Work begins — finally — on Miami-to-Orlando fast train

Preliminary work has begun for construction of a $2.5 billion express passenger train between Miami and Orlando.

In preparation for the project, 35,000 linear feet of new steel rails have been laid on the ground alongside existing freight train tracks at two sites in Palm Beach County just west of North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton.

Parking lots that for years were packed with vehicles next to the Miami-Dade County Hall building and Metrorail tracks in downtown Miami are now empty, closed for coming construction of the train’s Miami station.

The shuttered parking lots and the new steel rails mark the first physical work on the future service since the ambitious project was announced in March 2012.

All Aboard Florida, as the project is called, is expected to begin operations in two phases: first between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2016 and then between West Palm Beach and Orlando in 2017.

Once in service, the train will travel the 235 mile route between Miami and Orlando – with stops at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — at an average speed of 78.3 mph. The maximum speed will be 125 mph.

It is not a bullet train or high-speed rail like the Train á Grande Vitesse (TGV) in France that resembles a rocket on rails. But the All Aboard Florida train is, nevertheless, a fast train with new technology, said Mike Reininger, the project’s president and chief development officer.

In a recent interview at his Coral Gables office, Reininger said the company has selected the type of train it will run on the Miami-Orlando track, but wouldn’t reveal specifics.

“We can hint at it by saying that with certainty it is going to be a state-of-the-art train that will be the most technologically advanced train of its type,” Reininger said. “It will be made in the USA and it will have the newest and highest emission standards built into the technology of the train as well.”

Once the train starts running, it will be the first time since the 1960s that a passenger train will operate on tracks that run along the eastern shore of Florida — a route originally laid down by railroad pioneer Henry Flagler in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Flagler railroad that stretched all the way to Key West eventually came to be known as Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), which now forms part of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), the company developing All Aboard Florida.

The last time a regular passenger train operated on the rail tracks that run along Florida’s eastern shore was in 1968. The track remained in place, but it has since been used by cargo trains.

On May 29, 2010, Amtrak operated a special passenger train on those tracks between Miami and Jacksonville as a demonstration that passenger service could be revived. But it wasn’t until two years ago that FECI, the Coral Gables real estate and transportation company, announced All Aboard Florida.

“We are in the middle of a very important and exciting time,” Reininger said. “The focus is no longer on the planning, but has shifted to the execution.”

Originally slated for a 2014 debut, the service has been delayed by lengthy negotiations over right-of-way between Cocoa and Orlando. Those issues have been resolved, Reinger said.

The project has been plagued by controversy, including debate over whether Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is secretly assisting All Aboard Florida by funding infrastructure that will benefit the project. Critics cite $214 million in state money for construction of a transportation hub at Orlando International Airport — where All Aboard Florida will have a station — as evidence to support the claim.

“That’s not true at all,” said Reininger, who said the transport hub was planned before All Aboard Florida became a reality. “Long before there was such a thing as All Aboard Florida, there was a need for a long-term vision for the expansion of the Orlando International Airport.”

Concerns have also been raised about legislative approval earlier this year of $10 million for safety upgrades to railroad crossings known as quiet zones.

“All railroads are mandated by federal law to blow their horns as they approach intersections to warn the public of the oncoming train,” Reininger said. “The only way to alleviate the need to blow those horns by the railroads is by this process called quiet zones,” which incorporate safety measures at at-grade crossings.

Local municipalities must apply for the funds, which supplement a $60 million investment by All Aboard Florida at crossings between downtown Miami and downtown West Palm Beach, said Reininger. “We are working very closely with the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization so the local governments can realize the benefit of quiet zones at the lowest possible cost, in the quickest possible time frame and the easiest possible process.”