Published in the September, 2013 issue of the Biscayne Times newspaper:
I wanted to be carried away by the clickety-clack romance of steel wheels and sway along the rails from Miami to Orlando, brimming with nostalgia. I wanted to watch wild palms and citrus groves unfurl outside big windows while I reflected on life, as travelers often do.
I had read reviews online before buying my ticket. People raved. They said they’d choose Amtrak any day over driving or flying to Orlando, or even to New York City, even if it meant a longer trip. So, along with my childish fascination with choo-choos, I set out on a recent summer morning with high expectations.
I see now, though, that the effusiveness with which some people speak of Amtrak isn’t a reflection of quality. It’s simply the excitement of people unaccustomed to rail travel, elated to avoid traffic and airports.
Trains, whiskey, and guns form a holy trinity in American folklore, but only the last two still hold a prominent place in American culture. And as I made my way north on the rails, eavesdropping and chatting with affable oddballs, I found myself wondering how South Florida, and most of the United States (once the greatest railroad nation in the world), ended up with a neglected, unreliable, underfunded, and largely forgotten passenger rail network.
I wondered, too, about All Aboard Florida, the new passenger rail service that will connect Miami and Orlando starting in 2015. All Aboard Florida promises to do what Amtrak can’t — run very fast hourly trains on time, with great amenities, from beautifully designed, centrally located stations. If successful, it will be the only privately funded passenger rail line in the United States.
Will anyone ride it? Will All Aboard Florida make a profit? Or is it, as some skeptics suggest, a sophisticated financial scheme hatched by New York investment bankers to take billions of dollars and benefits from federal and local governments?
Moreover, how would the success of a private passenger train reflect on Amtrak, with its large government subsidies and unreliable service? Would Amtrak be able to survive?
Miami, along with Congress and the U.S. railroad industry, is waiting to find out.
I drove through Liberty City and Brownsville. I passed housing projects, abandoned buildings, warehouses, garages, and truck depots until I found the Miami Amtrak station next to an electrical yard, in an industrial strip sandwiched between West Little River and Hialeah. Unreachable on foot from anywhere popular with pedestrians, the building at 8303 NW 37th Ave. is the antithesis of everything the rest of the world imagines when they think of big-city train stations.
There’s no grand hall or marble floor, no food or retail, no easy transit connections, no architectural flourishes. It’s just an oversized Amshack (the derisive name given to the drab, prefabricated stations erected across the country in the 1970s).
Still, there’s much to admire. At $42 for a one-way ticket to Orlando — with specials as low as $31.50 — the prices are unbeatable. And what Amtrak lacks in style, it makes up for in simplicity. The mob of traffic and harried airport herds that have marred so many of my journeys were nowhere in sight the morning I arrived (on a purely fact-finding mission for this story). I parked my car free of charge, walked 50 feet and was just steps from the waiting train. No lines. No security. No stress. It was so easy, I felt giddy.
Inside the station, there was just a smattering of passengers. I took a Miami-Dade County transportation map off a rack and flipped through it. Amtrak wasn’t even mentioned. I felt like I was in on a secret.
My train, the Silver Meteor, was scheduled to leave at 8:20 a.m. and arrive in Orlando five hours later (it would actually take six). A second train, the Silver Star, leaves at 11:50 and takes more than seven hours to get to Orlando because it goes to Tampa first. Both trains continue on to New York City, stopping in cities and towns along the way.
On the platform, I showed my e-ticket to an employee in blue jeans and a T-shirt, and boarded the last car. I checked for WiFi (an essential amenity promised by All Aboard Florida), but there was none. Some Amtrak trains in popular corridors offer it, but it’s often derided as “Why-Try,” owing to its unreliability.
A shout bellowed down the platform, “All Aboard!” And we were off. Out of some 100 seats in my car, only six were taken: a redheaded college-age girl, a dreadlocked androgynous figure in basketball clothes, and a Spanish-speaking couple with two young children.
The scenery initially was predictably glum: warehouses, junk yards, trailer parks, and small private yards strewn with laundry, furniture, and toys. We eventually cozied up to I-95 and paralleled it all the way to West Palm Beach, reaching a top speed of 77 mph (according to my iPhone speedometer app). Exceeding 79 mph is illegal without Positive Train Control (PTC), an expensive braking technology that stops a train if the engineer doesn’t comply with signals.
