U.S., More Amtrak and Brightline History: Remaking Passenger Rail in Florida

Editor’s Note: Parts of this history article were first written in 2018 and 2019; updated today.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 16, 2021

Often, what’s old is new, and Florida tourism by rail has been ongoing since Henry Flagler created his Florida East Coast Railway in 1885. He almost single-handedly built the east coast of Florida out of a swamp. Flagler welcomed passenger and freight trains from connecting railroads at Jacksonville to operate over his new railroad. He let other people “take advantage” of his new railroad to deliver to him full trains of passengers and cargo and he forwarded them southward.

Fast forward nearly a century and a half and there is a reason why Fortress Investment Group’s Brightline in 2021 is bullish on its new higher-speed passenger service now under construction. While the infrastructure is complete between Brightline’s downtown MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach, ongoing construction to Orlando International Airport and Disney Springs at Walt Disney World continues throughout the pandemic. Brightline, after launching in January 2018 hosted over two million passengers before the pandemic suspended service during the spring months of the pandemic and contemplates restoring service between MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach later in 2021.

Back in Flagler’s heyday, astute Florida officials, understanding the potential of new residents and new business in Florida started looking around and making necessary adjustments to local life to welcome the incoming souls. One of the principal changes was the renaming of Mosquito County to Seminole County, a much more tourism-friendly sounding name. Today’s Seminole County includes Sanford, the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto Train.

Here is a capsule of Florida passenger train history, first written in 2018, followed by metrics based on the same pre-pandemic year, of potential of Amtrak service to Florida; the 2017 numbers remain relevant as prior to the 2020 pandemic the numbers remained steady, with slight annual increases:

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Florida was built by three railroads: Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, Jacksonville to Key West; Henry B. Plant’s Plant System which morphed into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, serving Tampa and the west coast of Florida, plus operating daily passenger trains down the east coast via the Florida East Coast, and John L. Williams’ Seaboard Air Line Railroad, first serving central Florida and the west coast, then building into Miami during the 1920s Florida Land Boom.

The passenger service of all three railroads concentrated on resort destinations along Florida’s coasts, and specialized in winter travel from New York and the northeast to warm Florida. Traffic to Orlando, a small farm town at the time, did not explode until Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, six months after Amtrak began operations.

It’s important to note when Amtrak was forming, Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, the 1967 merged entity of the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line, and only passenger carrier into Florida, considered not joining Amtrak because the line’s passenger business was still profitable, but, ultimately joined.

When Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971, Amtrak served Florida with fully equipped trains such as the Silver Star to both St. Petersburg and Miami, the Silver Meteor to Miami, and the Champion to St. Petersburg. These long trains, including full complements of sleeping cars, had separate lounges for both sleeping car and coach passengers, as well as two dining cars during peak travel seasons.

Twenty-eight years ago, in Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 1993, Amtrak has ridership of 1,262,059 passengers in and out of Florida. FY 2017 saw a Florida total of 923,483 passengers. In FY 93 Amtrak was still operating pre-Superliner Heritage equipment. The Auto Train had 18 cars, plus car carriers. The Sunset Limited (the only Superliner train in Florida, but was tri-weekly) had a nine car consist, and the Silver Meteor and Silver Star each had 18 car consists. The Palmetto, which terminated in Jacksonville, had a six car consist.

As the 1990s went along, Amtrak intentionally reduced its Florida service by moving from Heritage sleeping cars to Viewliners, and stretched the Palmetto to Miami and renamed it the Silver Palm. The Meteor, Star, and Palm all had what was known as a “common consist,” which meant the trainset for each train was interchangeable with any of the other trainsets. Along with this came the closing of the Tampa maintenance base, and service to Tampa was curtailed from two daily trains to one, plus Thruway bus service connecting in Orlando. Also during the 1990s Auto Train was converted to Superliners.

By FY 1998, ridership in and out of Florida had been reduced from the FY 1993 total of 1,262,059 to a new low of 976,301, for the sake of saving a maintenance base in Tampa and using smaller train consists because the Viewliner order only consisted of 50 sleeping cars. FY 2017’s total of 923,483 indicates ridership has fallen even more in the middle of a booming national economy, with both the Silver Palm/Palmetto gone from Florida and the Sunset Limited never restored to service.

Further intentional Florida service downgrades included the Silver Star losing its dining car service, with the train only offering a single café car for all passengers, manned by a single attendant. This terrible experiment in chasing passengers away was finally gone in late 2020 when a Viewliner dining car was added to the Star consist to provide flexible dining to sleeping car passengers.

