U.S., Amtrak and Brightline South Florida History: Two Railroads, Two Very Different Results for Stations

Editor’s Note: This story was originally written in early 2019 and was updated today.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 15, 2021

Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star have had two home terminals in Miami, Florida, but are supposed to have a third that is completed, but Amtrak refuses to sign a lease for use of it.

The first home terminal, onboard services crew base, and heavy maintenance base in Miami was the Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s single-level station built at 2210 Northwest 7th Avenue at Northwest 22nd Street in Allapattah, two miles north of downtown Miami. It was a large, low building, with a dark interior for coolness in the pre-air conditioned era, built when the Seaboard extended its southern terminus to Miami during the Florida Land Boom in 1927. Typical of a major train terminal of its day, the station had multiple, long tracks and platforms, baggage service, ticket offices, a coffee shop, and all other amenities found in large cities.

When the Miami extension of the Seaboard was built, it was built several miles to the west of the existing Florida East Coast Railway tracks which ran through the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and all of the intermediate, smaller towns along the coast, such as Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Hollywood Beach, and others. By building the new railroad line to the west of the towns through much of what was untamed land or at best farm land, the Seaboard could build unimpeded by existing structures and stubborn landowners.

Today, the old Seaboard line is now owned and operated by Tri-Rail for the commuter service between just north of West Palm Beach to Miami. The Seaboard line parallels the later-built Interstate 95, and, when I-95 in the late 1980s underwent a major rebuild/expansion project, Tri-Rail was created to provide commuters with an alternative to the construction congestion. Over three decades later, Tri-Rail is about to expand even more.

To the north of the Miami station was the Seaboard’s Hialeah coach yard, the principal maintenance base for all Seaboard passenger rolling stock. The yard had a good mechanical reputation, and, in the early days of Amtrak, Hialeah and King Street in Seattle were considered the two premier Amtrak maintenance facilities in the country.

Today, Amtrak still maintains Hialeah as the principal maintenance base for all Viewliner sleeping, dining, and baggage car rolling stock as well as Amfleet II long distance coaches. A locomotive shop is also at Hialeah.

Additionally, South Florida’s multi-county commuter system, Tri-Rail, has its principal maintenance facility adjoining Amtrak’s in Hialeah.

Hialeah remains the onboard services crew base for the Meteor and Star, also.

All of the stations built during the 1920s Florida Land Boom by the Seaboard were under the direction of the railroad’s chairman and largest shareholder, S. Davies Warfield. Notably, Mr. Warfield, well-known in major financial circles of the day also happened to be the uncle of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the American-born divorcee who in the 1930s the King of England gave up his crown to marry, and she became the Duchess of Windsor, living out her life in Europe. Whenever Mrs. Simpson/The Duchess traveled in America, she always favored the Seaboard’s passenger trains between New York City and Florida.

Today, the original Seaboard Miami station is gone, replaced by a large government building.

By 1978, the Seaboard station, which also served Atlantic Coast Line trains after the start of the 1963 FEC strike, was old, tired, out of date, and expensive to operate. The Silver Meteor and Silver Star and other Florida trains, such as the Champion and Chicago-Miami Floridian, all moved into the new Amtrak station built at the Hialeah coach yard.

Hialeah station was designed and built to Amtrak uniform specifications and also, on a second floor, houses Amtrak’s regional offices which overlook the platform area. The station – which had a twin in Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Midway Station before the restoration of St. Paul’s Union Depot which Amtrak subsequently occupies – was designed plainly, but with complete accessible facilities. It was built with passenger platforms for three tracks.

The station, without immediate connections to either Tri-Rail or Miami’s Metrorail, is not considered in a good neighborhood, and often patrons prefer to use other nearby Amtrak stations immediately to the north which are considered safer for passengers. Some conductors on the southbound Meteor and Star are known to make a very big deal to passengers that detraining in Hollywood – the last station stop before Miami/Hialeah – is highly preferable to the potentially high crime area of Hialeah where the station is located.

The third, and, unused stations designed for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star is the Miami Intermodal Center, which also houses Tri-Rail’s current southern terminus and Greyhound Lines at Miami International Airport. Local transit, including the Miami Metrorail, Metrobus, rental cars and a direct connection to Miami International Airport via the MIA Mover people mover are also part of the complex.

The Florida Department of Transportation created and, with the assistance of Amtrak, designed the Miami Intermodal Center to be the ultimate multi-modal station of bus, transit, commuter rail, and Amtrak. The facility was constructed by Florida DOT but is owned by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

When Florida DOT designers asked Amtrak how long of a platform was needed, Amtrak answered it needed a platform for one locomotive and nine cars – a common consist train. A car is 85 feet long. Taking Amtrak at its corporate word, FDOT designed the station to that specification and built the facility. No official thought was given to perhaps one day hosting longer trains or even extra cars added for seasonal business. The entire piece for Amtrak was planned for a single locomotive and nine passenger cars.