Most Amtrak trains don’t have PTC. All Aboard Florida trains will.
At the five stops along the I-95 corridor (Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield, Delray, and West Palm), my car gained just 17 new passengers. After West Palm, we stopped and lingered for a long time. There was no announcement about the delay.
The basketball figure called out to me from across the aisle in a female voice. “You speak English?”
“Can I use your phone real quick?”
I couldn’t think of a decent excuse, so I handed it over. She turned away and talked inaudibly for a few minutes, then handed the phone back. “Cool,” she said.
A woman with matted blonde hair and dirty clothes wandered into the car. She was mumbling and cursing quietly at someone only she could see. A few minutes later she drifted out and continued to go back and forth for the rest of the trip. The other passengers napped or quietly played with their electronics.
In Miami, where every sleek, new mega-development leaves me feeling more alienated from the city, it’s nice to know there’s still a folksy, unpretentious entity like Amtrak.
There was a time when American life revolved around trains. For more than a century, from before the Civil War until after World War II, nearly every long journey on land began and ended on a railway platform. From the romantic steam engines of the Gilded Age to the stainless-steel streamliners of the mid-Twentieth Century, trains were fixtures in everyday life. They captured imaginations and came to represent freedom, opportunity, and progress.
Wherever the railroad went, new settlements, new industry, and a new way of life followed. South Florida, more than any other part of the country, owes its very existence to the railroad. The Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), which runs along the coast from Jacksonville to Miami — and until 1935, to Key West — transformed the once inaccessible southern peninsula into a booming tri-county megalopolis. And the man who laid the tracks in the late 1800s, oil and hotel magnate Henry Flagler, earned himself the illustrious title “Father of Miami” for bringing the city to life and shaping an entire region with his ribbons of steel.
But despite 116 years of active service, which continues to this day, FEC hasn’t run a passenger train on its rails since 1968. What was once known as “America’s Speedway to Sunshine” now carries nothing but freight. A violent strike by the United Transportation Workers prompted FEC officials to discontinue passenger service, which had already become difficult and unprofitable to operate under intense government regulations and growing competition from airlines and automobiles.
A similar tale played out across the nation. Railroads struggled to survive under the burden of their money-losing passenger trains. To save the industry from collapse, the federal government created Amtrak in 1971. President Richard Nixon, and his fiscally conservative supporters, initially wanted to let the railroads fail.
Eventually, a compromise was reached in Congress. The railroads were allowed to abandon passenger service (which they had previously been mandated to maintain) if they helped capitalize Amtrak and donate passenger equipment. More important, the railroads agreed to let the government-run trains use their tracks and infrastructure, for a fee.
In an effort to control the costs of this new venture, Amtrak consolidated more than half the nation’s passenger trains, retaining only the most essential corridors. In South Florida, the trains, ideally, would have run along the coastal FEC corridor. After all, those tracks pass through the downtowns of Florida’s major cities and towns. But FEC wasn’t included in the negotiations, according to FEC historian Seth Bramson, because it had already stopped passenger service after the workers’ strike.
That’s how Amtrak ended up where it is today, running on separate tracks too far west of city centers along Florida’s east coast to be convenient. Back then, the rail corridor was owned by the Seaboard Coast Line. Today CSX owns the corridor from Washington, D.C., to West Palm. And from West Palm to Miami, it belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation.
Since its tumultuous birth, Amtrak has had a hard life. Operating on infrastructure owned by private railroads has meant sharing tracks with freight trains. Freight dispatchers are supposed to give passenger trains preference, but that doesn’t always happen. Track maintenance, traffic, stalled trains, and other freight company affairs have resulted in Amtrak’s unreliable schedules.
At age 42, Amtrak is young in railroad years, but still living on federal subsidies. The government, you see, thought that a slimmed-down passenger system would eventually become self-sustaining, or better yet, profitable. That never happened. Amtrak requires about $1 billion a year in federal subsidies, despite ever-increasing ridership, and Congress battles annually over its funding.
