Sunday, April 01, 2012

This Week at Amtrak

System mapSystem map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)I have not seen this published in a while but here is the latest copy of This Week at Amtrak from the United Rail Passenger Alliance.

This Week at Amtrak; Vol. 9 No. 1
From the Editors…

Recently, a local regional railway announced a private initiative to begin passenger train service connecting Central and South Florida. Just to be clear, we said private.

A FOX rises in the East (Coast)

A wise fellow once observed that there is nothing new under the sun. It has also been said that if one wants a new idea then one should read an old book. On March 22, 2012, Florida East Coast Industries, the parent of the Florida East Coast Railway, made a significant announcement concerning its future:

Florida East Coast Industries, Inc. (FECI), the owner of Florida’s premier passenger rail corridor, is developing a privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail service to connect South Florida and Orlando, which will be operational in 2014. By connecting the most visited city in the United States with South Florida’s business and vacation destinations, the passenger rail project, called All Aboard Florida, is designed to serve Florida’s growing number of business travelers, as well as families and tourists traveling for pleasure. - Florida East Coast Industries, Inc.

Obviously, this is a bold move for any private corporation, let alone a railroad. At the same time, all the signs were present. How did we get here?

Henry M. Flagler, Florida’s Empire Builder

One cannot know the story of Florida without knowing the story of one Henry Morrison Flagler who, in “retirement,” changed the face of the state’s tourist identity. Flagler had been visiting Florida in the winter since 1876, but it was during the winter of 1883-84 that he ventured into St. Augustine:

Arriving in the ‘Ancient City,’ Flagler found a sleepy, almost dilapidated town of about 2,500 inhabitants. While he was charmed with the climate and beauty of the old place, he found the hotel facilities quite inferior to the accommodations he and his circle of friends were accustomed to in northern cities. - Speedway to the Sunshine, Seth H. Bramson, The Boston Mills Press 1984

Flagler recognized the potential for creating an “American Riviera” along the east coast of the Sunshine State, but this would mean building hotels and resorts. These, of course, would be useless without a means of getting there. In 1885 Flagler bought the assets of the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax River Railway. In 1895 the name was changed to the Florida East Coast Railway; and in April, 1896, the railroad was extended into what was incorporated three months later as the city of Miami. All the while, he built and/or acquired hotels and resorts, many of which are still famous: The Ponce de León Hotel, the Royal Poinciana Hotel, and the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed the “Breakers”).

Like many magnates of his day, Flagler had his own share of overreach embodied by the Key West Extension, also known as the railroad that went to sea, which was completed one hundred years ago this year, in 1912; Flagler would die the following year.

Florida’s never ending boom and bust cycles

The decade after Flagler’s demise was one of (mostly) prosperity. The nation as a whole reveled in the post war euphoria, and the Florida land boom certainly did not hurt the fortunes of the railroad. By 1926 the entire railroad had been double tracked, and numerous other physical improvements had been engineered and installed. Traffic to South Florida was so intense the Seaboard Air Line established its own route to Miami, completed in 1927. Even so, what goes up eventually does come back down.

A massive hurricane in September, 1926 destroyed 60 miles of coastline, leaving 220 dead, over 6000 injured, and basically ending the land boom. The malaise of the Great Depression gripped the FEC, and the hurricane of Labor Day, 1935 wiped out the Key West Extension. The FEC had already been in receivership since 1931. In 1941 the FEC went from “receivership” to “reorganization,” slipping control from the Flagler heirs to the du Pont family.

The traffic increase of World War II did help the FEC’s fortunes. Since its chief rival had its own line to Miami, the Atlantic Coast Line’s bonds with the FEC became stronger. As the FEC became the ACL’s gateway to “America’s Playground,” the ACL moved to acquire the FEC in 1944. The ACL and the du Pont family never could see eye-to-eye, and the FEC became a holding of the St. Joe Paper Company, a Florida company which was a subsidiary of the du Pont estate.

A strike in 1963 by the clerk’s union spiraled into the loss of all union positions at the FEC. As a result, the FEC became the first railroad in the nation to have two-man operating crews and extended crew districts, something the rest of the industry would not have for two more decades.

In more recent years, the FEC was acquired by Fortress Investment Group in 2007, which also owns RailAmerica, a short line holding company. RailAmerica’s headquarters was moved to the same building in Jacksonville as the FEC; but the companies are independent. The recent slowdown in the construction industry has had a negative impact on the quarries of South Florida, once a large source of revenue for the railroad.

