Just a week ago, a Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) train crossed Biscayne Boulevard in front of Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower downtown and entered PortMiami, hauling 13 cars carrying containers to be loaded onto cargo ships.
It was one of the early cargo runs by the new dockside rail service, part of a $2-billion comprehensive renovation of the maritime terminal that also includes a vehicle tunnel under Biscayne Bay and the cargo harbor dredge designed to accommodate the giant container ships that could traverse a widened Panama Canal.
Though the canal project has been stalled by a dispute over cost overruns, rail officials say their service will go forward.
“The port is seeing growth,” said FEC senior vice president Robert Ledoux. “We are promoting the port because it is promoting FEC rail service at their port. And we’re both seeing growth because of that marketing initiative.’’ Canal-widening woes are having no immediate impact, he said.
The cargo service, launched in October, is still in its infancy – running two to three trains per week. Once the service starts running at capacity next year, one to two trains per day will serve the port.
Dockside rail fulfills a promise by port and FEC officials to offer another option to deliver cargo arriving at PortMiami in container ships.
Until October, when the freight train service began, the only option shippers, importers and exporters had, was tractor trailer trucks to ferry containers to and from the port.
The FEC track connects the port to two rail cargo hubs for regional and national distribution: the FEC Hialeah Railyard and Jacksonville, where containers can be forwarded to other cities.
The FEC says its trains can deliver cargo from South Florida to central and north Florida as well as parts of Georgia the next day, according to its website. Delivery to Atlanta and Charlotte will take two days; Chicago, Dallas, Memphis, Nashville and the Ohio Valley runs are expected to take three to four days.
Last week, Ledoux gave a photographer and a reporter from El Nuevo Herald a tour of the new FEC cargo train track into PortMiami.
Though the trains began rolling in October, construction continues at the port to accommodate the increase in service expected next year. A load facility will be built next to the dockside yard where port workers stack containers after unloading them from ships.
The dockside rail project cost about $50 million. Construction began in late 2010.
In recent days, the train moved 40 containers on and off the port. The train leaves the port with Rooms to Go bound for Cocoa into central Florida. On the trip into the port, the train transports Nissan parts for export, said Ledoux.
Once the service is running at full capacity, Ledoux said, the frequency of trains will increase from the current two or three per week to one or two per day.
Ledoux said FEC doesn’t expect the service to tie up traffic because the trains are not long; in fact, when the 13-car train crossed Biscayne Boulevard on last week’s run to the port, it cleared the intersection in about 60 seconds. FEC also plans to coordinate with officials at AmericanAirlines Arena to avoid running trains when events are taking place there.
But on Feb. 4, traffic backed up throughout downtown Miami when a train leaving PortMiami struck the back of a cargo truck that had not fully cleared the tracks. There were no injuries, but the collision delayed rush hour traffic while authorities cleared the scene near Biscayne Boulevard.
Ledoux said FEC and transportation officials have worked to adjust crossing signals to ensure all vehicle traffic has cleared the tracks before the train approaches.
“FEC is working closely with DOT to ensure that the traffic signals allow for crossings to be cleared before the train arrives at the crossing,” said Ledoux.