As construction was nearing completion, Amtrak decided to add a third sleeping car to the Silver Meteor, which made the 10 car consist too long to fit onto the platform designed for a nine car train. Plus, there was a grade-crossing for a busy street just outside of the platform area, which would have been blocked by a train spotted along the platform for entraining or detraining.

FDOT, at great expense, went back to the drawing board and made major changes to accommodate the longer consists and rebuilt the necessary parts of the facility while also dealing with the grade crossing which included extending two other nearby streets over new grade crossings so when the trains were in the station and blocked the original grade crossing, traffic could take an easy detour through an open grade crossing.

The station sits empty for the Amtrak part, as, to date, Amtrak refuses to sign the lease for the station and remains at the much less desirable Hialeah location.

The track leading to the Miami Airport Station is the old Seaboard track which led from the Hialeah coach yard to the old Seaboard station as well as a freight line which served industrial customers near today’s Miami International Airport. Tri-Rail is the principal user of the track.

While Amtrak remains stuck in Hialeah, in downtown, the newest and most exciting train station in Miami also sits on the exact same ground where Miami’s first train station was located.

MiamiCentral Station, built for Brightline and coming Tri-Rail service, is a gleaming landmark and testament to modern architectural design, sitting where Henry Flagler’s first wooden Florida East Coast Railway station was built and opened in 1896 and later moved when the Dade County Courthouse was built. The last station closed in 1963 during the FEC strike. Since then, the land had been vacant after the wooden FEC train station was fairly quickly demolished, and used for parking lots until the construction of MiamiCentral Station and accompanying major buildings.

The original FEC station was a busy place with multiple tracks and platforms. It not only served multiple FEC trains, but all of the South Florida trains of the Atlantic Coast Line, including the Illinois Central, New York Central, and Pennsylvania Railroad and other trains that came to Miami from Chicago and the Midwest over the FEC tracks south of Jacksonville.

Until Mr. Warfield extended his Seaboard Railroad to Miami, the FEC handled the Seaboard’s east coast Florida trains, too.

The construction of MiamiCentral Station for Brightline returns the grandeur of passenger rail stations to Florida. The building and adjoining complex itself contains much more than just the Brightline train station. The station facility is designed to handle 32 daily Brightline departures and arrivals, and additional space has been built for Tri-Rail to have a downtown Miami terminal. MiamiCentral Station will also be the downtown terminal for a new Miami-Dade County commuter service which will also operate on FEC tracks. This new service, which will be operated on behalf of Miami-Dade County by Brightline will for now replace proposed FEC-based Tri-Rail service. Plans call for eventual expansion of Tri-Rail north on the FEC tracks to Jupiter and perhaps beyond. The Tri-Rail service coming shortly into MiamiCentral Station by way of a new connecting track which is part of the current Tri-Rail service on the former Seaboard line; some Tri-Rail trains will continue to Miami Intermodal Center and some to MiamiCentral Station.

Pre-pandemic Brightline had two intermediate stations at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on the FEC for the service which will eventually reach Orlando International Airport and Disney Springs at Walt Disney World in 2022. Three additional stations have been announced, including a dockside station at PortMiami on Dodge Island. Mimicking the FEC’s Overseas Railway to Key West, some Brightline trains will continue directly to the port and passengers will detrain next to their cruise ship just as was done originally in Key West a full century before. The other two stations are in Aventura, an upscale residential and business/shopping part of Miami-Dade County and Boca Raton.

By the time Brightline shut down because of the pandemic in early 2020, it had already carried over two million passengers between MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach. Brightline continues to work on plans for an extension from Walt Disney World to downtown Tampa.

It’s a dramatic difference between Brightline and Amtrak in South Florida. The private company is happily expanding station stops to meet demand, including an innovative cruise ship terminal station, but Amtrak is refusing to sign a lease for an airport transportation hub it helped design. Miami International Airport is the 13th busiest airport in the United States and the 40th busiest airport in the world. You can catch a Greyhound bus from Miami International Airport, but not an Amtrak train – by choice.

As late as 1956, trains from New York and Chicago/the Midwest included Seaboard’s Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and the Palmland. The Florida East Coast hosted the Atlantic Coast Line trains, Havana Special and East Coast Champion. From Chicago and the Midwest was the New York Central’s Royal Palm, the C&EI’s Dixieland, the Pennsylvania’s South Wind, and the Illinois Central’s City of Miami. The FEC also had an all-stops local train between Jacksonville and Miami. The Atlantic Coast Line’s winter season Florida Special also operated via the FEC from New York to Miami.

In the Amtrak era, Miami has been served by the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Palm, Champion, Floridian, and South Wind. For a brief time, the Sunset Limited, when it was extended to Florida in 1993, also ran to Miami before it was truncated first to Sanford, then Orlando.

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