New Miamiorlando Rail Link Stokes Fire
By Scott Blake
The local company planning a passenger rail linking Miami to Orlando expects to complete "due diligence" studies in coming weeks so that it can move ahead with work to have the system operating sometime in 2014, project officials said this week.
Coral Gables-based Florida East Coast Industries Inc. is proposing the privately-funded, privately-owned 240-mile rail line as a transportation alternative for moving residents and tourists between South Florida and Central Florida.
"This will be an opportunity to work with tourist destinations in both parts of the state," Florida East Coast Industries spokeswoman Christine Barney told Miami Today. "There’s a tremendous amount of marketing opportunities that have yet to be explored."
Most of the estimated $1 billion construction cost would be privately funded. The system also would be privately operated and maintained, without any cost to the state or taxpayers, according to the company.
The goal would be to keep the travel time between Miami and Orlando to about three hours or less.
Although not considered a high-speed rail, the trains could reach speeds near 125 mph along the less-populated areas of the route. In more densely settled South Florida, the trains could go no faster than 79 mph.
Florida East Coast Industries would own the tracks and the stations, but it would select another company to operate the trains.
Passenger fares have not yet been set.
From a terminal in downtown Miami, the system would stretch about 200 miles north along the state’s East Coast. The Miami terminal probably would be built on company property near Government Center.
There would be stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach before continuing north to Cocoa in Brevard County, where the line would turn west for about 40 miles, ending at a terminal in Orlando.
Eventually, future phases of the rail would run west from Orlando to Tampa, and north from Cocoa to Jacksonville.
For now, however, the company is concentrating on the Miami-Orlando route. It would follow the existing Florida East Coast Railway freight train tracks, which span from Jacksonville to Miami. A new line would be built from Cocoa to Orlando for the passenger rail.
Florida East Coast Industries is the holding company for Jacksonville-based Florida East Coast Railway, founded more than a century ago by business titan Henry Flagler, and for the Coral Gables-based Flagler real estate development company.
"One of things that makes this exciting is that Flagler transformed Florida originally when he built his railroad," said Ms. Barney, CEO and managing partner at rbb Public Relations, the Coral Gables firm representing Florida East Coast Industries for the passenger rail initiative, dubbed "All Aboard Florida."
"As a descendent company of Flagler," she added, "we think this will make another transformative change with a state-of-the-art passenger rail."
According to Ms. Barney, residents, tourists and business travelers make about 50 million trips a year between South Florida and Orlando. The new passenger rail will be aimed at capturing many of those travelers and perhaps increasing total trips between the two metropolitan areas.
In coming weeks, the company expects the results of engineering, environmental and ridership studies. One thing the engineering study will determine will be which parts of the existing rail line that are curved will need to be straightened to enhance the speed and safety of the passenger trains, Ms. Barney.
At this point, plans call for a double-track system to accommodate both freight and passenger service.
"The passenger rail will have no impact on the freight operations," she added. "Some parts of the line already are doubled-tracked."
The ridership study will help the company develop a more detailed business plan in months ahead. Florida East Coast Industries eventually plans to request proposals for companies to operate the trains.
Ms. Barney said fares must be competitive with other modes of travel in order to attract passengers. She said the rail service should be an appealing travel alternative, with plans for amenities such as coach seating and wireless data services such as high-speed Internet.
"We expect that it will take 3 million cars off the road" per year, she added.
Because the system will stop in only four locations — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando — the environmental impact is expected to be minimal, according to Ms. Barney.
Moreover, she said, the route where new tracks will be built from Cocoa to Orlando already is land "designated for public use."