Sunday Train: The Miami/Orlando Passenger Rail Project

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I saw this story a couple of weeks ago, but between the happenings in California and some unanswered questions I had, I haven’t mentioned it yet. Florida East Coast Industries plans Miami-Orlando passenger service by 2014:

Passenger train service between Miami and Orlando could begin as early as 2014 under a plan announced Thursday by Florida East Coast Industries.

The new “All Aboard Florida” service, which would be privately owned and operated, would offer frequent, regularly scheduled daily trains geared to business travelers and tourists. The Miami-Orlando trip by rail would take three hours, about the same time it takes by car via Florida’s Turnpike.

There would be four stops: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando, each with connections to airports, seaports and existing rail systems such as Tri-Rail and Metrorail. The trains would run on existing FEC tracks that stretch along the east coast from Miami to Cocoa. Forty miles of new track would link Cocoa to Orlando.

Well, waddya know ~ a Passenger Train that Rick Scott can’t kill. More about the Miami/Orlando Train, below the fold.

Wait a minute, why weren’t you on this immediately?

Hey, wait a minute, its one thing to get questions from fellow Sunday Train passengers … but from my own headings?

Anyway, its a fair question. Thing is, I like to dig into things, and while there was a lot of surface to the Miami/Florida Passenger Train project, there were also more questions underneath that surface than answers.

Anyway, first, a look at that glittery surface:

According to the All Aboard Florida website:


  • What: Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) is developing a privately owned, operated and maintained intercity passenger rail service that will give business and leisure passengers a new convenient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to travel between South Florida and Orlando, and eventually Tampa and Jacksonville.
  • Where: The new route will feature passenger service along Florida East Coast Railway’s existing tracks from Miami to Cocoa and the creation of new tracks into Orlando.  Eventually the system will be expanded to Tampa and Jacksonville.
  • When: 200 of 240 miles of Right of Way (ROW) are already in place and have been in service as an operating railroad for over a century, which allows for passenger service between South Florida and Orlando to be up and running in 2014.
  • Who: FECI would own, operate and manage the passenger rail line. Florida’s taxpayers will have no ongoing construction or operating risks.

Now, is this “High Speed Rail”? Well, I’ve talked before (in 2009, and 2010, and 2011) about the different meanings of “High Speed Rail”:

  • As fast as the fastest steel wheel on steel track trains in regular service somewhere in the world (220mph or so)
  • What is the normal threshold for systems often called HSR in Europe and Japan today (faster than 150mph)
  • So fast that all in-cab signalling is required because out of cab signals flash by too fast (faster than 125mph)
  • Faster than the normal mass transit-oriented Urban Express Electric Train (faster than 110mph)
  • Faster than the fastest mainline freight speeds in common use ~ the official federal definition when federal funding for “High Speed Rail Funding” began in the 1990’s (faster than 90mph)
  • Faster than the longstanding common conventional rail speed limit in the US over the past half century (faster than 79mph)

Arguments over what is “real” HSR can be focused on any one of these meanings. The Federal definition from the 1990’s was tightened up a couple of years ago, and now the formal Federal terminology is:

  • Express HSR is high frequency passenger rail with a maximum speed of 150mph or higher on dedicated, completely grade separated rail corridor
  • Regional HSR is relatively high frequency passenger rail with a top speed of 110mph to 150mph on a mix of dedicated and shared, grade separated corridor
  • “Emerging” HSR is passenger rail service with a top speed of 90mph to 110mph, primarily on shared corridor, with the potential for future upgrade to Regional HSR or Express HSR in the future

While regional economists and transport professionals should be aware of the three categories when considering the future evolution of intercity transport in a region, this is all a bit much for the ordinary public. So I simplify things a bit, and just tag the “Express” onto HSR, which are the “bullet trains” most people think of, and use the name “Rapid Rail” for the Emerging HSR and Regional HSR categories.

Now, when we think about the Florida proposal, its for a service on an existing 90mph speed limit freight corridor, extended 40 more miles to get to a station on the Orlando Sunrail system to connect into downtown Orlando. Its supposed to make that trip in 3 hours. Now, Miami to Orlando is about 200 miles as the crow flies, so 200 miles in 3 hours is a line of sight speed of 67mph. The project, of course, is not as the crow flies, but along a rail alignment, which runs reasonably straight along the Florida Coast for 200 miles, and then goes another 40 miles inland to connect to Orlando, making a track speed of about 80mph.

Which makes sense: the corridor from Miami along the Florida Coast is already 200 miles of track with a 90mph speed limit, so if the 40 mile connection is a similar speed for most of its length, that would be three hours. This also explains the limited number of stations: it would need the ability to stretch its legs to 110mph or 125mph along the way to serve many more stations and still keep the end to end trip down to three hours.

