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Sunday Train: The Miami/Orlando Passenger Rail Project

by BruceMcF Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 10:55:54 AM EST

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I saw this story a couple of weeks ago, but between the happenings in California and some unanswered questions I had, I haven't mentioned it yet. Florida East Coast Industries plans Miami-Orlando passenger service by 2014:

Passenger train service between Miami and Orlando could begin as early as 2014 under a plan announced Thursday by Florida East Coast Industries.

The new "All Aboard Florida" service, which would be privately owned and operated, would offer frequent, regularly scheduled daily trains geared to business travelers and tourists. The Miami-Orlando trip by rail would take three hours, about the same time it takes by car via Florida's Turnpike.

There would be four stops: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando, each with connections to airports, seaports and existing rail systems such as Tri-Rail and Metrorail. The trains would run on existing FEC tracks that stretch along the east coast from Miami to Cocoa. Forty miles of new track would link Cocoa to Orlando.

Well, waddya know ~ a Passenger Train that Rick Scott can't kill. More about the Miami/Orlando Train, below the fold.

Wait a minute, why weren't you on this immediately?

Hey, wait a minute, its one thing to get questions from fellow Sunday Train passengers ... but from my own headings?

Anyway, its a fair question. Thing is, I like to dig into things, and while there was a lot of surface to the Miami/Florida Passenger Train project, there were also more questions underneath that surface than answers.

Anyway, first, a look at that glittery surface:

According to the All Aboard Florida website:


  • What: Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) is developing a privately owned, operated and maintained intercity passenger rail service that will give business and leisure passengers a new convenient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to travel between South Florida and Orlando, and eventually Tampa and Jacksonville.
  • Where: The new route will feature passenger service along Florida East Coast Railway's existing tracks from Miami to Cocoa and the creation of new tracks into Orlando.  Eventually the system will be expanded to Tampa and Jacksonville.
  • When: 200 of 240 miles of Right of Way (ROW) are already in place and have been in service as an operating railroad for over a century, which allows for passenger service between South Florida and Orlando to be up and running in 2014.
  • Who: FECI would own, operate and manage the passenger rail line. Florida's taxpayers will have no ongoing construction or operating risks.

Now, is this "High Speed Rail"? Well, I've talked before (in 2009, and 2010, and 2011) about the different meanings of "High Speed Rail":

  • As fast as the fastest steel wheel on steel track trains in regular service somewhere in the world (220mph or so)
  • What is the normal threshold for systems often called HSR in Europe and Japan today (faster than 150mph)
  • So fast that all in-cab signalling is required because out of cab signals flash by too fast (faster than 125mph)
  • Faster than the normal mass transit-oriented Urban Express Electric Train (faster than 110mph)
  • Faster than the fastest mainline freight speeds in common use ~ the official federal definition when federal funding for "High Speed Rail Funding" began in the 1990's (faster than 90mph)
  • Faster than the longstanding common conventional rail speed limit in the US over the past half century (faster than 79mph)

Arguments over what is "real" HSR can be focused on any one of these meanings. The Federal definition from the 1990's was tightened up a couple of years ago, and now the formal Federal terminology is:

  • Express HSR is high frequency passenger rail with a maximum speed of 150mph or higher on dedicated, completely grade separated rail corridor
  • Regional HSR is relatively high frequency passenger rail with a top speed of 110mph to 150mph on a mix of dedicated and shared, grade separated corridor
  • "Emerging" HSR is passenger rail service with a top speed of 90mph to 110mph, primarily on shared corridor, with the potential for future upgrade to Regional HSR or Express HSR in the future

While regional economists and transport professionals should be aware of the three categories when considering the future evolution of intercity transport in a region, this is all a bit much for the ordinary public. So I simplify things a bit, and just tag the "Express" onto HSR, which are the "bullet trains" most people think of, and use the name "Rapid Rail" for the Emerging HSR and Regional HSR categories.

Now, when we think about the Florida proposal, its for a service on an existing 90mph speed limit freight corridor, extended 40 more miles to get to a station on the Orlando Sunrail system to connect into downtown Orlando. Its supposed to make that trip in 3 hours. Now, Miami to Orlando is about 200 miles as the crow flies, so 200 miles in 3 hours is a line of sight speed of 67mph. The project, of course, is not as the crow flies, but along a rail alignment, which runs reasonably straight along the Florida Coast for 200 miles, and then goes another 40 miles inland to connect to Orlando, making a track speed of about 80mph.

