Promoting passenger trains as a transportation alternative in Florida since 1983.  We are citizens who advocate for Amtrak, commuter rail, intercity rail and transit for Florida's future.

The Silver Rail Blog

  • 27 Jul 2009 10:47 AM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

    For those of you interested in reading Florida DOT's "pre-application" for Federal funds from the $8 billion set aside in the stimulus act, the document can be found at the following link:

    As indicated in news stories about FDOT's request, the pre-application includes projects which are far ranging, from the Tampa-Orlando high speed link to SunRail.

    Please note that this link will also be permanently posted to the Flyers and Maps section of the FCRP website.

    --Jackson McQuigg


  • 25 Jul 2009 1:40 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

    July 25, 2009

    Rail service could return for Tallahassee residents under Amtrak proposal

    By Dave Hodges
    Democrat Business Editor

    The train made perfect sense for Tallahassee retiree Shadow Hibbard’s regular trips to Arizona.

    “I go to Arizona and work on a Nature Conservancy nature preserve. I don’t drive at night, and I don’t use the interstates. I use the back roads. It takes me five days to get there,” she said.

    When Amtrak’s Sunset Limited made that run from Tallahassee, she’d board the train Tuesday night and be in Benson, Ariz., in 48 hours.

    No Amtrak trains have served Tallahassee since August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage to the railroad corridor between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

    Rail travel for Tallahassee residents could return under any of three options that Amtrak has proposed in a report the national passenger rail service was required to produce under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

    Though the tracks were repaired and CSX resumed freight service, Amtrak passenger service has remained suspended “because of the costs and challenges associated with restoring service,” Amtrak’s report says.

    Amtrak officials initially evaluated 12 alternatives for restoring service between New Orleans and Orlando. Those were narrowed to three preferred options, based on projected ridership, revenue, operating expense and operating lost.

    The first is restoring the Sunset Limited as it was before, with trains traveling three times weekly between Orlando and Los Angeles.

    Option 2 is extending the daily City of New Orleans service, a train that travels between Chicago and New Orleans. That service would continue into Florida and terminate in Orlando.

    Option 3 is implementing daily stand-alone overnight service between New Orleans and Orlando.

    Each option assumes that the 19 stations between New Orleans and Orlando would be served by the trains.

    Option 1, the return of the Sunset Limited, would require the least expense in capital costs and mobilization, at $32.7 million.

    Amtrak projects $6 million a year in passenger revenues, but also the least in annual ridership at 53,300 passengers. The Sunset Limited service would have an anticipated $10.8 million in direct costs, resulting in an annual operating loss of $4.8 million, the lowest deficit of the three.

    Fred Wise, manager of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Rail Office, said the Sunset Limited struggled for another reason. “They were constantly plagued by poor on-time performance.” Another shortcoming was the limits on service — only three trains a week. That limited passengers’ travel options.

    Nonetheless, Wise said FDOT is encouraged by the report. “We view this as a very favorable development and we are pleased our Congressional delegation led the effort to have this studied,” he added.

    Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari acknowledged that the train schedule will contribute to consumer acceptance. “I think it goes to the frequency of service,” he said. “It has been our experience that daily service is easier for the passengers to use than less-than-daily service.”

    Establishing daily service under Amtrak’s Option 2 would necessitate capital and mobilization costs of $57.6 to $96.6 million to bring the City of New Orleans train into Florida. The annual passenger revenue of $9.2 million is the highest of the three alternatives, as is the annual ridership projection of 96,100.

    Operating expenses of $20.9 million a year would result in a loss on the route of $11.7 million.

    Option 3, the daily stand-alone train running between New Orleans and Orlando, would have capital and mobilization costs of $57.6 to $96.6 million and the lowest passenger revenue of the three at $5.6 million. The operating loss would be $18.4 million a year.

    The capital and mobilization costs include $10.7 million to restore the 13 stations where service was suspended. Some require remodeling to bring them into compliance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Due to hurricane damage, the Sanford station would require $3.2 million for demolition and reconstruction, according to Amtrak.

    Based on the anticipated lead time, re-establishing the Sunset Limited would take a minimum of 20 months from the date funding is made available. The other two options are about four years away from implementation because purchase of additional equipment would be required, Amtrak said.

    Whatever the option, Mark Lewellyn, chair of the Economic Development Council’s Transportation & Logistics Roundtable, is optimistic about the outcome.

    “I am sure it will be a good thing for the community,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to passenger service starting again.

    Also reviewing the options is railroad and transportation company CSX, which operates freight service along the corridor. Spokesman Gary Sease said the company advised Amtrak officials that when the rail agency is ready to resume the service, CSX is ready to take those trains and work them into the schedule.