Of course, “High Speed Rail” is anathema in some circles of the modern Republican Party, and the project proposers have taken pains to stress that this is not “High Speed Rail”. However, and I hope they will not get ticked off at me, it seems to fit what I have been calling Rapid Rail.

But Why Would a Private Railroad Start a Rapid Passenger Rail Service

The question is … what are they up to?

Well, I was just today pointed in the direction of a Metro Jacksonville post: Stunning Things Are Happening As Florida Goes Rail that speculates on several possible things that might be happening here. I’ll stress that much of the following is fact but much of the following is also speculation and inference built upon those facts.

First, the “who”. Robert Mann writes:

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.

… [Starting in the 1960’s,] 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.

So there are two levels to the “who”. The Railroad is the regional freight railroad that serves ports in Miami and Cape Canaveral, carrying heavy bulk freight in Florida including, importantly, high grade limestone quarried in the Miami area, and intermodel freight running through onto the CSX and Norfolk Southern systems. And the owner of the railroad is an Investment Group that owns the property development group that the railroad was originally built to serve.


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.

Second, the Where and How? Which is to say, how is the already existing, already pretty darn good for passenger rail corridor going to get to Orlando? Robert Mann writes:

Metrojacksonville’s railroad pundits “speculation,” is that from Orlando, the existing state owned Sunrail/CSX route would be used to get trains from the Orlando Central Business district south to the vicinity of Sand Lake Road where it intersects with the Orlando Utilities Commission Railroad, which loops south of the Tradeport Drive area and the south end of Orlando International Airport (OIA). …

[From there, it could either follow] the Beachline to the Florida East Coast tracks in Cocoa[, or it could] cross the Beachline Expressway where it turns southeast after the interchange with State Route 407. The route would continue east staying north of the Canaveral Groves Subdivision until crossing Interstate Highway 95 where it would turn southeast crossing the intersection of Canaveral Groves Boulevard and Grissom Road. This alignment would then turn south entering the Florida East Coast right-of-way near Cidco Road.

The following section of the 2008 section of the Multi-Modal Study of the Florida State Route 528 Corridor (pdf) gives an idea of the airport to existing FEC corridor section, in terms of the solid Green line on the map. Sorry about the difficulty in making it out ~ the pdf is rescalable if you are interested in getting a closer look:

And what about the politics of this?

Even more speculative is what is going on from the public side of things.

Lastly, 2014 is an election year, and Governor Scott performed poorly in this part of Florida in 2010. Scott came up short in Orange, Osceola, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Dade Counties. He knows he must win these voters over to have a chance in the next election. Anyone who has driven in Southeast or Central Florida, and heard the Republican rhetoric typically pro highway and anti rail will instantly understand why we’re getting the High Speed Rail (HSR) route, without the ‘HIGH SPEED’.  To be honest, this time it will be done right. Far right.  …

The 2014 date suggests that things are already well advanced, and that rather than a preliminary announcement, sometime later this year we will be hearing that various hurdles have been cleared, and then sometime in 2013 that Construction has begun.

Does this mean that Scott Walker was right to junk the Express HSR corridor between Orlando and Tampa? Of course not: while this places Orlando and Miami three hours apart, and an extension either as conventional rail along the expressway median or running on an improved CSX corridor between Orlando and Tampa will place Orlando and Tampa less than three hours apart ~ it will leave Tampa substantially further than 4 hours from Miami.

One advantage of HSR with a “triangular” route is that going fast enough the “long way around” can easily be quicker than going far more slowly the direct way. So while an extension from Orlando to Tampa with capacity upgrades to ensure a clear path through at 79mph (or even 90mph) will work OK between Orlando and Tampa, it will also bring home the opportunity lost to run 150mph between Tampa and Orlando.

And then there’s freight …

One of the things I suspected when I first heard about this that this might involve a freight connection.

The reason is simple: the Panamax Class Is Getting Bigger (Wikipedia)

Panamax and New Panamax are terms for the size limits for ships traveling through the Panama Canal. …

The allowable size is limited by the width and length of the available lock chambers, by the depth of the water in the canal and by the height of the Bridge of the Americas. … The limits have influenced those constructing cargo ships, giving clear parameters for ships destined to traverse the Panama Canal.

“Panamax” has been in effect since the opening of the canal in 1914. In 2009 the Canal management published the “New Panamax”, that will be in effect when the third lane of locks, larger than the current two, are operational in 2014.

