So What's The Difference - A Transit Reference

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.

Published October 21, 2015 in Transportation -


Ridership has soared, just as the venerable Skyway cars run their last miles, this leaves Jacksonville with a critical decision, whether the Skyway lives or dies and some thoughts on what form or forms our future mass transit efforts should take.


Monorails have long held a public image of being the 'train of the future'. However, it is a train that has been around since the late 1800's and it hasn't arrived yet. Here, we see the famous 'Bicycle Railway' that once made demonstration loops around Coney Island before it was dumped in the scrapheap of history.

A truer monorail was an experimental system, called the Pelham and City Island Railway, which operated in the Bronx. The management was so impressed with a demonstration at the Jamestown, Virginia Exposition in 1907, that the Interboro Rapid Transit Company (owner of the 'Third Avenue Railway' ) had the system installed from the IRT station to the foot of the City Island Bridge.

The system opened on July 16, 1910 and on its first trip out, the car called 'The Flying Lady' lived up to its name and flew off the track seriously injuring a large number of riders. The monorail was bankrupt by December of 1911, and it only operated a short time after that.  

Pollution caused by urban railway horsecars and omnibuses was a health hazard in cities everywhere. Thus, the race to replace was as important to that generation as the race to the moon was in the 1960's. Through a long succession of inventions and inventors, the cable car offered an answer. The unpowered rail cars were pulled along attached to a cable running in a grove in the street. A central power plant and a cable loop of several miles allowed comprehensive coverage from New York City to Seattle and from San Diego to Tulsa. This photo illustrates why the trend didn't take root in the South; not only was the infrastructure complex and extremely expensive, it was equally costly to maintain. The 30 or so systems peaked and vanished for the most part within 10 years between 1875 and 1885. By 1900 about all that were left were the lines in cities where extreme grades made a cable pulled transit system more practical.

The ubiquitous streetcar was originally created without the trademark pole on the roof. Instead, a small wheel rode along the electric wire at the end of a cord. While the spring loaded pole was a logical improvement but not before some wise guy decided the vehicle was 'trolling' through the city. A corruption of trolling became 'trolley.' Thus, a vehicle with the pole attached to a wire, on rails or on rubber tires is legitimately a 'trolley,' and anything else is factually not.

Trolleys allowed massive expansion of urban railways throughout the country. Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Pensacola all operated substantial streetcar systems. Therein is another often misunderstood FACT, streetcars run on railroad track, not streets. Historically in Jacksonville, much, if not most of our system ran alongside the road, not in it. Other sections of the system operated in broad landscaped medians earning for us the moniker of 'The Most Beautiful Streetcar Line in The World.'

The incredible flexibility to operate anywhere tracks were laid, meant that streetcars historically operated on roadway, alongside the road, in the median, elevated on bridge structures, in subways, and frequently alongside major railroads.  Jacksonville's streetcars followed the mainline too, the right-of-way (green space) between the CSX tracks and Plymouth Avenue in Murray Hill is one such location still visible. In this view we see a elevated trolley descending the ramp to street level in April 1943, Baltimore, Maryland, in a photo by Marjory Collins.


While virtually everyone is familiar with the omnipresent city transit bus, not everyone truly understands what Bus Rapid Transit really is. Promises of huge new Transit Oriented Development (TOD) projects, fast, frequent service, and all of the other trappings of rail systems actually require an investment comparable to rail systems. This is where the deception, intentional or not, about the new 'First Coast Flyer' is so grievous. A nickel and dime approach to BRT will only deliver nickel and dime results. This station on the BRT in Medellin, Colombia, helps illustrate a true world class BRT system.

This BRT system in Nantes, France illustrates the massive amount of change brought about by a true rapid transit system. Without this type of investment you simply deduct the 'RAPID' from the 'TRANSIT.' BRT does have some advantages over rail; the ability to nickel and dime your system and the ability to leave the busway and resort to surface streets as a local bus then return to the busway for the 'rapid' ride back being two of them. The downside to BRT is pretty extensive too, short vehicle life, small capacity per vehicle/operator hour, heavy vehicle wear on pavements requiring frequent resurfacing, a tendency for the buses to bunch up when they encounter numerous traffic signals.

Transit extremes still exist such as this system in Adelaide, Australia, where the cost exceeds that of many rail systems yet with all of the handicaps of buses.

An improvement to the BRT concept is the true 'Trolleybus.' Such a bus route gives the rider the route certainty of rail, and many of the lower cost benefits of buses, married to a true BRT busway system this can be a win-win combination.

One of the sales pitches of the BRT industry is the slogan; 'It's just like rail only cheaper.' The facts are, if you want a rail system's performance, you build a rail system and if you want to duplicate the whistles and bells many places (Tampa) added to their urban rail systems you'll pay a rail system price for a bus.


The carousel terminals in Medellin's 'Metro Cable System,' are as simple as those at any amusement park. The aerial route over the city, cutting across curves and bypassing traffic signals makes up for the fairly low speeds. The investment is about as low as it gets in a basic metro system.

Up and over the river, in New York City, the Roosevelt Island Gondola system is a well known component of the regional mass transit system. The benefits being a low cost start, but the major drawback is that they remove the passenger from the pedestrian experience. However, they are an excellent choice as a component of a more complex system. A Jacksonville example might be imagined as connecting a St. Augustine commuter rail train station on the Southbank with the Stadium/Shipyards development area.


Automated People Movers or APM systems are the go-to mode for single point to point operations or dedicated and limited distance shuttle service such as Miami's Metromover or Detroit's People Mover. The cost of building a elevated highway for the rubber tires, a railway to guide the same, and a horizontal elevator as far as command and control systems make these rather expensive toys. Early failures to meet schedule/service demands in urban settings seems to have limited the market for the APM but the technology isn't dead. This new APM system serves the Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3. Tampa, Orlando and Miami International Airports also operate these systems.