Which makes sense: the corridor from Miami along the Florida Coast is already 200 miles of track with a 90mph speed limit, so if the 40 mile connection is a similar speed for most of its length, that would be three hours. This also explains the limited number of stations: it would need the ability to stretch its legs to 110mph or 125mph along the way to serve many more stations and still keep the end to end trip down to three hours.

Of course, "High Speed Rail" is anathema in some circles of the modern Republican Party, and the project proposers have taken pains to stress that this is not "High Speed Rail". However, and I hope they will not get ticked off at me, it seems to fit what I have been calling Rapid Rail.

But Why Would a Private Railroad Start a Rapid Passenger Rail Service

The question is ... what are they up to?

Well, I was just today pointed in the direction of a Metro Jacksonville post: Stunning Things Are Happening As Florida Goes Rail that speculates on several possible things that might be happening here. I'll stress that much of the following is fact but much of the following is also speculation and inference built upon those facts.

First, the "who". Robert Mann writes:

Built primarily in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, the FEC was a project of Standard Oil principal Henry Morrison Flagler. The story goes that Flagler originally intended only to develop world class hotels, resorts and industries in Florida, until the narrow gauge Jacksonville and St. Augustine Railway decided to charge exorbitant amounts to carry his construction materials. Flagler bought the railroad, extending it all the way from Jacksonville to Key West and never looked back.

... [Starting in the 1960's,] the late Mr. Ball converted the FEC RY into what might be termed America's first modern 'super railroad.' Passenger trains were swept aside as Ball's philosophy of 'Negate the negative, accentuate the positive,' started to take effect. In 2007 the railroad was purchased by, Fortress Investment Group, which acquired it for over US$3 billion (including non-rail assets). Fortress owns Flagler Development and for the first time in years, the famed development monolith and the railroad are back in the same hands.

So there are two levels to the "who". The Railroad is the regional freight railroad that serves ports in Miami and Cape Canaveral, carrying heavy bulk freight in Florida including, importantly, high grade limestone quarried in the Miami area, and intermodel freight running through onto the CSX and Norfolk Southern systems. And the owner of the railroad is an Investment Group that owns the property development group that the railroad was originally built to serve.


Don't get caught up in the tricky wording in the mainstream media, what FECI is saying is they will manage the project at no risk to the taxpayers. They never said they would own the right-of-way between Cocoa and Orlando, just "the existing right-of-way." FECI is not going out on a limb in a venture this risky unless there are some solid guarantees and in following my hunches, I have found the collective dividends will be huge. Rapidly growing real estate markets near the tracks is a strong incentive for a company like Flagler Development.

Nowhere in the press release do I actually read the words; FECI will own the right-of-way, tracks, or even the trains, (again except for the historic Miami-Cocoa portion which is owned by sister company FEC RY). All of the indicators point to heavy state involvement in zero risk infrastructure improvements. All Aboard Florida, could easily own the operating rights, maintenance contracts, staffing, and through the complex family tree, 200 miles of the Florida East Coast Railway itself, without really owning the balance of the 40 extra miles of new right-of-way between Orlando-Cocoa, or the tracks, or even the trains.

Second, the Where and How? Which is to say, how is the already existing, already pretty darn good for passenger rail corridor going to get to Orlando? Robert Mann writes:

Metrojacksonville's railroad pundits "speculation," is that from Orlando, the existing state owned Sunrail/CSX route would be used to get trains from the Orlando Central Business district south to the vicinity of Sand Lake Road where it intersects with the Orlando Utilities Commission Railroad, which loops south of the Tradeport Drive area and the south end of Orlando International Airport (OIA). ...

[From there, it could either follow] the Beachline to the Florida East Coast tracks in Cocoa[, or it could] cross the Beachline Expressway where it turns southeast after the interchange with State Route 407. The route would continue east staying north of the Canaveral Groves Subdivision until crossing Interstate Highway 95 where it would turn southeast crossing the intersection of Canaveral Groves Boulevard and Grissom Road. This alignment would then turn south entering the Florida East Coast right-of-way near Cidco Road.

The following section of the 2008 section of the Multi-Modal Study of the Florida State Route 528 Corridor (pdf) gives an idea of the airport to existing FEC corridor section, in terms of the solid Green line on the map. Sorry about the difficulty in making it out ~ the pdf is rescalable if you are interested in getting a closer look:

And what about the politics of this?

Even more speculative is what is going on from the public side of things.