According to a Brookings study released this year, Amtrak service makes money on its short halls, but not on the long-distance runs. Those short runs serve 83 percent of its ridership, while the longer runs “contributed an outsized negative share, $614 million, to Amtrak’s balance sheet.” While Amtrak’s ridership is at record levels, one of Brookings’s recommendations was for Amtrak to negotiate with the states to share operating costs and responsibilities. “Now is the time for policymakers and state leaders to better understand the location dynamics of Amtrak so that they can make pragmatic decisions going forward,” wrote the authors.
The reliance on taxpayer money has led fiscal conservatives to push for cuts to the agency, if not an end to the agency. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) refers to Amtrak as our “Soviet-style rail system.”
Ronald Reagan tried to defund it in 1985. So did George W. Bush in 2006. George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and John McCain have been just a few of Amtrak’s high-profile enemies.
The liberal response is to point out that no public transportation is self-sustaining. Aviation, highways, and local mass transit systems are all heavily, if not completely, subsidized. Furthermore, no passenger railroad in the world operates without public funding.
But to be fair, Amtrak doesn’t exactly move a large number of passengers, only about 31 million annually. Britain’s National Rail does that in just over a week.
The Silver Meteor, which took me to Orlando, averages just over a thousand passengers a day between New York and Miami. And, with the exception of popular corridors in the Northeast and California, rail travel is mostly an anomaly.
Most people under 40, in fact, have never even ridden a long-distance train.
I walked three cars ahead to the lounge car, hoping to chat with my fellow passengers. I knew from research that Amtrak offers “communal dining.” Oddly, I found no one in the lounge who looked obviously communist. I thought, at the very least, I’d end up sipping cappuccino with a bunch of Europhilic weenies in Che Guevara T-shirts.
Instead I found two forlorn-looking, middle-age men sharing a table and sipping from beer cans. One wore a tank top. The other, a Hawaiian shirt. They were engaged in two beloved national pastimes: complaining about prices and accusing someone else of incompetence.
“That guy should be over here cleaning tables,” one said, gesturing to the lounge car attendant, who was on break and drinking coffee at a corner table.
A sign on the snack bar said, “Back in Half an Hour.” It was 10:30 a.m.
“Yeah,” the second one said, “especially when I’m paying five-fifty for a Budweiser. Pretty steep, if you ask me.”
“It’s a lot of money,” the first man agreed.
I slid into one of the bench seats and became a lounge lizard, i.e., someone who sits in the lounge car for way too long, watching people come and go, and awkwardly trying to strike up conversations.
A mustachioed Archie Bunker type told me he loves the train and rides it whenever he can, especially since he gets a senior discount. “I have trouble negotiating airports,” he added. “This is a slower pace.”
A bespectacled grandmother in a sailboat-print blouse was playing cards with her two young grandchildren. She doesn’t drive anymore, she said, and was returning to DeLand after taking the grandkids to visit their cousins in Miami.
A black woman with a beatific smile was on her way to Sanford to visit her grandkids, too. It was her first time on Amtrak. “I just love the train,” she beamed.
Yet another elderly lady, a New Yorker in every way possible, said she was going home to Brooklyn to “keep an eye on” her husband. Ever since they’d retired, he “gets up to no good” when she leaves town. She used to ride the train to Florida as a girl. Now she takes it because she’s scared to fly.
A young guy with hangover eyes and black stud earrings slipped into the seat across from me. He wore a white button-down dress shirt and sweatpants, introduced himself, then launched into a story. He’d had a long, crazy night in Wynwood and had fallen off his bicycle and lost his phone. He needed to borrow mine to log on to Facebook and let his friends know he was on a train headed north. He must have partied pretty hard, I thought, to have lost both his phone and his pants. (But who hasn’t done that?)
I tried, once again, to come up with an excuse not to give my phone to a stranger, then handed it over.
“Have you ridden this train before?” I asked, as he typed.
“Is it always this empty?”
He nodded. “People prefer to drive.”
“What about you?”
“I only have my bike.”
And then it hit me. Many of the people on this train weren’t here because it was better than their other options. They were here because it was their only option. They didn’t own cars, no longer drove, refused to fly, or couldn’t afford airfare.
In South Florida, I realized, Amtrak is basically a public bus on rails.
Have you seen the plans for these new All Aboard Florida trains?
