Posts Tagged ‘FEC’

Brightline: Railroad of the Future?

When I was growing up, Dippin’ Dots ice cream sold with the slogan, “Ice Cream of the Future”. In fact, I looked and today in 2018 they are still the Ice Cream of the Future. I guess the future had not arrived on-time.

However, the future was my take away after my first visit to ride on Brightline in Southern Florida. A few weeks ago we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale with time to kill, and I decided to see if the nation’s newest intercity train system was worth the hype.

Formerly going off the working name “All Aboard Florida”, Brightline opened their first segment in early January. The full service is planned to run from downtown Miami to Orlando. Most of the service is on the Florida East Coast Railway, with about 40 miles of new right of way being built to connect to Orlando. At this present time, they are operating a “demonstration” service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Service to downtown Miami is expected to begin sometime in the next few weeks.

We arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale station on a typical day in South Florida, with bright sun and highs in the 80s. With only limited time available, we had taken a rideshare from the airport rather than mess with Tri-Rail. The driver did not know where the station was as you can expect with new service, but we made it with no issue.

The first thing you will notice arriving at the station is just how much development was happening nearby. One of the unique advantages in their business model was the extensive downtown real estate owned by Fortress Investment Group, Brightline’s parent company. Most people believe their goal is to break-even or make a small surplus on rail operations, with the majority of their profit being driven from increased land-value and property development. In a way, it is a throw-back to Henry Flagler’s original development strategy for South Florida.

Walking into the stations themselves, you are first struck by the newness of it all. Tickets are purchased on touch-screen kiosks. The process is simple, though entering passenger information can get a bit lengthy. I was able to avail myself of a 10% NARP discount and special fares during the introductory period. The downstairs level includes a staffed desk for baggage check-in.

We proceeded up the escalator where I received my first negative surprise of the outing, a security checkpoint. We were required to put all bags into a scanner and proceed through waist-high metal detectors. The line was short and the guards were friendly, although it was clear they were inexperience as they had to send my bag through the scanner multiple times.

We also scanned our tickets going through security, similar to transit system with platform control. There were no ticket lifts done on the train.

Departures are frequent throughout the day, though there are a couple gaps around midday that near 2 hours. We arrived during one of these gaps, and I made it a point to purchase “Select” class to gain access to the lounge. The lounge area was located at the end of the main waiting area. Access was controlled via ticket scanner. An alarm would ring if you tried to “tail-gate” someone into the lounge (ask me how I know). The lounge was comfortable, with plenty of outlets and snacks. Sadly, Pepsi continues its monopoly on the US Rail market as the soda of choice for Brightline.

At boarding time, we headed back down to the platform. For equipment Brightline uses Siemens Charger locomotives and semi-permanently coupled passenger cars that are similar to what the Midwest State recently ordered to replace the stillborn bi-levels. Seats were assigned automatically at the point of purchase. Those that have a profile setup through Brightline’s website can input preferences like specific areas of the coach. This could be important as each coach is setup with half the seats facing each direction, and no effort is made to turn the train at the endpoints. I’m not sure if this is a choice solely for the startup period, but given that the trainsets are setup for “pull-pull” operation I think it is likely to continue.

The service was good. An attendant assigned to “Select” did a quick drink service. Everything is done from carts, though I have heard cafe cars may be delivered after the expansion to Orlando. Passenger loads were light as one would expect on a mid-day train during the intro period. I did a few businessmen which surprised me, and a few other joy riders checking the service.

This part of the route was very straight, and we quickly reached the max speed of 79 mph. Freight traffic was limited so the dispatching was superb. I only saw one other train during our round-trip. There was a shocking amount of grade crossings, perhaps more than I have ever experience on such a short route. I’m not surprised that issues with trespassers and grade crossing collisions have been in the news.

Overall, I think Brightline is doing a lot of things right. There are plenty of things that Amtrak could learn from and there are plenty of things they are doing that would not work with Amtrak’s system. My biggest concern is that those differences will cause Amtrak’s management to ignore the whole thing.

