MIAMI-ORLANDO

Ready to hop on All Aboard Florida

 
 
PUTNEY
PUTNEY

mputney@wplg.com

Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway played a pivotal role a century ago in creating modern-day Florida and it’s poised to do it again. Late next year, All Aboard Florida, an FEC subsidiary, will start hourly passenger train service between Miami and Orlando.

It won’t be high-speed rail, but it will be pretty quick, with speeds at one point in the 125 mile-per-hour range. More important, the trip will take just three hours. The cost will be competitive with flying or driving and a lot easier than either. On-board amenities will range from comfortable coach to luxurious first class, from snacks to gourmet meals, according to AAF executive Hussein Cumber.

And did I mention that the roughly $2 billion in capital costs will be borne solely by Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company? The trains will roll without any government grants or gifts. Nor will the service require a state or federal subsidy. All Aboard Florida will be the first such nongovernment-subsidized intercity rail passenger service in the country. We’re No. 1, but in a good way for a change.

A few years ago, a high-speed rail project seemed possible when Washington dangled billions of start-up dollars in front of several states, including Florida. Gov. Rick Scott turned down Florida’s share on the grounds that the eventual costs to the state would be exorbitant. He was probably right.

So the private sector boldly stepped in to do what government declined to. Of course, FECI had some important things going for it. Like a profitable, single-rail freight line running on a 100-foot wide corridor up Florida’s east coast. The company will build a second companion line for its passenger trains and a new leg over to the Orlando airport, where a handsome new station will be built.

New stations will also be built in West Palm, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Miami’s Grand Central will go up on nine downtown acres where Henry Flagler’s station once stood. Miami Grand Central will rise just west of Miami Worldcenter with its convention space, 1,800-room Marriott Hotel and retail center anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. All the train stations will be big economic generators.

All Aboard Florida is thinking big and acting that way, too. Don Robinson, president and COO of AAF, and Cumber, executive VP for corporate development of Florida East Coast Industries, threw a small dinner party the other night to bring an eclectic group of civic and business leaders up to date on the project. We saw an impressive array of charts and graphs and schematics of where the new stations will go.

AAF has run all the numbers and they’re confident they’ll make money. That’s because 50 million people annually travel between Miami and Orlando, the state’s No. 1 tourist draw. If just 10 percent of them take the train — unnamed but let’s call it the Florida Flyer — the project will be a go. And, lordy be, if it’s a loser taxpayers will not be liable for the bill.

“And it will even be eco-friendly,” Cumber says. “We’ll be able to get 400 people from Miami to Orlando on one gallon of fuel per person. Compare that to how much gas a car would use.”

There will be a total of 10 trains in service, each carrying up to 400 passengers. The cars will be configured to meet the needs of business travelers, tourists and families. Visiting Europeans, accustomed to train travel, should find it appealing. It should also appeal to the thousands of South Florida students who attend the University of Central Florida. Now, to get home or to school they must drive for four to five hours or fly.

The new rail service will also make it easier for a Miamian to zip up to West Palm for, say, a performance at the Kravis Center. Or for a Fort Lauderdale resident to jump on the Flyer and come down to Miami for a Heat game without battling traffic and tolls on I-95 and the cost of parking near the AAA.

There are many loose ends that need to be tied up before the trains begin to roll. But I see nothing but an upside to AAF. And there’s a nice lagniappe: Cumber says that if David Beckham builds his soccer stadium at PortMiami, AAF will provide train service to fans on game days across its freight rail bridge to the port.

Sometimes government needs to do things the private sector can’t — run prisons, build roads and bridges, operate airports and ports, etc. Sometimes, though, private industry can do what government can’t. Like run an efficient, affordable, convenient passenger rail service between two of the state’s major cities. And if the Miami-Orlando route is successful, look for AAF to create more passenger rail links to Tampa and Jacksonville.

I’m on board, how about you?

This story has been updated to correct the following: The passenger service is scheduled to begin late next year. Don Robinson’s title is COO of All Aboard Florida. It has been updated to clarify the trains will run without government grants or gifts.

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