When Florida East Coast Industries (hereafter known as FEC) came up with the name All Aboard Florida, it probably did not mean all aboard for critics. But everybody from the marine industry to people who like walking on railroad tracks has added baggage to those worried that the proposed fast train from Miami to Orlando will destroy tropical living as we know it.
The criticism is particularly loud in Palm Beach County where the Palm Beach Post has run a number of stories (including one today) reporting concerns about noise and safety. Such fears have drowned out those supporting one of the most important steps in Florida transportation since – well, since Henry Flagler brought the trains here in the first place.
Not that these worries aren't legitimate, especially in the case of the marine industry, but some of the noise is like the people who move next to a booming airport and then complain about the airplanes roaring overhead. Anyone with vision could have predicted that this FEC track running through the heart of cities up and down the East Coast would someday be a crucial and busy component of a modern transportation system. Especially since Tri-Rail 25 years ago proved the usefulness of a commuter train, even one running on the wrong track.
People in Palm Beach County are asking why they have to pay the price for a train that doesn't do them any good, that will principally be used by tourists headed to and from Disney World. Well, give it time. Tri-Rail has already identified locations for stations if (and it seems almost certain this will happen) it moves some trains to the vastly more useful FEC tracks.
The controversy over All Aboard Florida planning to run trains at 75 mph on tracks with frequent grade crossings might be a blessing in disguise. It calls attention to the reality that the FEC needs a new railroad, or better put, a modernization to bring it into the 21st century. There are places where the new train could actually get up to 75 mph. The more than two-mile stretch from Griffin Road south of the airport to State Road 84 is free of crossings, and the train could move out. And there are miles along Dixie Highway in both north and south Broward where an engineer can see well down the track and brake safely in an emergency. There are other places where grade crossings at minor streets could be closed, making higher speeds practical. But for much of the route in Broward and Palm Beach counties it would be dangerous for a train to go much over 50 mph. It is from these neighborhoods that fears of constantly blaring horns and crashes at grade crossings have arisen.
It would not be surprising if the FEC has anticipated this opposition, and sensed the opportunity to turn it into an opportunity to modernize its track, with much of the cost carried by government. Some improvements are a necessity, the principal one being downtown Fort Lauderdale where the marine industry along the New River would be severely impacted by many additional drawbridge closings. What is needed is a high bridge, similar to the one that takes Tri-Rail and the longer Amtrak trains across the river farther west, or a tunnel under the river. The Tri-Rail bridge on the CSX tracks is about a mile long, and even that is too steep for long freight trains. They still cross the river on a drawbridge.
Such a bridge on the FEC would leave the status quo, with freights still using the drawbridge. We can also anticipate a new All Aboarding party – the residents of buildings near the railroad who would hate their view to be a bridge just outside their balcony. A tunnel would be a permanent cure, if the grade were sufficiently gentle to permit shorter freights to use it along with passenger trains.
It sounds like a huge expense, and it would be, but not as bad as you might think. The tunnel itself need be no longer than the Henry Kinney Tunnel on Federal Highway. It’s only about two blocks long. The approaches could be open air, going under Broward Boulevard (a blessing for drivers) and extending for blocks on each side. From the railroad’s point of view, that should be intriguing, opening up the prospect of air rights for blocks of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
One tunnel does not rebuild a railroad, but it’s a beautiful start.