Change that's long overdue
Everybody in South Florida is complaining about traffic. And half of South Florida is complaining about one part of what could be a mild remedy - the idea of running passenger trains on the railroad that built Florida in the first place.
Just yesterday, we overheard a conversation, which started out about youth soccer and quickly morphed into a discussion about problems the marine industry will endure due to the expanded use of passenger trains on the FEC Railway. We have discussed this before; the concerns of the marine industry could not be more real – especially in downtown Fort Lauderdale where raising the lift bridge over the New River many times a day would play havoc with the busy boat traffic on that waterway.
This is in Fort Lauderdale. Meanwhile, in Dade County there is enthusiasm for the plan to use All Aboard Florida’s terminal station in downtown Miami to connect to Tri-Rail trains. Those trains currently use the CSX tracks that miss the downtowns of all the cities along Tri-Rail’s route. It is proposed to move some of those trains to the FEC tracks, where they should have been all along, but this would only increase the number of bridge delays in Fort Lauderdale.
Meanwhile again, in northern Palm Beach County and points above, the opposition to All Aboard Florida has reached the point of lawsuits. The Indian River County Commission has filed to stop All Aboard Florida on the grounds that the proposed fast train service from Miami to Orlando will cause harm to that county.
Alas, the FEC is suffering from wild speculation over its motives for running the fast train. A columnist in Palm Beach suspects it ties in with secret plans for a casino on its large Miami property. Whisk betters in from distant places. Letter writers to papers say it isn’t for passenger trains at all, but rather to run fast freights from ports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
What we have here is a failure of communication, and it may be on purpose. But nobody seems to put together the long range picture in all its parts. For starters, this should be regarded as the first step in modernizing the FEC corridor to serve the same purpose as the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington. This means far more than just improving crossing gates and silencing horns, which help people near the tracks avoid sleep at night. It means closing crossings where feasible, elevating tracks in some cases, bridging over them in others.
We have twice ridden on FEC freights and have checked out the railroad from Miami to Vero Beach. There are many stretches, even in Dade and Broward counties, where relatively minor improvements would clear the tracks for several miles and permit trains to hit high speeds – up to 90 miles and hour. In Hollywood, for instance, the tracks run in a median along Dixie Highway for long stretches. An engineer has a clear view far down the tracks and could react to an emergency. It is not like stopping a freight train a freight train a mile long. Modern passenger trains can speed up or slow down quickly.
This is now. In the long run, tunnels need to be built under waterways. We suspect that the proposed schedule of 32 All Aboard Florida trains is too ambitious. It will likely be scaled back to perhaps half that, and still suit the railroads purpose, so the impact on marine activity, while considerable, will not be as bad as forecast.
We think All Aboard Florida’s ridership estimates are wildly exaggerated. So what? What would not be exaggerated is the benefit if Tri-Rail begins using the same tracks for commuter service. A few stations in Palm Beach County would do a lot to silence critics in that area. Tri-Rail is reluctant to estimate ridership when that happens. It is still touchy that its original 1988 estimates took years to be realized. But we would be surprised if current ridership does not double in a short time.
Since All Aboard Florida will only go to Palm Beach for the first year, it will be in effect a fast commuter service. And with Tri-Rail aboard, that service could be stretched to Jupiter. And if that happens, people in Stuart will start driving to Jupiter and begin complaining that the service should include their town. And on up the railroad it will go, a domino effect as Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties become part of Tri-Rail.
If viewed in perspective, which few people seem to be doing, this rail initiative is a game changer, a game whose change is long overdue.