Down the Line

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Published date: 

Jan. 30, 2017

 

Passenger train service is scheduled for arrival this summer in South Florida. A private company will start running passenger trains between the downtown stations in Miami and West Palm Beach with stops in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The trains are expected to run all the way to Orlando and back someday. But get braced: Fort Lauderdale may have a harder adjustment to the new passenger train service than the other three station locations.

 

While driving to Orlando in early December, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler imagined making the trip by rail instead. “It would have been nice to jump on a train, read my materials, return telephone calls, answer my emails,” the mayor says. “Instead I’m driving and can return telephone calls but that’s it; I have to focus on the road.”

The mayor and many other people in South Florida are likely to park their cars and start traveling out of town by train this year. Coral Gables-based All Aboard Florida is preparing its historic launch of intercity passenger rail service between Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach. Eventually, All Aboard Florida intends to extend its passenger rail service north from the three South Florida stations to a fourth station near Orlando International Airport. 

The passenger service, called Brightline, will run on the railroad that pioneering industrialist Henry Flagler built a century ago along the east coast of the state, sparking the early development of Florida. The railroad, known as the FEC line, is owned by Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida. Florida East Coast stopped running passenger trains on the railroad in 1968 and has operated freight trains only since then. All Aboard Florida will be the first new intercity passenger rail service since the federally subsidized Amtrak passenger rail system began offering such service in 1971.

As construction crews finish building the trio of South Florida stations for All Aboard Florida, property investments and developments are likely to unfold nearby. For example, near the Fort Lauderdale station on NW Second Avenue between Broward Boulevard and NW Fourth Street, “I think you’re going to see mixed-use development: some office, some retail, potentially a hotel, even some residential components,” Seiler says. “There’s definitely a synergy between Brightline’s development and what’s taking place in the surrounding neighborhood.” 

All Aboard Florida CEO Michael Reininger is responsible for the planned development of 4.5 million square feet of transit-oriented real estate at the downtown train-station locations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. For example, the company has acquired just less than 10 acres north of its Fort Lauderdale station. “We have acquired a significant portfolio of additional land adjacent to our station. We have not yet gone to market with any development there. We’re contemplating a range of opportunities,” Reininger says. 

Indeed, the company is bringing passenger train service to South Florida in a way that recalls the early history of railroad development, which may bode well for its success. “All Aboard Florida is directly tied to a lot of real estate deals, and that’s the genius of it,” says J. Bruce Richardson, vice president, passenger services, at Corridor Capital LLC, a Chicago-based firm that helps state governments develop rail service. “That goes back to classical passenger railroading in the 19th century.”

The Fort Lauderdale train station and nearby parcels of land that All Aboard Florida has acquired are all located west of the FEC railroad, which the mayor called an encouraging sign in a long-neglected swath of the city’s downtown area. “What I am most encouraged about is that the development is going to cross the tracks. Because traditionally in our city, the good development always, for whatever reasons, stayed east of the tracks downtown,” he says. “This should create some pretty vibrant city blocks, and if it’s done right with mixed uses - commercial, office, retail and some residential - you’d sure have very positive impact on that neighborhood.”

But just south of that neighborhood, along the New River, marine companies worry about the negative impact when both FEC freight trains and Brightline commuter trains start sharing a retractable railroad bridge over the busy river. All Aboard Florida plans to run Brightline trains across the bridge 32 times a day, on top of about 15 trips a day by FEC freight trains.

Phil Purcell, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, a business association based in Fort Lauderdale, says the city needs a new railroad bridge and an elevated Brightline station with tracks above Broward Boulevard. The Brightline stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are being built at grade. The station in Miami will have a platform 55 feet above street level.

“How do Fort Lauderdale people see themselves when there is an elevated station in downtown Miami and you don’t see one here? What is the messaging? The messaging is: Think it through,” Purcell says. “Additional infrastructure is going to be needed sooner than later, including a new bridge over the New River that handles the commuter trains … And equally important, let’s figure out a solution to run commuter trains over Broward Boulevard also.”

The existing FEC railroad bridge over the New River now closes for freight trains, mostly at night, and otherwise stays open for marine traffic on the river. Florida East Coast built the bridge in the 1970s, “and it was antiquated even then. It’s past its useful life,” Purcell says. “They [All Aboard Florida] are going to spend some money to upgrade it here over the next few months, and that is to keep it from breaking in its current operation.” In December, All Aboard Florida was seeking authorization from the Florida Department of Transportation to close the bridge for 12 days of repair work in February.

Purcell says a new passenger-only railroad bridge built at a height of 65 feet above the New River would allow 70 percent of current marine traffic to pass beneath it. “Broward County and the city should demand that a new bridge be built,” he says. “If you want it in 10 years, you’ve got to have a plan in place now to get a bridge built.”

 

Sharing the Tracks

In addition to riverfront marine businesses, another Fort Lauderdale constituency also would benefit from a new railroad bridge above the New River: Tri-Rail passengers who commute to Miami.

All Aboard Florida is building platform space and other facilities for Tri-Rail passenger service at its train station in downtown Miami, called MiamiCentral. Several months after the Brightline service begins, Tri-Rail plans to start running trains south on the FEC railroad to the Miami station. 

Tri-Rail trains run on a state-owned railroad track west of Interstate 95 snaking from Palm Beach County to Broward County and Miami-Dade County. The tri-county transit authority in charge of Tri-Rail has long pursued its so-called “Coastal Link” goal: to transport Tri-Rail passengers from the state-owned line out west to the privately owned FEC line farther east, over existing east-west rail lines in the three counties Tri-Rail serves: one each in Miami, Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach.

“We’ll get into MiamiCentral near the end of next year or early 2018. That will become the first Tri-Rail Coastal Link station,” says Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transit Authority, which runs Tri-Rail. 