They’ll have WiFi, gourmet meals, comfy seats, and level boarding (no stairs, like on local Amtrak trains). An advanced baggage-check system means passengers won’t have to carry luggage to the platform, as they do with Amtrak.
And unlike many Amtrak trains, All Aboard Florida will connect to local transit in the four cities where it stops: Metrorail, Metromover, and (eventually) Tri-Rail in Miami; the future Wave Streetcar in Fort Lauderdale; trolleys in West Palm Beach; and the various systems at Orlando International Airport’s northern terminus.
But the real draw will be speed and frequency. The plan is to run a train every hour on the hour from about 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. Travel time is projected to take just three hours. Private tracks, few stops, and the ability to reach 125 mph in some areas will make that brisk travel time possible, we’re assured.
Don’t let the unimaginative name fool you. All Aboard Florida has lobbyists, political clout, public support, and a spiffy orange-striped design. It’s even headed by one of the railroad industry’s most successful figures, Gene Skoropowski, and by former Disney executives P. Michael Reininger and Donald Robinson.
In an interview with Metro Center Outlook, a public affairs program on PBS, Robinson called the passenger service “a three-hour attraction.”
How much will a trip between Miami and Orlando cost on this streamlined baby? José Gonzalez, executive vice president of corporate development for Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), which serves as a holding company for All Aboard Florida, says, “The cheapest [airline] ticket you’ll find is about $78 one way. And so we need to beat that. So, typically, it’ll be under that price.” First-class service, he notes, will cost more.
Speaking of first-class, the plans for the Miami station sound downright opulent. It’ll be downtown, next to Government Center, where the legendary Florida East Coast Railway passenger station stood for more than half a century. That station was torn down in 1963, leaving an empty lot now used for parking.
The new station will be the largest of three planned for All Aboard Florida — a 60,000-square-foot, “light-filled,” Grand Central-style affair with elevated tracks that will offer passengers “a panoramic entry into the city,” according to company reports. There are plans for stores, restaurants, offices, and an apartment tower.
Behind all this extravagance is a complicated structure of corporate ownership. But it’s worth explaining because within that structure, skeptics have found reason to question the motives behind the massive investment, and whether in the long run, Floridians will end up paying for it after all.
The All Aboard Florida project is actually overseen by two companies: All Aboard Florida — Operations LLC and All Aboard Florida — Stations LLC. The former owns the easement right to develop and operate passenger rail service in the existing rail corridor. The latter owns much of the land for the stations in downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.
Both companies are wholly owned subsidiaries of Coral Gables-based Florida East Coast Industries (FECI). In turn, FECI, along with the Florida East Coast Railway LLC (FEC), is owned by “investment equity funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group LLC,” according to the AAF website. (Fortress Investment Group is a large New York City investment-management firm, the first hedge fund in the U.S. to trade publicly.)
Translation: The various components of the business are separate legal entities. Besides tax benefits and regulatory and creditor protections, the structure also helps facilitate the potential sale of one component of the company.
And the likelihood of a sale is exactly what skeptics like Gilbert B. Norman are warning against. Norman is a retired Chicago CPA and former senior internal auditor at the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. He writes about “news, analysis, and commentary on passenger trains and train travel in the United States” at ridingmytrain.blogspot.com. “Quite simply,” he states, “there will never be a passenger train operating over the Florida East Coast Railway for their own account.”
Norman believes that All Aboard Florida was created by Fortress Investment Group to, shall we say, entice the state to buy the FEC rail corridor, which Fortress owns.
“[All Aboard Florida] simply generates public visibility,” he writes, “so that when the private equity concern that owns FEC approaches a public agency, such as the state, to buy the [corridor], all this public excitement about passenger trains will translate to voters saying, “buy it” (or we’ll find someone else to vote for). …All Aboard Florida is a ploy; enjoy the fun and dreaming while it lasts.”
Before All Aboard Florida is developed, Norman predicts during a recent telephone interview, Fortress Investment Group will approach the state about buying the corridor. He believes the state wants it in order to allow other freight railways to serve South Florida’s ports, which are currently only served by the FEC. That, he says, would create competitive pricing and attract more shippers.
