By Henry Gabar
MIAMI—Beginning in 2016, All Aboard Florida will run 32 departures a day between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, with service extending to Orlando soon afterwards. With a maximum speed of 125 miles per hour, the trains will complete the 240-mile journey in less than three hours. In South Florida, around the three initial stations, the company will develop 4.2 million square feet of real estate. In Orlando, the terminus will be located at the airport and connect to a new commuter rail line at a sparkling, state-funded $215 million transportation hub.
It’s a big project by any standard, but it looms even larger in historical context. No private intercity passenger rail line has operated in the United States in 30 years — and it has been longer still since a new service was introduced. “You’d have to go back over 100 years to find a significant investment in private intercity rail in the U.S.,” says David Levinson, a transportation analyst at the University of Minnesota.
Broadly speaking, there are two reasons All Aboard Florida may be able to revive a transportation model whose decline began during the Hoover administration. The first might be called what is already there: a coastline’s worth of right-of-way, half of Florida’s population, and tens of millions of travelers on business and vacation. The second might be called what could be there: 21 acres of transit-oriented development in three South Florida downtowns.
Can All Aboard Florida establish a blueprint for how private freight railways, which averted financial ruin by abandoning passenger service, can profit from its revival? “If it can work there, it could work in other markets. The other private rail firms absolutely can be watching this,” says Adie Tomer, an associate at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program who studies passenger rail. “This a great test for America.”
Private, inter-city passenger rail in America has been dead since 1983, the year the Rio Grande Zephyr, which ran through the Rockies between Denver and Ogden, Utah, was folded into Amtrak’s California Zephyr route. That was the final bow of a long fifth act that began with the ascent of the American automobile six decades earlier. The number of passenger trains in the United States dropped 45 percent between 1929 and 1945, and 85 percent between 1929 and 1965.
Today America’s passenger trains are operated publicly by Amtrak. Conceived as a political escape valve to relieve freight companies of the burden of passenger service, Amtrak was never expected to succeed, says Albert Churella, a historian of the Pennsylvania Railroad. “It was made very clear to everybody — wink wink, nudge nudge — that in a few years we’re going to shut all this stuff down,” he says. Amtrak has survived thanks to its political appeal and popularity, but not because it’s good business; it receives more than a billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies each year.
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