Lastly, 2014 is an election year, and Governor Scott performed poorly in this part of Florida in 2010. Scott came up short in Orange, Osceola, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Dade Counties. He knows he must win these voters over to have a chance in the next election. Anyone who has driven in Southeast or Central Florida, and heard the Republican rhetoric typically pro highway and anti rail will instantly understand why we're getting the High Speed Rail (HSR) route, without the `HIGH SPEED'.  To be honest, this time it will be done right. Far right.  ...

The 2014 date suggests that things are already well advanced, and that rather than a preliminary announcement, sometime later this year we will be hearing that various hurdles have been cleared, and then sometime in 2013 that Construction has begun.

Does this mean that Scott Walker was right to junk the Express HSR corridor between Orlando and Tampa? Of course not: while this places Orlando and Miami three hours apart, and an extension either as conventional rail along the expressway median or running on an improved CSX corridor between Orlando and Tampa will place Orlando and Tampa less than three hours apart ~ it will leave Tampa substantially further than 4 hours from Miami.

One advantage of HSR with a "triangular" route is that going fast enough the "long way around" can easily be quicker than going far more slowly the direct way. So while an extension from Orlando to Tampa with capacity upgrades to ensure a clear path through at 79mph (or even 90mph) will work OK between Orlando and Tampa, it will also bring home the opportunity lost to run 150mph between Tampa and Orlando.

And then there's freight ...

One of the things I suspected when I first heard about this that this might involve a freight connection.

The reason is simple: the Panamax Class Is Getting Bigger (Wikipedia)

Panamax and New Panamax are terms for the size limits for ships traveling through the Panama Canal. ...

The allowable size is limited by the width and length of the available lock chambers, by the depth of the water in the canal and by the height of the Bridge of the Americas. ... The limits have influenced those constructing cargo ships, giving clear parameters for ships destined to traverse the Panama Canal.

"Panamax" has been in effect since the opening of the canal in 1914. In 2009 the Canal management published the "New Panamax", that will be in effect when the third lane of locks, larger than the current two, are operational in 2014.
After this expansion, the Panama Canal will be able to handle vessels of cargo capacity up to 13,000  twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU); currently, it can only handle vessels up to about 5,000 TEU.

Panamax cargo is important for Florida freight, for obvious reasons ~ here's Florida, over there is the Pacific Rim (author waves vaguely toward the west), up there are a large number of markets that you can get to by rail from Florida (author waves vaguely toward the North) ... and in between Florida and the Pacific Rim is the Panama Canal. And so that fact that New Panamax is 2.6 times the container capacity of Since-1913-Panamax ... is a big deal.

And which is the rail line that serves the existing Miami Port and is in the best position to serve Port Canaveral? Yup, the FEC, owners of the 200 mile corridor that All Aboard Florida is going to use for its passenger trains.

Now, think about this from the perspective of the FEC. You have this rail corridor that has Positive Train Control, and that has a 90mph speed limit. However, one of the biggest part of your business being limestone, you have been operating trains at 60mph.

Now, there's is the prospect of a substantial increase in container traffic. Indeed, Port Miami is dredging to allow it to serve New Panamax ships. You are the rail line that serves Port Miami. And you can get an appreciable competitive advantage if you can get your containers rolling along at 80mph ~ giving the almost dead flat alignment, you are in great shape to get long container trains rolling along at 80mph and keeping them going without requiring an excessive number of locomotives or burn an excessive amount of diesel.

Now you have your container trains and heavy bulk trains going at different speeds. There are two ways to cope with this: more express overtake along the corridor, and handling some of the heavy bulk traffic onto another corridor. And look to the CSX corridor system in Florida to the right.

Now, this isn't Robert Mann's speculation any more, this is mine. Look at that one corridor running north from Miami, and then there is the big tangle at Lakeland and then two are running north toward Jacksonville, one of them going through Orlando. And remember that the FEC is running basically up the Atlantic Coast from Miami to Jacksonville. Why, if you could upgrade the capacity of the southern section, and then find a way to connect to the CSX system at Orlando ~ you could pass off heavy bulk freight at Orlando, and keep the fast container trains rolling on the already-90mph FEC corridor to Jacksonville. And you can be sure that CSX can accommodate that freight, because they have an alternate path to Miami that bypasses Orlando.

But that's if you can find a way to connect to the CSX system at Orlando. And ... note something about one part of the potential alignment above: "the existing state owned Sunrail/CSX route would be used to get trains from the Orlando Central Business district south to the vicinity of Sand Lake Road." CSX insisted that if the State of Florida wanted to use the CXS route through downtown Orlando as a local passenger rail corridor, they would have to buy the corridor. Which Florida did. Of course CSX retained trackage rights in the deal, but now Florida owns that link of the chain to get from the FEC right of way near Orlando to the CSX system.

