The Answer Is Now
After years of transportation experts and buffs talking about using the FEC Railway for passenger service, it appears that is about to happen. But maybe too much, too fast. First, history. The FEC built the east coast of Florida. Its tracks serve every important city from Jacksonville to Miami (and once to Key West). The downtowns all along its route surround the rail corridor.
However, when Tri-Rail got started in the late 1980s, the FEC wanted no part of commuter trains. It had given up passenger service in the mid-1960s and wanted nothing that would interfere with its profitable freight traffic. Tri-Rail had no choice but to use the CSX tracks, which were built about 30 years after the FEC and miss the downtowns by just enough to make them far less useful – except in newer areas such as west Boca Raton where commercial activity is concentrated along I-95.
The FEC has changed ownership and is now amenable, even encouraging, to commuter service. A map was recently published showing a proposed link between exisiting Tri-Rail service and the FEC. The connecting track in Pompano Beach is already there. In a matter of minutes trains could come east and with a stop or two be in Fort Lauderdale, where thousands of office jobs are within walking distance of the tracks. Those tracks then pass through the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, a prime destination, then bisect the business heart of Hollywood and each town to the south until they reach the port of Miami, passing the doorstep of American Airlines Arena on the way. You don’t need a study to predict that Tri-Rail’s current 14,500 daily ridership will take off immediately.
The economic benefits of such service could be enormous. One can envision tall buildings rising around the new stations, and possibly even over the tracks, using air rights. There is also the possibility that Amtrak will use the same tracks for its long distance trains. A plan to do so is in the works. The FEC is a much shorter route than the current CSX tracks which curve out to the center of the state before looping back to the east at West Palm Beach. On top of this comes news last week that a private company plans to use the FEC tracks for trains from Miami to Orlando. Suddenly, a track that hasn’t seen a passenger train in a half century could become a very active passenger line.
There’s the problem. Unlike the western CSX tracks, which had many grade crossings eliminated when I-95 was built parallel and just yards away, the FEC has hundreds of grade crossings. In fact we can think of only one place where a road bridges the tracks, and that’s near West Palm. The FEC is already a dangerous railroad with freight trains rumbling along in the vicinity of 35 miles an hour. An efficient commuter service would need speeds of at least 60 miles per hour (Tri-Rail now can get up to around 78) and that would create a constant danger at the crossings. Some less busy crossings could simply be closed, enabling trains to speed up for a mile or so, but there are still so many high traffic roads intersecting the rails that it would be an impractical speed up-slow down arrangement. Not to mention traffic being halted as gates lower to permit the trains to pass. An annoying situation for motorists today would become far worse.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that many of the roads crossing the FEC would have to be rebuilt. Trains could operate usefully at slower speeds, but to make the system really work, grade crossings, especially in the heart of the cities, would eventually have to be eliminated with bridges, and possibly even tunnels. That might be practical in downtown Fort Lauderdale where the tracks cross the New River on an antiquated lift bridge. It is a railroad man’s challenge, for whether the tracks go up or down, the long heavy freights using the same tracks would not easily handle such grades.
But we nitpick. A society which has put a man on the moon ought to figure out a way to make the iron horse compatible with the 21st century. It will be a big job, but the results will be even bigger. Just a few weeks ago we asked when South Florida would stop talking about commuter rail, and start doing it. It looks like we just got the answer.