Last week came the news that a commuter train on the FEC tracks is coming closer to reality. The usual studies are being completed, showing to no one’s surprise, that a Tri-Rail train on that track would be much busier than the one running for the last 20 years on the CSX tracks which miss the downtowns up and down the coast. The fact is that the FEC tracks should have been the Tri-Rail choice back when service started in the late 1980s. Indeed, the FEC tracks were Tri-Rail’s first choice, but the railroad would not go for it. Under new ownership, however, the FEC wants a commuter train. It sees great profits in all its real estate along the line that Henry Flagler used to build South Florida more than a century ago.
It now appears the momentum is irreversible and passengers will again ride the FEC. Unfortunately, the news stories also emphasized the cost of a new train from Jupiter to Miami. Making a speedy and safe route would involve extensive rebuilding of the line, adding second (and even third) tracks in places, elevating tracks to cross bodies of water – such as in downtown Fort Lauderdale – and eliminating some of the many grade crossings that make the FEC dangerous for fast trains. It is already pretty dangerous with slower moving freights.
However, as pointed out here before, the expense need not be so daunting, and certainly not immediate. For starters, you don’t need an entirely new system. From West Palm Beach to north Broward, the present Tri-Rail system makes sense. In Palm Beach County much commercial activity (meaning office jobs) is located on the west side. In Broward, the Cypress Creek station is well positioned. To the south, it is a different story, but there happens to be an existing double track between the CSX and FEC lines in Deerfield Beach. It does not connect, missing by maybe 30 yards, but it would not be expensive to connect the railroads. The nine miles to downtown Fort Lauderdale would need maybe one stop; Wilton Manors would seem about right.
The downtown Fort Lauderdale station would be the busy point. Many of the projected 50,000 daily riders would be heading there. But you don’t need a Grand Central terminal. Initially, a platform with some overhead protection would suffice. Then, in stages, the line could move south to the airport, Hollywood and eventually all the way to downtown Miami. Until the line is extensively rebuilt, speeds could not match the 79 mile per hour permitted on the CSX. The railroad’s traffic people would have to keep freights off the tracks during rush hour, but initially that would only be for a few miles of track.
The plan, hinted in the press last week, is a spread formation. All kinds of ideas, including a bus lane adjacent to the tracks, short range trolleys to connect with commuter trains, etc. That’s all fine, but the one idea that can work quickly is the one in place. Tri-Rail. Bring it east, bring it fast. It can be done, without a bunch of consultants' fees.