Sunday in The Palm Beach Post. Today in the Sun-Sentinel. We are being bombarded with stories about rail transportation. Most of it relates to the Florida East Coast Railway (hereafter know as the FEC) and the tracks Henry Flagler built to open up Florida’s East Coast more than a century ago.
If readers are confused, it is intentional. On its editorial pages the papers generally applaud the idea of passenger service returning to the FEC, which abandoned it in the 1960s. They show pictures of the futuristic stations planned for Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, as part of the FEC’s plan for a fast train between Miami and Orlando. They praise the potential redevelopment of seedy neighborhoods near the station locations.
Then, sometimes in the same issue, they carry news stories on the opposition to expanding rail travel, quoting public figures and citizens groups who have concerns about damage to the marine industry and the general nuisance that passenger trains will cause residents. Bridges popping up and down like jumping jacks where the tracks meet waterways. Horns blaring at numerous crossings. Delays for emergency vehicles. The disconcerting shriek of a train flying by when somebody is trying to line up a putt on a golf course near the tracks.
There’s nothing wrong with honest coverage, and the concerns voiced are legitimate (if shortsighted) but it gets annoying when influential columnists tend to side with people against progress. Their opinions have earned respect, which is the problem when they take a narrow view of what could be of enormous long-term benefit to Florida. Mike Mayo in the Sun-Sentinel, Frank Cerabino in The Palm Beach Post and, just Sunday, Carl Hiaasen in The Miami Herald, have all expressed cynicism about All Aboard Florida’s ambitious project, and indeed to the idea of running passenger trains at all on the FEC.
These are good writers, but one wonders if they can read. If they can, they should know that All Aboard Florida is just part of what is envisioned as very heavy use of the FEC tracks for both long distance and commuter service. We pulled from our files a 2009 front page of The Palm Beach Post that details, with maps, long-range visions of stations from Jupiter all the way to downtown Miami along the FEC. It includes the concept of switching Amtrak’s long distance trains from the roundabout CSX route through the center of the state to the FEC, which cuts through the heart of coastal population centers from Jacksonville south. More recently the other papers have run similar pieces.
Now, again much publicized, Tri-Rail has entered the picture, with hopes of moving some of its trains to the FEC, adding new stations every three or four miles in Palm Beach County and serving downtowns in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. All Aboard Florida, with its new stations in the highest density markets, will only speed that event. Actually, the FEC will become far busier than what most of those opposed to All Aboard Florida seem to realize. What they also don’t realize is that this should be the beginning of a major reconstruction of the railroad, eliminating many grade crossings that the FEC never should have allowed in the first place, building bridges at some major intersections and perhaps, as we romantically suggested a few weeks ago, even a tunnel under the New River and Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. In the long run, and it could be a very long run, the benefits to communities now skeptical of the rail improvements will far outweigh the inconveniences. People in Stuart are bitching today, but that tone would change if that city had a station where people could move quickly north or south.
It has also been reported that former rival transportation interests are now on the same track, with plans to switch some of the FEC’s slow moving freights to the western CSX, which has far fewer grade crossings. People should consider it a fair trade-off. More trains crossing their paths quickly as opposed to slow, mile-long freights taking forever to clear the gates.
Is such a grand plan feasible? Actually, it’s necessary. If we can build, and rebuild Interstate 95, and rebuild Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport twice in the last 40 years, we can rebuild a railroad so that its immense potential, realized a century ago and neglected for the last 50 years, can again be realized.