Just as important, he says, the state would want to prevent CSX or Norfolk Southern from buying the corridor from FEC. Since those two railroads collectively serve every major port along the East Coast north of Florida, they would have no incentive to provide good service or competitive pricing at Florida ports — thus jeopardizing the massive investments the state recently made at PortMiami and Port Everglades.
If the state buys the rail corridor, Norman believes, All Aboard Florida would disappear soon after. And when the public demands passenger trains from the state? “Wiggle, wiggle, waggle, waggle,” Norman says. “They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming.”
Other online railroad observers predict that All Aboard Florida will begin operations, but that soon after will announce that it can no longer afford to run the service. The state, seeing it as a public good that reduces highway congestion, creates jobs, and delivers economic benefits, will feel pressure to buy the operations component of the business. Fortress will pocket an exorbitant sum from the sale while continuing to charge the state to use the corridor and rake in millions from the bustling new train stations.
Some railroad forums and transportation reporters also suggest that All Aboard Florida is simply a way to open up central Florida to FEC freight trains, which currently don’t go there.
Earlier this year, All Aboard Florida obtained permission from the state to lay 40 miles of new track from Cocoa to Orlando International Airport, mostly along the Beachline Expressway. The state bought a 200-foot-wide, 22-mile-long swath of land along the expressway from private landowner Deseret Ranch to lease to the railway. AAF will pay the state $275,000 a year for use of the land. That fee, however, is a barely a dent in what the FEC could expect to make hauling freight along the same line. And although the lease agreement currently precludes running freight trains, that could change.
The Beachline lease agreement, in fact, already stipulates that the tracks “shall be designed and constructed by AAF with sufficient load bearing and grade characteristics to accommodate future freight movement.”
An All Aboard Florida spokeswoman didn’t respond by press time to a request for comment on the suspicions expressed by reporters and railroad bloggers.
Last year, however, at a gathering of the Florida East Coast Railway Society, a volunteer and hobbyist group, FECI vice president José Gonzalez was asked about the possibility of freight trains using the line. “There may be opportunities in the future,” he said, “but passenger [rail] will come first, and then [FEC] will dictate how their business will work.”
Speaking before the group, Gonzalez touted All Aboard Florida’s business model, citing a ridership study his company commissioned: “About 50 million people actually cross [the Miami-Orlando] corridor today. And 95 percent of them are doing it by car.” Orlando, he said, is the most-visited city in the country, with 52 million annual visitors. Miami-Dade is the seventh most populous county in the country. Those numbers, he concluded, show the huge ridership potential.
Ironically, it was the government’s earlier studies that first alerted his company to that potential of a privately funded rail line.
In 2011, Governor Rick Scott famously rejected $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds intended to help the state build a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, and eventually Miami. At the time, he cited concerns over low ridership and taxpayer cost, even though several studies for that “bullet train,” which had been in the planning stage for decades, projected strong ridership. A post-rejection FDOT study concluded that it would have carried 3.3 million passengers a year and operated at a $10 million surplus.
“When we saw some of those numbers after the governor killed those efforts,” Gonzalez explained, “we said, there may be a viable business model here.”
FECI, however, may have been quietly eyeing a return to passenger rail even before that.
In 2004, Florida East Coast Railway was one of the top-20 contributors to the “Derail the Bullet Train” initiative, contributing $25,000 to the political action committee. Other big donors included Enterprise, Ryder, a Sarasota Ford dealership, among others.
Florida East Coast Railway vice president Bob Ledoux didn’t respond to an e-mail message requesting information on this part of company history, but if FEC was positioning itself for passenger rail nearly a decade ago, it might explain All Aboard Florida’s ambitious plans today.
The passenger venture was announced in early 2012. Trains would begin running, the company said, in 2014. That two-year timeline has been extended to almost four, with service now slated for the end of 2015. Considering that construction hasn’t yet begun on the new tracks or stations, however, it still appears to be an optimistic forecast.
Although, when the federal government isn’t involved in funding transportation projects, work apparently progresses at breakneck speed. The Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental approval process, for example, typically takes five to ten years. All Aboard Florida completed the process for the southern section of its route in four months. The rest of the route is now going through the process.
“We’re not asking for any public grants or operating subsidies,” Gonzalez explained to the Florida East Coast Railway Society, “which allows us to move much quicker. Because any time the government steps in to give you money, that’s when everything breaks down. It takes decades.”