But Tri-Rail trips on the FEC line between MiamiCentral Station and downtown Fort Lauderdale will be unavailable in the absence of a second railroad bridge over the New River, in addition to the existing, retractable FEC bridge. “For us to actually continue [north from Miami] into downtown Fort Lauderdale, we would have to have a second bridge, and probably it would have to be a higher bridge, so most of the boats could get under it,” Stephens says. 

A second railroad bridge would allow Tri-Rail to work with All Aboard Florida “to take our service all the way up to Jupiter,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential for synergy between the city of Fort Lauderdale, downtown particularly, and downtown Miami.”

Tri-Rail runs 50 trains daily on weekdays and 30 daily on weekends and annually serves about 4 million passengers. From its metro transfer station in north Miami-Dade County, Tri-Rail plans to continue to run 50 trains a day to the Multimodal Transportation Center (MIC) next to Miami International Airport, including 26 trains that will continue from the MIC to MiamiCentral Station, the elevated station that the Brightline will share with Tri-Rail.

After Tri-Rail inaugurates service to MiamiCentral Station on the FEC railroad, “I think we will be asked to provide service all the way up the northeast [FEC] corridor to Aventura. We have had those discussions, nothing in writing,” Stephens says. 

“Technically, we could go all the way to the Fort Lauderdale airport. We can’t cross the river into the heart of the city, but we can get damn close,” he says. “There’s only one rail bridge there. Currently it’s only being used by the freight service. They [All Aboard Florida] will be able to integrate Brightline, so the freight and Brightline can run across it. There’s no way an additional commuter rail system could run across it. It pretty much would lock that bridge down and significantly impact the marine industry.”

The board of the South Florida Regional Transit Authority has asked the Florida Department of Transportation for information about a second railroad bridge over the New River, including “a general description of what they would look at, what the options are, and the cost involved,” Stephens says. 

A bigger unknown for the regional transit authority is the access fee that Florida East Coast Industries will charge Tri-Rail to use the FEC railroad. Host railroad companies commonly charge other carriers by the “train-mile” to operate on their tracks, the charge for moving an entire train one mile. “They have not given us a figure. That has always been Variable X in any calculation trying to identify the ultimate cost of operations via our Coastal Link,” Stephens says. “That question has been asked an infinite number of times, and as a business, the All Aboard Florida folks don’t necessarily have to answer that.”

All Aboard Florida may wait until after the startup of the Brightline service before discussing railroad access fees for Tri-Rail. “It will be a negotiation and it might not be just about money,” Stephens says. For example, “if that [second railroad] bridge is ever built, they want to have free access to it for Brightline. So, that could potentially be part of the negotiation. They have been very open about that.”

 

Quiet Zones, Quiet CEO

As 2017 began, other uncertainties around the Brightline passenger train service included ticket prices, which All Aboard Florida will announce no sooner than the startup date of the service.

“We’re very protective around some things, and the actual price points of the tickets is one of them,” Reininger says. “We’re protecting the opportunity to generate buzz and awareness around the launch of this new business … If I start talking about how much something costs before I can actually sell you a ticket, I’ve lost the lift that moment gives us.” 

Brightline ticket prices probably will be similar to prices for Amtrak service in the Northeast, according to Richardson. For example, Amtrak tickets cost $49 for service in either direction between New York and Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C., compared with $33 for New York-Trenton service and $23 for New York-Newark service.

The exact starting date of the Brightline service is a company secret, too. Asked if there is a specific startup date, Reininger says, “There absolutely is, and I am absolutely not going to share it with you.”

The All Aboard Florida CEO will share the frequency of Brightline train arrivals and departures at South Florida stations: “We basically will be running hourly service, in either direction … For us to be successful and to convince you to get out of your car and into the train, we’ve got to be ready to go when you are.”

Brightline pricing will vary by time of day and service level, including the rail equivalent of a first-class section. “There will be a range of product offerings that include level of service on the train, including seat sizes and seat configuration,” Reininger says.  “There will be a spectrum of products and price points across the time of day or the time of year.”

Tickets will be sold in single one-way increments, in books of tickets and in passes. “You can buy it all the way up to fully reserved chartered trains for a special event or some other special purpose,” he says. “Imagine a train of 240 people that are going to a concert at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, and they all live in West Palm Beach. It effectively becomes the world’s coolest limousine ride.”

Reininger also says All Aboard Florida didn’t use an elevated station design for Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach because at-grade construction allows for “a very easy additional execution to add Tri-Rail service into what we build in West Palm and Fort Lauderdale.” 

All Aboard Florida will have spent $1 billion by the time its South Florida passenger train service begins, including roughly equal amounts on the train stations and the trains themselves. The company has put the bulk of its upfront investment in technical upgrades to the FEC rail corridor throughout South Florida. “The single biggest investment is the infrastructure improvement program: the rail infrastructure, the safety upgrades, the signal and communication system,” Reininger says. 

That infrastructure investment includes safety improvements that eliminate the need for train-horn warnings at all rail crossings in the FEC corridor in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties – a continuous tri-county “quiet zone,” the longest such zone in the nation, according to Seiler.

Train noise is among the concerns of government leaders in the Treasure Coast region of Florida. Martin County and Indian River County have gone to court to fight All Aboard Florida’s plan to extend its passenger train service in South Florida to Orlando. The company plans to run passenger trains north on the FEC railroad through both counties to the coastal town of Cocoa, and to build a 40-mile railroad line from Cocoa to Orlando. “The Treasure Coast people are trying to interfere with a process that’s regulated by federal law,” says Richardson, the vice president, passenger services, at Chicago-based Corridor Capital LLC. “They’re going to slow All Aboard Florida down, maybe a little bit, by weeks or months. But they’re not going to win.”