wire for the streetcar.

In the beginning all passenger rail vehicles resembled simple stage coaches mounted on rails. As time went on the needs of intercity travel and the development of steam locomotion greatly increased the size and number of coaches on trains. Urban rail continued to hobble alongside the horse drawn omnibus until the advent of cable railways and electric powered streetcars allowed for larger urban vehicles. As some electric systems expanded, they spread from urban centers to outlaying areas, often traveling hundreds of miles. What were essentially larger, faster streetcars at one point reached across 45,000 route miles in the USA.

Interurbans could and did reach speeds of 100 miles per hour and one of the most famous 'trolley' photos of all time was recorded by the Pathe News Cameras as a lightweight 'Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railway' car ran out from under and away from a early bi-plane. These systems would run in trains and usually were on exclusive right-of-way except perhaps in cities, where they could and did share track with their local streetcar cousins. These large systems became known as 'The Interurban Railways,' while the local systems were lumped into a category known as 'Street Railways,' though as we have seen, they certainly were NOT restricted to the street. Today we call those interurbans Light-Rail using Light-Rail Vehicles, while the former Street Railways are still known as 'Streetcars.' Both categories come in vintage, reproduction or heritage and in modern configurations.

The City of Denton, Texas, took advantage of a new wrinkle in the Light Rail bag of tricks when it unveiled it's 'A Train' using a section of abandoned railroad that ties Denton to the northern most DART station at Trinity Mills. The trains themselves are Diesel Multiple Units or DMU cars and they resemble Light-Rail without the wires. As of this writing, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration are working to set standards to allow these DMU cars to operate on freight railroads such as the CSX, NS or FEC.

The newest extension of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system now reaches from downtown Dallas to the giant Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. These trains can be six cars long and have capacities that rival heavy rail at a fraction of the cost, reaching speeds of 65 miles per hour between stations. Dallas now leads the country in route miles of clean, modern, electric railways.

This final Light-Rail Photo shows the Trinity Mills Station with the Denton 'A-Train' on the left, meeting the DART electric train on the right. Passengers simply cross the platform to make the connection and the schedules are designed to make this effortless. As the metro area expands and traffic grows, the A-Train will undoubtedly be electrified for economy, but this is an idea that Jacksonville would do well to consider.

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