After this expansion, the Panama Canal will be able to handle vessels of cargo capacity up to 13,000  twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU); currently, it can only handle vessels up to about 5,000 TEU.

Panamax cargo is important for Florida freight, for obvious reasons ~ here’s Florida, over there is the Pacific Rim (author waves vaguely toward the west), up there are a large number of markets that you can get to by rail from Florida (author waves vaguely toward the North) … and in between Florida and the Pacific Rim is the Panama Canal. And so that fact that New Panamax is 2.6 times the container capacity of Since-1913-Panamax … is a big deal.

And which is the rail line that serves the existing Miami Port and is in the best position to serve Port Canaveral? Yup, the FEC, owners of the 200 mile corridor that All Aboard Florida is going to use for its passenger trains.

Now, think about this from the perspective of the FEC. You have this rail corridor that has Positive Train Control, and that has a 90mph speed limit. However, one of the biggest part of your business being limestone, you have been operating trains at 60mph.

Now, there’s is the prospect of a substantial increase in container traffic. Indeed, Port Miami is dredging to allow it to serve New Panamax ships. You are the rail line that serves Port Miami. And you can get an appreciable competitive advantage if you can get your containers rolling along at 80mph ~ giving the almost dead flat alignment, you are in great shape to get long container trains rolling along at 80mph and keeping them going without requiring an excessive number of locomotives or burn an excessive amount of diesel.

Now you have your container trains and heavy bulk trains going at different speeds. There are two ways to cope with this: more express overtake along the corridor, and handling some of the heavy bulk traffic onto another corridor. And look to the CSX corridor system in Florida to the right.

Now, this isn’t Robert Mann’s speculation any more, this is mine. Look at that one corridor running north from Miami, and then there is the big tangle at Lakeland and then two are running north toward Jacksonville, one of them going through Orlando. And remember that the FEC is running basically up the Atlantic Coast from Miami to Jacksonville. Why, if you could upgrade the capacity of the southern section, and then find a way to connect to the CSX system at Orlando ~ you could pass off heavy bulk freight at Orlando, and keep the fast container trains rolling on the already-90mph FEC corridor to Jacksonville. And you can be sure that CSX can accommodate that freight, because they have an alternate path to Miami that bypasses Orlando.

But that’s if you can find a way to connect to the CSX system at Orlando. And … note something about one part of the potential alignment above: “the existing state owned Sunrail/CSX route would be used to get trains from the Orlando Central Business district south to the vicinity of Sand Lake Road.” CSX insisted that if the State of Florida wanted to use the CXS route through downtown Orlando as a local passenger rail corridor, they would have to buy the corridor. Which Florida did. Of course CSX retained trackage rights in the deal, but now Florida owns that link of the chain to get from the FEC right of way near Orlando to the CSX system.

Which is why this smells an awfully lot like a deal. “You want to get your freight trains through here? Sure you can … what do you have to offer us?”

And, truth to tell, if that’s what is going on, it could well be a pretty good deal. Underlying this is the basic logic of a shared use Rapid Rail corridor: if you upgrade a corridor to allow effective running of Rapid Passenger Rail, that is an expansion of track capacity. And that track capacity is there 24 hours a day ~ at times of day that lots of people want to travel, and at times of day that most people are asleep in bed. Meanwhile, containers do not much care whether they leave the railhead at 3pm or 3am. Further, in many freight tasks, arriving before the morning peak travel period is a good thing, and departing after the evening peak is a good thing.

Now, for the landbridge container trains, if you have a steady flow of ships being unloaded and loaded, you want to have a steady flow of container trains heading north, and a steady flow of containers (sadly, too often empty containers) heading south. But if the container trains are moving at about the same speed as the passenger trains, there’s little interference there.

So, waddya think?

As always, while I certainly welcome and thoroughly enjoy comments on the topic of the evening’s Sunday Train, you are also welcome to raise any issue in sustainable transport that comes to mind.

Midnight Oil ~ Dreamland

The Breakfast Creek Hotel is up for sale

The last square mile of terra firma

    gavelled in the mail

So farewell to the norfolk island pines

No amount of make believe

    can help this heart of mine

End – your dreamworld is just about to end

Fall – your dreamworld is just about to fall

Your dreamworld will fall

So shut that buckle and turn that key again

Take me to a place they say the dreaming never ends

Open wide drive that mystery road

Walk through eden’s garden and then wonder as you go

Sign says honeymoon to rent

Cloudland into dreamland turns

The sun comes up and we all learn

Those wheels must turn


  1. … if Amtrak restores the Sunset Limited all the way to Jacksonville, you could get to …

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