All Aboard Florida did, however, apply for a federal loan earlier this year. A company spokeswoman wouldn’t disclose the amount of the request. But according to FedBizOpps.gov, a government website that posts federal government procurement opportunities, the company asked for $632 million to pay for infrastructure improvements within the FEC corridor between Miami and West Palm Beach. It was the largest amount requested by a railroad in more than a decade. All Aboard Florida, the site says, intends to pursue a separate federal loan application for the rest of the corridor at a later date.
Local governments, meanwhile, are chipping in, too. Aside from the land along the Beachline Expressway, which the state bought to lease to All Aboard Florida, counties are looking at ways to connect their local transit systems with the new trains. Amtrak may be a fiscal conservative’s worst nightmare, but All Aboard Florida is not averse to sticking its hands into the public pot.
You might say it’s more of a public-private endeavor.
My own personal endeavor, meanwhile, brightened up when the lounge car attendant returned to work at 11:00 a.m. Finally, breakfast!
People rushed the counter. Hamburgers in plastic wrappers were thrown in a microwave. Muffins, Snickers, and trail mix packets flew off the shelves. I opted for a yogurt parfait, which was delicious. The coffee, not so much.
The train was heading inland, away from the crowded coastal corridor. There were the orange groves and wild palms I’d hoped for. There was Old Florida, with its small stucco buildings, dirt roads, lakes with rope swings, cows lolling under oak trees, and Confederate flags flitting from porches.
Three hours later — after Sebring, Winter Haven, Kissimmee, and a few unexplained stops — we arrived in Orlando at 2:30 p.m., an hour late.
Built by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1926, the Orlando station is a magnificent, stuccoed, whitewashed gem with two Spanish church-like towers, a shady arcade, Mediterranean-style arches, and a red-tile roof. Inside there are old wooden benches and terracotta floor tiles. Outside, a cobblestone parking lot.
Through mergers, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad became the Seaboard Coast Line and, eventually, CSX Transportation, which leases the building to Amtrak. The last renovation was in 1990. Cracks in the stucco give it a well-worn feel but suggest it might be time for more work. The lack of running water in the bathrooms, the inability to flush the toilets, and the dry water fountain are more problematic. The relatively civilized state of the bathrooms, however, suggests that it might have been a temporary glitch.
To get to Disney World, I had three choices: take one of the two cabs parked out front for about $50 ($8 more than the train fare from Miami); take the bus (a nearly two-hour ordeal with transfer and wait time); or approach the little, movable Hertz podium in the corner and rent one of its five available cars.
But I wasn’t going to Disney. I was headed to a $50-a-night downtown hotel with a two-star review on Yelp. I would’ve walked the four miles, but my cell phone map made it look impossible without negotiating major interchanges. I was further discouraged when I stepped outside the station and found myself in a neighborhood of large, boxy medical buildings. There were no pedestrians anywhere.
I took a cab for $10.
“How much you pay for hotel?” the Haitian driver asked.
He shook his head. “Too much. I take you now to good place. Only $35.”
I wanted to say yes but was afraid my hotel would charge me a cancellation fee. I also suspected I might end up on a cot in someone’s garage.
My $50 room was good enough: tiny with unappealing décor, a clogged shower, and a view of a concrete pillar. I walked to Orange Avenue, where the bars are, ate a burrito, drank too much beer, then returned to my shabby den and fell asleep to the sound of distant train horns.
“We are just now entering a new Golden Age of Rail Travel,” according to America’s self-proclaimed “foremost passenger rail policy institute,” United Rail Passenger Alliance. “Not for over half of a century have so many opportunities for good, reliable passenger train service been available.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than inSouth Florida. While All Aboard Florida may have the most ribbon-cutting appeal, other rail projects are in the works.
Tri-Rail, South Florida’s only commuter train system, has been shuttling passengers between Miami and West Palm Beach since 1989. In recent years, it has broken ridership records, operating 50 trains a day on weekdays and 16 on weekends. But those trains run on the same FDOT-owned tracks that Amtrak uses, and are several miles west of South Florida’s city centers, making it difficult to access without a car or bus connection.
