Atlantic Cities

Is Florida About to Enter a 'Golden Age' of Rail?

Is Florida About to Enter a 'Golden Age' of Rail?
All Aboard Florida

When it comes to surface transportation, Florida is a road-first state. Rail is such a distant second that it's hardly fair to call it second at all. The trip between Orlando and Miami takes almost 6 hours on Amtrak's Silver Meteor and 7.5 hours on its Silver Star, both of which cut across the state and back again to reach Tampa mid-route (below, in red). The car trip, by contrast, is 3 hours on a single interstate.

But lately Florida's road-rail gap has started to close. A passenger rail service called All Aboard Florida, is trying to become America's first private carrier in decades. It recently finished the last deal needed to secure the route between Orlando and Miami. The service is scheduled to begin carrying travelers in 2015 — connecting the two cities in a car-competitive 3 hours.

The development has Scott Gunnerson of Florida Today wondering if the state is about to enter a "golden age of rail travel." Ananth Prasad, the state's transportation secretary, told Gunnerson that All Aboard Florida "will be the genesis for continued expansion of passenger rail." The sea change is attributed in large part to a belief that there's no other way around the state's awful highway congestion:

"We know the roadway network is not going to increase at the rate population will, so areas that are constrained today will be highly constrained in the future," said Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator for Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

Gunnerson's piece focuses on the rail service next-in-line after All Aboard Florida: an improved Amtrak route along the state's east coast. A preliminary study from 2011 found that reviving a dormant line between Jacksonville and Miami was the "most promising initiative for expansion" among Amtrak's long-distance services. Such a line could attract 100,000 riders and generate $7.9 million a year [PDF].

Amtrak's latest ridership figures suggest those estimates aren't far off. Last year about 94,000 people boarded the train in Jacksonville and another 84,000 boarded in Miami [PDF]. Considering the marathon that is current rail service through the state — Jacksonville to Miami is 9 hours on the Silver Meteor and longer on the Silver Star — one can reasonably assume those figures would rise with a quicker train.

There are lots of barriers. Among them, Amtrak's 2011 report noted the need for infrastructure upgrades, local investments, and changes to Florida's liability laws. Before any of that occurs, All Aboard Florida would have to make a promising start. That service still faces some challenges, too, including public noise complaints. Last but not least, a cultural shift would have to occur among Floridians.

Gunnerson writes:

The FDOT secretary believes the real challenge is getting society to accept trains as a primary mode of transportation again, but a transformation to a European-style dependence on rail travel is too lofty a goal.

That process of acceptance does seem to be underway. In announcing his campaign for governor earlier this month, former-Governor Charlie Crist twice made reference to current-Governor Rick Scott's* decision to cancel a proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. He also mentioned how unbearable the traffic has become on one of the state's major interstates:

"It's hard to have empathy if you haven't suffered like that and been on I-4. I'm on it once a week, man."

You said it, man.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the current governor of Florida. We've updated the story to fix our error.

Extract of route map via Amtrak.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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