As anyone here in Florida can attest to, when times are good they are VERY good. But when times are bad, well, hang around here long enough and the practice of tightening one’s belt becomes second nature. The FEC knows this practice only too well.

Florida FOX

In our essay of September of last year, This Week at Amtrak documented the history of Florida’s forays into fast trains. Perhaps the most eye-catching of these iterations was the Florida Overland eXpress proposed in 1996. What was suggested then, and continues to be suggested, was a highway-railway such that the fast train would closely parallel the extant rights-of-way of major highways. For example, the latest surge was the Tampa-to-Orlando section which would have been built on the existing property of Interstate 4.

The Orlando-to-Miami section had two possible routings: Following the Florida Turnpike, or cutting East and aligning with Interstate 95. All of these latest iterations, known as Florida High-Speed Rail, went back on the shelf in early 2011.

Gene is the Man

To say that Eugene Skoropowski is no stranger to passenger trains would be a gross understatement. For this reason alone, the following news flash gained our undivided attention:

The Florida East Coast Railway has announced that it has appointed Eugene Skoropowski to senior vice president of passenger rail development. Skoropowski will report to Jim Hertwig, FEC president and CEO, and will be based out of Orlando, Florida. He will assist in the anticipated development of passenger service over the FEC between Jacksonville and Miami, which has been under consideration for several years.

Skoropowski is well known in the railroad industry for his successful management of California’s Capitol Corridor passenger rail service in partnership with Amtrak, the state of California, and Union Pacific. The 170-mile route has become the fastest growing intercity passenger route in the country. He spent the last two years as a rail consultant with international engineering firm HNTB. He has also served as director of rail projects at Fluor Corp., where he worked on passenger rail developments in Florida, Montreal, Paris, London and Amsterdam.
 -, the online news page for Trains Magazine, March 5, 2012

There is one other salient qualification not mentioned in the Trains résumé: Mr. Skoropowski was the project director for the Florida Overland eXpress in 1996. Suffice it to say he has a very firm grasp of the landscape here.

What exactly the FEC has in mind should become clear in the following weeks and months, but we do get an idea from its press release:

The All Aboard Florida passenger rail project will connect South Florida to Orlando through a 240-mile route combining 200 miles of existing tracks between Miami and Cocoa and the creation of 40 miles of new track to complete the route to Orlando. - Florida East Coast Industries, Inc.

Between Cocoa and Orlando is State Road 528, which is also known as the “Bee Line” and is mostly a toll-road. This is the right-of-way which would have been utilized for the I-95 variant of the FOX. It is not much of an exercise of the imagination to see I-95 replaced with the FEC. It is also likely that the intended terminus would be Orlando International Airport, the same as FOX and later plans. There may be a current Environmental Impact Statement still in place for this option. If SR 528 is not part of the plan, then there is at least one other uninterrupted right-of-way between the Orlando and the East Coast.

Improved intrastate rail service has been on the wish list since at least 1982. With plans and revisions of plans came the nagging question: Who will pay for this? The use of public monies has been tried repeatedly, and has failed just as many times. The FEC is betting that private capital can be raised and used in conjunction with existing infrastructure to accomplish what three decades of public policy could not. The potential payoff is very real; currently over 50 million people traverse between Central and South Florida every year.

Missing, along with the public dollar, is another phantasm of political railroading: There is no reference to High-Speed Rail. The projected travel time for Orlando to South Florida is approximately three hours. This is exactly the type of high-performance rail transportation which could find its niche in the transportation market. Most important is the following railroad rule number one:

PROTECT EXISTING FREIGHT CAPACITY--the new passenger service will not affect freight capacity in the rail corridor, thereby supporting Florida’s role in international commerce and allowing more intermodal freight movements. - Florida East Coast Industries, Inc.

With the current dredging and rail access restoration at the Port of Miami, the freight channels must be kept clear. By the FEC taking the initiative and overseeing the entire operation, passenger and freight, they can make such guarantees.

For its entire life, the Florida East Coast Railway has had to fight for its life. Even when things seemed at their bleakest, it has found a way to make it through as an independent entity. It was Henry Flagler’s vision to open up the East Coast to tourism and industry. His successors are closely following in his footsteps. Hopefully the FEC will once again show the way for the rest of the industry.
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hasan said...
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