Since 2006, however, FDOT has been working toward adding Tri-Rail commuter trains to the coastal FEC corridor, where All Aboard Florida will operate. The trains would originate in downtown Miami and make 28 stops, mostly in city centers, on their way to Jupiter. Additionally, an agency spokesman says, FDOT recently applied for federal grants to help fund construction of an east-west connection between the two lines, which would pass through Miami International Airport and give South Florida its first truly expansive commuter rail service.
Amtrak is also eyeing the FEC corridor.
FDOT has tried several times in the past 12 years to secure federal funds to help pay for infrastructure improvements on the FEC. The improvements would allow Amtrak to run at least one of its trains on the coastal corridor, where it expects to increase its ridership. Federal funds, however, never materialized.
Agency spokesman Dick Kane says, “FDOT is now working with All Aboard Florida and Amtrak in coordinating train schedules to determine what the capacity investment needs are to accommodate Amtrak service down the east coast.”
That means FDOT and Amtrak aren’t sitting around waiting for federal handouts. They’re collaborating with FEC, which has said the work it is doing for All Aboard Florida will both accelerate the possibility of Amtrak coming onto their tracks and reduce Amtrak’s capital expenditures.
Other good news for Amtrak: The Miami station is moving to the Miami Intermodal Center when it opens next year. The new $1.5 billion transit hub will bring together Tri-Rail, Metrorail, rental cars, and other transportation services, and connect to Miami International Airport via a people mover. MIA is the 12th busiest airport in the country, and traffic is projected to grow. That should mean better transit connections and more potential passengers for Amtrak.
On the down side, All Aboard Florida and Tri-Rail would likely cut into Amtrak’s local ridership, especially if All Aboard Florida extends its passenger service to Tampa and Jacksonville, as the company has said it might.
Will Congress, or Florida taxpayers, continue to fund Amtrak’s Florida routes with diminished ridership?
An Amtrak spokeswoman didn’t directly address the funding issue but explained the company’s position this way: “Amtrak long-distance trains serve Florida and are an important part of a larger national network connecting communities to larger cities and major urban areas. They serve passengers with disabilities, the elderly, and rural populations that are losing scheduled intercity air and bus service.”
Sitting in the lounge car on the way back to Miami, a lithe young guy with skinny jeans and frosted hair slipped into the opposite seat at my table. He plunked a large Ziploc bag stuffed with oatmeal onto the table, portioned a couple of scoops into a bowl, added water from a thermos and began to stir. He saw me watching him.
“Oatmeal,” he said.
“Why do you have so much?”
“Because I’m poor.”
We talked for a long while. His name was Dylan, he’d been on the train for 32 hours (it was supposed to take 27) and he was getting cabin fever. He just broke up with a long-term boyfriend in New York and wanted to get out of town “ASAP.” Last-minute flights, however, were too expensive. Besides, he wanted an adventure “to clear his head.” So he walked to the Amtrak station (you can do that in NYC) and bought a one-way ticket to Miami, where he knew no one and had made no hotel arrangements.
It didn’t take me long to figure things out. He needed a place to stay for a few days until he went back to New York. I casually mentioned my wife. He dug into his oatmeal, and the conversation went uncomfortably silent.
“Do you know which are the most popular gyms on the beach?” he eventually asked. Gyms, it turns out, are a good place for a handsome young lad to score free accommodations in a strange town.
At 8:50 p.m. we arrived in Miami, two hours late.
“Never again,” I heard a woman say. “I’d rather drive.”
“This ain’t nothin’,” I heard another say. “I been on trains that be six or seven hours late.”
I saw Dylan outside the station. He thought there might be a bus to Miami Beach. If not, no problem. “I like to walk,” he said.
I pictured him sashaying through Miami’s mean streets at night, clutching his backpack and bag of oatmeal. On the plus side, it probably wouldn’t have taken long for a lonely, unfussy gentleman to offer him a ride. On the other hand, such encounters in Miami generally end in bizarre headlines.
I gave him a ride to the Omni bus hub near downtown.
“Good luck with your article,” he said as he got out of the car. “I know it’s gonna be great!”
“How are you getting back to New York?” I asked, out of curiosity.
“Not sure,” he said. “But definitely not the train!”
Read this story in the Biscayne Times.
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