I definitely got the feeling during my trip that I was experiencing the future of passenger rail outside of the Northeast Corridor. If the business model could somehow be replicated elsewhere, it could truly usher in a golden age of corridor service in places where there is currently none.

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The Overseas Railway

Last week from my local library I picked up a copy of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean. The book touched on the formation of the Florida East Coast Railroad and focused mainly on the historic Key West Extension.

Little do most people realize the connection between Ohio and the Florida East Coast Railway. Henry Flagler was born in Bellevue, Ohio. He co-founded Standard Oil with the better remembered John D. Rockefeller. Then he retired from the oil business, and for his second career he built the state of Flordia almost single-handedly. He is remembered for constructing the Florida East Coast Railroad, founding the cities of Miami and Palm Beach (among others), and developing a chain of luxury resorts down the coast.

The site of Flagler’s residence in Bellevue is currently the site of the Mad River and Nickel Plate Railroad Museum.

The book begins at the end, so to speak, telling the story of the horrific Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The storm is described in the ways that only a novelist could, and Les Standiford leaves the reader hanging at the perfect moment. The narrative then cuts to the present day and a trip down the current highway built through the keys. The drive is told with such excitement it makes me one to hop in my car and make the journey myself.

Henry Flagler’s early life and accomplishments are summarized, and then the historic trip he took down to Florida with his sick wife is told. He became interested in Florida, and constructed his famous Ponce de Leon hotel in 1885. As he expanded his hotel business, Flagler realized the need Florida had for better transportation facilities. There were few good options for traveling south of Jacksonville.

Like any good millionaire, Flagler saw a need and moved on his own to meet it. He purchased the first predecessor railroad of the FEC, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railway, on December 31st 1885. Soon he added three more companies to the growing empire, the St. John’s Railway, St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax River Railway. All his railroads were soon made standard gauge to better operate as one combined system.

In 1892 Flagler began building his own railroad tracks south from Daytona Beach. By 1896 the tracks reached the site of present day Miami. Flagler helped build utilities and fund the newspaper of the small settlement. In fact, had the citizens got their way the town would have been named after Henry Flagler, but he convinced them to instead use the native Indian name of Miami.

In 1905 the grand extension of the railroad to Key West was planned. Many said it was not possible, as the 153 mile route included multiple spans over open water. Not a cent of government money was used, no environmental studies were commissioned. It’s hard to imagine such a project ever taking place in this day and age.

The Overseas Railway was completed in 1912, just 16 months before Henry Flagler’s death. The Key West Extension never made a dime in profit. The deep water port in Key West never developed, and the traffic from the newly constructed Panama Canal never arrived. The argument can be made that Flagler never really expected a return on his investment. Instead it was to be his lasting legacy to the state of Florida.

On Labor Day Weekend 1935 a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude struck the keys. It was the strongest Atlantic storm to ever strike the United States before or since, with sustained winds of 185 mph. The Key West extension, always vulnerable to hurricanes was severely damaged and the bankrupt FEC could not rebuild it. Instead, the roadbed was sold for pennies to the state of Florida. The state used much of the route constructing US 1, the first highway to the Keys. In fact, much of the railroad bridges were so strong the roadway was build directly on top of them.

Today, Flagler’s legacy still exists in the keys. Though much of the bridges have since been bypassed, the railroad bridges still serve as fishing piers and access to a few remote Islands. There is even talk of building a multi-use trail along the old railroad route and across the old spans. The railroad he built has survived receiverships and mergers for many years while maintaining its independence. In 2008 shortline conglomerate Rail America purchased the road and moved their headquarters into the FEC’s building in Jacksonville.

Last Train to Paradise provided a comprehensive look at the life of Henry Flagler and his Overseas Railway. My only complaints are some slower parts of the book, focusing more on the individual bridge construction and less about outfitting the railroad as a whole. It was, however, interesting to discover an Ohio connection where I never expected there to be one. For those who might also want to read this book, it is currently on sale at Amazon.