Which is why this smells an awfully lot like a deal. "You want to get your freight trains through here? Sure you can ... what do you have to offer us?"

And, truth to tell, if that's what is going on, it could well be a pretty good deal. Underlying this is the basic logic of a shared use Rapid Rail corridor: if you upgrade a corridor to allow effective running of Rapid Passenger Rail, that is an expansion of track capacity. And that track capacity is there 24 hours a day ~ at times of day that lots of people want to travel, and at times of day that most people are asleep in bed. Meanwhile, containers do not much care whether they leave the railhead at 3pm or 3am. Further, in many freight tasks, arriving before the morning peak travel period is a good thing, and departing after the evening peak is a good thing.

Now, for the landbridge container trains, if you have a steady flow of ships being unloaded and loaded, you want to have a steady flow of container trains heading north, and a steady flow of containers (sadly, too often empty containers) heading south. But if the container trains are moving at about the same speed as the passenger trains, there's little interference there.

So, waddya think?

As always, while I certainly welcome and thoroughly enjoy comments on the topic of the evening's Sunday Train, you are also welcome to raise any issue in sustainable transport that comes to mind.

Midnight Oil ~ Dreamland

The Breakfast Creek Hotel is up for sale
The last square mile of terra firma
    gavelled in the mail
So farewell to the norfolk island pines
No amount of make believe
    can help this heart of mine

End - your dreamworld is just about to end
Fall - your dreamworld is just about to fall
Your dreamworld will fall

So shut that buckle and turn that key again
Take me to a place they say the dreaming never ends
Open wide drive that mystery road
Walk through eden's garden and then wonder as you go

Sign says honeymoon to rent
Cloudland into dreamland turns
The sun comes up and we all learn
Those wheels must turn

... if Amtrak restores the Sunset Limited all the way to Jacksonville, you could get to ...

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 10:57:32 AM EST
I don't think I'd bet on it working with tourists unless prices for both the trains and the requisite buses/cabs to the theme parks are incredibly low.  Remember that, even taking tolls into account, it's not going to cost you more than about 60 bucks to drive to Orlando from Miami.

A few other issues: People who aren't from Florida all seem to think theme parks are within crawling distance of Downtown Orlando.  Universal Studios is probably a half-hour drive once you take traffic into account from Downtown.  Disney will probably come closer to an hour.

There's also the issue of perceived safety.  I'm not sure if the guys designing this know it, but the Downtown Orlando station isn't actually in Downtown Orlando.  It's about half a mile south, in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country.

It would be like running a train to Liberty City in order to get tourists to South Beach.

Not to say these issues can't be dealt with, but a lot of them are more long-term issues.  And this is Orlando we're talking about -- a city that makes Atlanta look like New York as city planning goes.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 12:00:59 PM EST
I don't know that anybody ever said that tourists were going to be the main source of patronage, nor that the service requires getting a large share of tourist trips between Orlando and Miami for its success, but if they did, they were just being talking in lazy stereotypes or repeating the hackneyed baseless attacks on the Florida HSR project.

Just like the projections for the Florida  the bulk of the trips on this service will be by Floridians for business, pleasure or family trips. Tourist travel will be a bonus on top of that.

FECI can tailor the frequency to demand, since the main capital cost that is exclusive to the passenger service are the trains themselves, so there's even less "White Elephant" risk than the minimal risk faced by the Florida Express HSR system.

And of course, lots of tourists arrive in Orlando without a car, so the cost of driving to Miami for those tourists includes the cost of a rental car. If they are going to the Disneyworld complex, and then Miami Beach, among the numbers of tourists going to Florida, there will be some who are affluent enough to be able to afford not to drive.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 01:19:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe we're talking past each other here, because these...

pleasure or family trips

...are "tourist" trips.  I assume by tourists, you're thinking of people from other states and countries.  

I'm saying I don't think you're going to see much traffic from Floridians.  A family of four from Coral Gables probably isn't going to take the train.  You might get some traffic from those sorts of people, and perhaps kids who go away to UCF or UM.

It's fine if the lines are basically freight with a few passenger services, and in the long run it's a good investment.  I'm just saying I wouldn't bet on the passenger service being very successful in the near-future.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 05:04:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are saying that with 3 hour trips between populations centers as big as Miami and Orlando, time-competitive with driving, it will be incapable of attracting 1% to 2% mode share of the total trips between the two population centers.