Other downgrades included the Sanford station serving trains other than the Auto Train was also closed. The former Seaboard line through Central Florida was abandoned by Amtrak, and became freight-only for CSX. Stations in Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood and Dade City became Thruway Bus service-only stations, but Thruway Bus service to The Villages, a large retirement community, was added.

What is the potential for Amtrak service to and from Florida? Here are some metrics:

• Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism arm, reports that 116.5 million people visited the state in calendar year 2017. 102.3 million domestic visitors, 10.7 million overseas international visitors, and 3.5 million from Canada.

• Orlando, which is the single largest vacation destination in the United States, had 72 million of those same visitors in 2017. In comparison, New York City in 2017 had 62.8 million visitors, and Las Vegas attracted 42.2 million visitors, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, citing Visit Orlando, the area’s tourism arm.

• The 2017 population for Florida was 20.98 million people.

• For Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 2017 (closest data for comparison), four Central Florida stations including Orlando, Winter Park, Kissimmee, and Sanford (Auto Train southern terminus), a total of 425,181 passengers entrained and detrained. Since these statistics included passengers coming and going, that number is slightly misleading. But, optimistically using the total figure, 0.0059052916666667 of visitors to Central Florida made use of Amtrak.

• Central Florida, in comparison to much of the country outside of the Northeast Corridor, has, by Amtrak standards, a wealth of service: The Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and Auto Train all serve the area. Officially, the Sunset Limited does, too, but is under “suspended service” since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It’s those tourism numbers which make Brightline excited about new higher-speed passenger service in Florida. Brightline reportedly expects 3.1 million passengers per year in 2024 when it is operating 16 roundtrips a day – hourly service – between Miami and Orlando/Disney with an average fare of $102 per passenger; much cheaper than intrastate airfares. The numbers will grow even higher when the extension from Orlando/Disney to Tampa is completed; the company is deep into planning for that now.

Based on FY 2017 domestic and international tourism numbers, Brightline only needs 0.0266094420600858 percent of the overall tourism market to meet its ridership goals. That number does not include any of the 21 million residents of Florida who may choose to stay off Florida’s overcrowded interstate highways and choose to move around by passenger train.

Part of the brilliance of Brightline in its planning is endpoints. From the south, both PortMiami and downtown Miami, connect cruise lines directly to rail. Cruise passengers will be able to disembark from their cruise ship, entrain at the port, and detrain on Walt Disney World property.

Florida has three major international airports in Miami, Orlando and Tampa. There will be a “last mile” connection via the Miami Intermodal Center to Brightline and in Orlando, the principal station will be part of Orlando International Airport. We do not know at this point if the service will terminate in downtown Tampa or at Tampa International Airport.

All of the main Brightline stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are all downtown stations and part of new transit oriented development real estate projects. If the Tampa extension ends in downtown Tampa, the areas of land now being considered are also suited for transit oriented development.

Smaller, intermediate stations such as in Boca Raton follow the same model. The new Aventura station in Miami-Dade is right in the middle of major, prosperous developments.

Brightline developers have looked at every aspect of good passenger train travel. The main line has been positioned between the largest tourist destinations in Florida for both domestic and international tourism. New stations in good locations with generous parking garages and robust considerations for local transit have also been developed.

The company believes in marketing and advertising. The rolling stock is all new, specifically designed for this service with onboard amenities not found elsewhere in the continental United States. Stations are well planned and designed with passenger amenities not even found in airports. Brightline understands it will be carrying full families as well as individual passengers and has planned for that.

In essence, somebody sat down and said, “how do we plan the perfect passenger railroad?” and then did that.

Brightline proved its worth to South Florida locals when it opened in January 2018 and proceeded to offer an upscale commuter service rivaling Tri-Rail between West Palm Beach and MiamiCentral Station. The two million passengers who patronized Brightline in just over 25 months and happily paid a higher fare than Tri-Rail’s to avoid commuting on Interstate 95 demonstrated what a well run service can accomplish.

Here we are back at the beginning of Florida development and tourism. The tracks and infrastructure laid out and built by Henry Flagler at the beginning of the 20th Century now in 2021 and 2022 are about to host the next economic generator of Florida’s economy.

The ghost of Henry Flagler, who passed away in his Palm Beach mansion in 1913 at age 83, may well some days be standing trackside, watching shiny new Brightline trains zip along at 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa and then 125 mph into Orlando International Airport on brand new infrastructure constructed solely for use by Brightline.

Amtrak will continue to operate trains as it always has.

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