April 2014 - McCormick Place

by Bernard McCormick Apr 2014 Also on Digital Edition

There have not been passenger trains on the Florida East Coast Railway for 50 years, but if all the ideas being discussed for that historic transportation corridor come to fruition, in a few years it could become one of the busiest passenger railroads in the country. This is already creating some anxiety as deep thinkers foresee a clash of transportation interests: land vs. water.

The FEC tracks have not been seriously modernized since Henry Flagler brought them along Florida’s east coast in the 1890s. On northern railroads, the appearance of the automobile 100 years ago prompted an extensive rebuilding of the railroad rights of way, at least in urban areas, either by elevating tracks or lowering them in ditches to avoid the inconvenience and danger of grade crossings. That was a 20th century solution.

The FEC has many such crossings, and they include a number of increasingly busy waterways. Therein lies the problem. Marine interests line the rivers and canals near the drawbridges of the railroad. Every time a bridge goes down to permit a train to cross, traffic on the river comes to a halt. It has been bad enough for years as long, slow-moving freight trains take minutes to traverse waterways. But now the marine industry, a very big part of Florida’s economy, faces the prospect of many more trains obstructing rivers and canals. The bridge lowerings will not be as lengthy – passenger trains can pass in seconds – but there will be many, many more of them. And just getting the old bridges open and closed takes minutes, presenting a challenge for boats stalled in strong currents.

All Aboard Florida, the planned train from Miami to Orlando, will have 32 trains a day. That is about twice the traffic currently on the tracks. And if Tri-Rail and possibly Amtrak switch trains to the FEC corridor, where they should have been all along, the impact on the boat people will be considerable. That is still a big if, as negotiations between the various entities are still underway.

The Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinel recently carried reports about the concerns of the marine industry, but the collision of interests will not be so bad to the north, for Tri-Rail will mostly use the FEC tracks in Broward County, where a connecting track between the two railroads already exists in Deerfield Beach. But from that point south, look out. Downtown Fort Lauderdale is the most obvious problem. The New River is busy with marinas surrounding the railroad lift bridge, and many facilities lie to the west. And imagine Broward Boulevard, just two blocks from the river, if three rail services all begin using the same tracks. Crossing gates will be popping up and down like jumping jacks.

The problem has been somewhat foreseen. Recently the CSX, which now carries both Tri-Rail and Amtrak trains, and the FEC announced plans to switch some freight traffic to the more westerly CSX, where many grade crossings were eliminated when I-95 was built years ago. The CSX tracks also have a recently built bridge that takes passenger trains high over the New River, but the grades involved are too steep for long freight trains.

A solution similar to the high bridge for Tri-Rail on the CSX tracks will be required. Either a bridge, or, ideally but expensively, a tunnel going under both the river and Broward Boulevard. Tunnels are rare in Florida because of the water table, but one is now under construction at the Port of Miami. A complication in Fort Lauderdale would be the location of a new station near Broward Boulevard, which would seem to require underground platforms. On the other hand, envision the opportunity for office and residential construction if blocks of the railroad were underground. Think downtown Manhattan or Philadelphia, where tracks were lowered years ago and shining cities flourished above them.

The use of the FEC for passenger service is a great idea, but it presents great problems. Ultimately, much of the FEC corridor will have to be rebuilt.

Welcome to the 20th century.