This is the APM at the San Francisco International Airport was designed and built by Bombardier, the same company that built the current Jacksonville Skyway cars.


Note the width of the monorail vehicle in this scene from Mumbai, these are massive capacity and massive cost systems unlike anything found in the states with the exception that they do operate on or are suspended from a single beam. $183,000,000 dollars (about 345,000,000 in 2015 dollars)  for little over 2 miles of Jacksonville's Skyway is the key to understanding why monorail is not and never has been the 'train of the future.' An actual monorail metro system would cost much more, going to the beach could easily jack up that tab to the neighborhood of $2 billion dollars.

In Japan or in China, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, where overcrowded streets leave little room for vehicles and pedestrians, a full size monorail metro might make sense. Anywhere smaller (Jacksonville, Seattle or Las Vegas for example) and it's a guaranteed fail. The advantages of speed, above traffic, cutting across curves or corners and a massive passenger capacity can make these systems attractive in the right setting.


This is a artists conception of the Orlando International Airport-International Drive Mag-Lev train. Not to pour water on someone's dream, but as of this date, Mag-Lev trains are among the worlds most expensive toys. The German technology using attracting electro-magnets was employed to build this first ever commercial Mag-Lev system. Shanghai's Maglev Train, launched in 2004, has the maximum speed of 431 km/h. It runs between Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Shanghai's Longyang Road Metro Station at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes.

While construction techniques might have been reported to the US Government that would keep mag-lev within the cost boundaries of conventional high-speed rail ($50-$100 Million dollars per mile), the fact is, it hasn't been done. The German system cost in excess of $300 Million Euro's per mile. Not unlike a futuristic national monorail grid, don't expect to travel between Jacksonville and anywhere else on one of these trains.


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.


You might not have heard this term before, but as the lines between Light Rail Trains and Streetcars continue to blur, an old 'Jacksonville like' concept is taking root in streetcar lines around the country. This is a short study in what makes a Streetcar become a Rapid Streetcar.  Many streetcars are designed for 35-45 mph top speeds, but as we've seen with some tweaking, they can do much better. Jacksonville's own 'Jacksonville Traction System' utilized a similar approach, using primarily Bay and Main Streets downtown, but entering a landscaped median at the Springfield Parks and beyond. The same exclusive median was used on the line up Pearl Street. The line to Ortega, Panama Park, Murray Hill, San Jose, Camp Johnston (today's NAS JAX) and Moncrief used a mix of exclusive railroad track both alongside and in places nowhere near our local roads. This of course, meant that the streetcar of 1918 made the trip from downtown to NAS JAX in about the same time as today's city buses.

The photos below graphically demonstrate the concept in modern practice in the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Some years ago, the abandonment of the Steel City's streetcars came to a halt and plans were put into effect to remove the remaining street trackage in downtown to greatly speed the service. Here we see a Port Authority of Allegheny County streetcar train on exclusive right of way, unhindered by traffic or traffic lights.

In downtown Pittsburgh, the rapid streetcars duck under the streets and become a subway system on a budget. Streetcar's ability to operate entrain means that the capacity of the system could in theory rival Light-Rail.

When Trolleys fly? Here The Port Authority of Allegheny County streetcars operate on a elevated concrete structure (Look around downtown Jacksonville for similar structures).

As a final incentive to use exclusive right of way for streetcars, take a look at this line not unlike our once famous Main Street line. Covering the country with asphalt, you simply cannot do this with a bus-based system.


The Port Authority of Allegheny County 'rapid streetcar' demonstrates it's versatility by entering the street grid with a 4-car train. The passenger waiting at the stop is on a 'safety island,' another innovation shared historically by Jacksonville, with 100+ safety islands.

Commuter rail, intercity rail, heavy rail in subway, surface or EL, the streetcar, light-rail and bus rapid transit share one important key to urban mobility, they put the pedestrian at the curb, in the bistro, flower shop or boutique. People that use transit will walk past a business that a skyway passenger flies over. Being electric, streetcars are quiet and non-polluting, making them more pedestrian friendlier then Diesel buses.


Vision? In Seattle, Light Rail on the Skyway! The Skyway structure was designed for the weight loading of modern streetcars, it's monorail days are numbered, or we decide to freeze our future fixed transit right in it's tracks forever. Conversion to Rapid Streetcar is a no brainer, up the ramp to the Skyway, down the ramp to the Shipyards, Riverside and Northside. Imagine! It's been done before, so let's fast forward to a modern Jacksonville vision...

How do you expand the Skyway? Think broad new boulevards, electric transmission right-of-ways and easements, the city owned 'S Line right-of-way' and the old 'Fernandina & Jacksonville right-of-way' running from Gateway Town Center to Shad Khan's Shipyards project and from Springfield Yard across Main, behind UF Health, and down through the heart of Durkeeville. Alongside Kernan, alongside the CSX 'A Line' from Jacksonville Terminal (Prime Osborn) to Kingsley in Orange Park, alongside the FEC to Avenues Walk, alongside the Kingsland Subdivision of CSX... up, down or under, it's all possible with Rapid Streetcar.

As we saw in our opening photographs, Pittsburgh is leading the way, it's been done in Baltimore, and it can be done again in Jacksonville. Skyway downtown, Rapid Streetcar, BRT, local buses and finally, commuter rail will give us the infrastructure to continue to build a city with no limits.

Article by Robert Mann. Contact Bob at

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