I think that there is no doubt whatsoever that if run properly with comfortable seating, the usual amenities, and at the promised travel time, it will be able to attract 1% to 2% of the total trips between the two population centers. Indeed, I think it extremely conservative, and it could well attract a 3% to 5% mode share, which would imply not modest operating profits, but quite healthy operating profits.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 05:25:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]

There is this about the Governor Scott - CSX - Sunrail shenanigans: What is Lex Luther Up To - Systemic Failure. Total giveaway to CSX and these are the fruits.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 05:30:55 PM EST
Sunrail was a project with modest net public benefit entailing substantial ongoing public subsidy ~ the kind of thing that I'd be expected to support but that a purportedly Conservative Governor would be against. The Florida Express HSR project was a project with larger net public benefit entailing no ongoing public subsidy whatsoever ~ the kind of thing that I and a purportedly Conservative governor ought to be agreeing on.

And yet the purportedly Conservative Governor supported the first strongly after axing the second on the back of a report from a partisan think tank reaching the conclusion it always reached irrespective of the evidence.

Since, after all, the purportedly Conservative Governor is no such thing: while pandering to the Take Everything Away party in pursuit of their support among his primary base electorate, he true fidelity is to the Giveaway to Oligarchs Party, the same old, same old GOP.

A little bit more from Robert Mann:

Keep in mind that FECI, Flagler and Florida East Coast Railway are separate companies. The State of Florida, Port Canaveral, Sunrail, Tri-Rail, The Southeast Florida Corridor Project, CSX and Norfolk Southern ultimately, will all be players.

This does indeed seem to be a strange bankshot consequence of the massive giveaway to CSX in buying the corridor from CSX while it retains trackage rights, helping it to finance the infrastructure upgrade that it required.

The side-effect of that a crucial section of corridor that the FEC needed to connect into the CSX system in service of the expected increase in multi-modal container freight was in public hands. Which seems likely to be part of why the owners of the railway that was among the first to abandon passenger rail service, on the excuse of union sabotage in its brutal union busting fight ... turned around and said, "hey, we'd like to run a passenger railway".

The plan is sufficiently different from the Express HSR system that the Republican party smeared and lied about for partisan political advantage that they can pretend that "oh, its not the same thing". And, actually, no, its not: its a bit slower. But entering into a lease and operate service contract for three passenger trains rising to five to seven as the system expands ... that's an awfully cheap price to pay for access to the right of way that they need and quite likely the state government footing part or all of the bill for the upgrades and new track that they require for their 40 mile connector.

The strange thing, though, is that this is likely to be a quite nice state intercity passenger rail system.

And when property speculators are setting up intercity passenger rail systems in pursuit of windfall gains in property values as well as benefits for their freight business ... that's a quite substantial change from the way things were going through the entire second half of the 20th Century.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 16th, 2012 at 07:01:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
His votes and his contributions come from different sources.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Apr 17th, 2012 at 11:30:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
His primary votes and money comes from different sources. Above and beyond pure greed, much of the point of the money is to discourage enough non-supportersens from voting so that the general election votes that can be nailed down are sufficient.

Nothing a Giveaway to Oligarchs Party governor hates to hear of more than a high turnout election.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Apr 17th, 2012 at 12:51:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The new post-Panamax standard seems to be having a significant effect throughout the shipping industry: New bigger coal ships, harbor dredging in NYC, New Jersey, and Charleston, port realignments in the Baltic, new ship maintenance infrastructure in Poland...
by asdf on Sun Apr 22nd, 2012 at 06:53:36 PM EST
Yes, it has ripple effects even beyond the Panama Canal shipping lanes, since a large segment of the merchant marine fleet is designed to be able to go through the Panama Canal, which makes Panamax a natural alternative to include in all sorts of port/harbor/channel design decisions.

Where Capesize has not had any single specific maximum dimensions, New Panamax is a similar ship dimension envelope to include as a design alternative.

Obviously, some shipping routes see Panamax vessels because that's a good fit to the freight markets served, and those are not going to switch to New Panamax just for bragging rights ... but where a route has seen Panamax vessels because of channel / harbour / port infrastructure sized to accommodate Panamax, then if some of those are raised to New Panamax in pursuit of other business, there may be lobbying to raise all size bottlenecks along that non-Capesize route to New Panamax dimensions.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 23rd, 2012 at 10:49:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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