    CSX, however, will examine the other two options for more frequent service to determine how that activity can be accommodated, Sease said.

    “We have a good relationship with Amtrak and a very good relationship with FDOT,” said Sease, noting CSX’s home base in Jacksonville and extensive operations in Florida. “The state of Florida and its transportation needs are very important to us.”

    It is now the job of federal and state policy makers to decide if the passenger service should be restored and if so, which option is preferred. Also needed is the additional funding for capital and operating expenses that the plan would require.

    “Once these actions are taken, Amtrak will move quickly to initiate the steps required for service restoration,” the report concludes.

  • 24 Jul 2009 4:44 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)


    Why New Orleans-Florida Sounds Like Tampa-Miami to Us!

    In the recent past, the Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers has been a strong voice on the need to restore Amtrak service from New Orleans to Florida.

    It has been a tough fight so far. And we have much more work to do-- all of us-- if we are to prevail.

    However, FCRP has been fighting for better passenger train service throughout the state of Florida since its founding in 1983.

    Consider the case of the original Silver Palm, which ran from Tampa to Miami in the mid-1980s.

    Take a look at this entry concerning the Silver Palm on Wikipedia.

    While generally accurate about the Coalition's efforts, the Wikipedia entry fails to disclose why FCRP's court case against the State of Florida was overturned on appeal.

    Namely, FCRP did not have the financial resources to continue fighting the case. An expensive appeal bond-- which would have cost well more than what FCRP could afford in those days-- was required to continue the case. So we "lost" on appeal.

    The Coalition was right in its cause then. Vindication came only a few years after the case was lost, when Amtrak reinstituted Tampa-Miami service-- under the Silver Palm name, no less!

    A further irony is that Florida DOT is at present talking about investing sizable sums of the State of Florida's money in Tampa-Orlando-Miami high speed rail service.  

    All of this recent history leads us to wonder: If a Tampa-Miami market for rail travel existed all along, why didn't Florida just keep the original Silver Palm running in the first place?

    Which brings us to New Orleans-Florida.

    Amtrak's recent report to Congress on the possibility of restoring New Orleans-Florida service is filled with all sorts of interesting data. Much of it is inaccurate.

    Since the 1980s, FCRP has maintained that a market for a passenger train, if properly operated, from New Orleans-Florida exists. And it should be part of our national passenger train network.

    Is anyone at Amtrak listening? Haven't we been through this before?

    And as for Tampa to Miami service, nowadays the sky's the limit.

    Well, we told you so, Florida. Way back in 1985.

    --Jackson McQuigg



  • 20 Jul 2009 12:51 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

    Bullet train risk

    OUR OPINION: High-speed rail can be economic spark but only if done right

    It's tempting to jump on the bandwagon for a new high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. Certainly, high-speed rail can serve as a catalyst for economic development.

    It can also be an expensive boondoggle -- a train with few riders costing taxpayers billions.

    A decade ago, this editorial board warned that the state should do everything in its power to ensure Florida wouldn't get stuck with a money-losing railroad, no matter how fast it ran. That proposal, which was supposed to be a private-public partnership, ended up derailed -- thanks to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who wisely concluded the bullet train entailed too much risk for Florida taxpayers.

    Now the Florida Department of Transportation is looking for $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money to build the first leg of a high-speed rail system from Tampa to Orlando -- and a smaller portion of $30 million to begin work on an Orlando-Miami link that could cost more than $8 billion.

    This new project isn't off the drawing board yet, but already it's estimated to cost $11 billion overall -- almost double what the fast train in 1999 was projected to cost. There are promises that private partners will be found to cover the costs of operation and maintenance.

    All of this may work this time around -- but taxpayers should not be stuck with a project if ridership estimates are irrationally overzealous (as they were in 1999) -- or if the deal hits taxpayers for operations and maintenance. The decade-old rail deal began as a partnership that morphed into a taxpayer burden.

    At a time when South Florida's TriRail service needs support as ridership climbs but public contributions are cut, this high-speed train raises alarm about the state's priorities. Yes, high-speed rail could be an exciting way for locals and tourists to travel quickly to major cities in the state. It's a smart call to have the Miami segment start at the Miami Intermodal Center near the airport, too.

    Lots more planning needs to be done, though, to see if this new high-speed train proposal can add up to a win-win for Florida.

  • 15 Jul 2009 3:20 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)


    State Has New Plan to Buy CSX Line in Orlando

    By Joe Follick

    Published: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 9:16 p.m.

    TALLAHASSEE | In the latest twist to the controversial plan to bring commuter rail to the Orlando area, state officials are seeking $432 million from the federal government to buy 61.5 miles of rail line from CSX Transportation.

    But the request is part of $8 billion being provided by the federal government for high-speed rail that connects cities with few stops.

