There was a time when if a reporter wanted to talk to a source at the Florida East Coast Railway, it would take a week or two for a return call, and when it came it was from the president of the railroad. He was a crusty old bastard, likeable through his bluntness. “Nah, Mac, we are a freight line. We don’t want passengers.” The FEC did not even have a PR guy.
That changed when the FEC was bought from St. Joe Paper Company, and is now in a third stage of ownership. What also changed was the current company’s attitude toward passenger trains on the tracks that Henry Flagler built to develop Florida.
A few years ago Hussein Cumber invited us to take a ride on a Florida East Coast freight train. His purpose was to point out the potential of the route for a passenger line. Cumber was a spokesman for the FEC at the time, and we told him he was preaching to the choir. Gold Coast magazine has been pushing this idea since the 1970s, and we have frequently written that Tri-Rail should switch some of its service to the more eastern tracks which cut through all the downtowns on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Cumber left the FEC for some time with the Department of Transportation in Washington, but has returned to the FEC and was the man quoted in The Miami Herald last week announcing that the FEC, through its real estate division, plans a train from Miami to Orlando, which would not involve public money. Wow. There is hardly a passenger train anywhere which does not take government support. The reason for this historic move is obvious. It is a real estate play. Cumber’s announcement, released so subtly that the Sun-Sentinel did not even pick up the story, included a plan to take a 9-acre tract in downtown Miami (the location of its original passenger terminal) and turn it into a major development.
Our guess is that this is just the first move in a grand concept to redevelop the entire FEC line, positioning stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach where the FEC owns land that can be developed into high rise buildings. Cumber said the FEC can make money on this train. Doubtful. Unless you count real estate.
And when you count real estate, start thinking New York’s Madison Square Garden, built above the underground tracks of Penn Station, or Penn Center in Philadelphia, blocks of what are a second generation of high-rise offices above an underground station which was once an above-ground terminal of the old Pennsylvania Railroad.
And when the FEC says it will fund this privately, it doesn’t take a great cynic to suspect that this service can become so vital to the cities along the tracks that Henry Flagler’s old railroad will eventually be rebuilt to accommodate fast trains. That means eliminating grade crossings, dozens of them between Miami and West Palm Beach alone, by either elevating tracks or building bridges. That will cost money, and if public funds are not eventually involved, then the FEC management is a lot dumber than we think.
There is nothing wrong with this. The original railroads were built with much public money, in terms of land grants and tax incentives. It was an investment that has been returned many times over in economic growth. Ask Abraham Lincoln. He got it started while fighting the Civil War. The only thing wrong with the FEC’s plan is that it is 50 years too late.