    The SunRail proposal is not a high-speed rail line and would have many stops between DeLand in Volusia County and Poinciana in Osceola County, near the Polk County line.

    The Florida Department of Transportation has also filed a separate pre-application for $2.5 billion in federal funding for a 95-mile high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando with a stop in Lakeland.

    The application said the expected cost is $3.5 billion.

    The department is also requesting $30 million to begin work on a high-speed passenger line between Orlando and Miami that would ultimately cost at least $8 billion.

    Final word on the federal government's decision will come later this year with more detailed applications coming from the state this fall.

    For the past two years, lawmakers have refused to sign off on the SunRail deal, objecting to a CSX demand that the company be held legally immune for damages involving accidents with passenger trains or motorists, even if CSX negligence was responsible.

    Under the deal, CSX would continue to operate freight trains on the line.

    State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has led the opposition to the CSX deal. She said Tuesday evening that she could not comment immediately because she had not had a chance to read the department's application.

    The "High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail" program is an $8 billion stimulus plan. There is little mention of using that money for commuter rail lines like SunRail.

    DOT Assistant Secretary Kevin Thibault said Tuesday the SunRail project would fit into the federal government's scope, in part by connecting the proposed SunRail project with the high-speed rail line in Orlando.

    "The president's focus has been on both high-speed rail and inner-city passenger rail," Thibault said.

    He said the final criteria for who will receive portions of the $8 billion stimulus plan have not been determined.

    Should the state receive federal funding to buy the line from CSX, that would relieve state and local governments of the $432 million obligation.

    Various states and communities nationwide are competing for $8 billion from the federal government for high-speed rail projects. With much of the planning already completed for the SunRail plan and the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed route, Florida may be in a better position than other states.

    Thibault said that even with the dispute over CSX's legal liability still unresolved, that should not affect the request for federal funding.


  • 12 Jul 2009 5:50 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)


    Tampa-Lakeland-Orlando Service. Now, Not Later!

    Fresh from the serious setbacks to SunRail, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is currently focused on the concept of building an all new rail line between Tampa and Orlando via the median of Interstate 4.

    The new line would serve high speed rail, but might eventually also host other services, such as Tampa-Orlando commuter rail.

    The bad news? Any new line between Tampa and Orlando is years away and will cost billions to build.

    And thus far, connections between the high speed line and Amtrak services in Florida don't exist at all.

    FDOT has repeatedly referred in the press to "freight train congestion" which exists on the existing CSX line between Tampa-Auburndale as a justification for the new Interstate 4 route.

    The problem with dismissing the CSX line out of hand is that, aside from the issues of cost and Amtrak connectivity, Florida's continued population growth will ultimately justify the use of both lines.

    Why can't FDOT do as California did and try a "keep it simple" approach?

    Let's start running more, FDOT-funded, Amtrak trains Tampa-Lakeland-Orlando, on the CSX line, now.

    The only passenger service on the Tampa-Auburndale line at present is the northbound and southbound Amtrak Silver Star each day. That's hardly enough to make a dent in the strangling automobile traffic on Interstate 4.

    Despite its current concerns about "freight train congestion", in the recent past FDOT has demonstrated that it will consider the use of the CSX Tampa-Orlando line.

    Just last year, FDOT was mandated to do a "mitigation" study that evaluated the impact of freight traffic diversions from the CSX A-Line through Downtown Orlando to a route through Downtown Lakeland.

    The study, completed in December 2008, is available online via the following links:

    The study also contemplated commuter rail options for Polk County. As possibilities, it included an extension of SunRail to Lakeland and/or the creation of a Tampa-Lakeland commuter rail service via the proposed new Interstate 4 right of way to be built Tampa-Orlando or the CSX line.

    The CSX corridor study is here:

    Like most of FDOT's plans, the concepts in the Lakeland study are no doubt likely to remain in a file in Tallahassee for the foreseeable future, but the fact that FDOT is at least willing to consider all options (including the CSX line, where stations and platforms are ready to go) is encouraging.

    We believe that additional Tampa-Lakeland-Orlando Amtrak service is an attainable goal. It was part of the 2000 FDOT Intercity Vision Plan.

    So let's run some trains. Surely there is Federal stimulus money to support this!

    Such an initiative would take a page from the California playbook; as all rail observers are aware, the Golden State has had great successes, where the Sunshine State has not. California has demonstrated itself capable or pursuing both high speed and commuter rail systems simultaneously. Florida can, too.

    With SunRail still mired in politics, Florida is likely to get a serious "failure to launch" reputation which will stick for a very long time if something doesn't change soon.

    In other words, Florida DOT needs a new passenger rail success story. Now, not in a decade.

    And there's a suggestion for one.

    --Jackson McQuigg

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