All aboard

Massive passenger rail project looks to connect Florida like never before

Transportation Management Article August 03, 2016
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Massive passenger rail project looks to connect Florida like never before

In cities across the nation, Americans are increasingly choosing to relocate to the urban core for smaller spaces, convenience, entertainment options, proximity to nearby restaurants, shopping and employment opportunities. A critical challenge for urban living spaces in many cities is transportation. From millennials to seniors, from single professionals to families, people are feeling the burden of traffic congestion, gas prices and long travel times.

 

Solving the transportation challenge and the “last mile” conundrum must be a collective effort. In Florida in particular, the public and private sectors are coming together to respond. Public entities have come to realize that reforming the state’s transportation system to fit the needs of a rapidly growing population is nearly impossible without private-sector support. The know-how, efficiency and resources of the private sector, combined with the public sector’s understanding of municipal needs, laws and systems, creates the right atmosphere for a complementary partnership for civic innovation.

 

The need for a sophisticated transportation network in Florida has existed for quite some time. Major cities throughout the state have been limited in their ability to plan and develop without the necessary transportation linkages in place to accommodate for growth. Moreover, national studies have shown a palpable shift in population of cities and surrounding areas over the last several years driven by the migration of young professionals, millennials and retirees for both economic and environmental reasons.

 

Florida is the third most populated state in the U.S., with more than 20 million residents. However, vehicle growth and vehicular travel have outpaced population growth. The state also hosts upwards of 100 million tourists annually. With existing capacity on area roadways reaching maximum capacity, and as additional tourists and new residents are expected each year, a new approach for transportation planning for the future becomes necessary.

 

Based in Miami-Dade County, All Aboard Florida is transforming the region’s perception of passenger rail, the consumer transportation experience and the development of smart, urban living communities. Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), the parent company of All Aboard Florida, is among Florida’s oldest and largest land owners, and the company is pivoting toward new, innovative ideas with the launch of Brightline, an express intercity passenger rail service that will connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

 

More than 4 million sq ft of mixed-use development, including residential apartments, as well as retail and office space will, anchor the stations planned for the downtown areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The goal is to create a full-service customer experience, allowing travelers the option of booking their complete door-to-door trip in a single transaction.

 

Fort Lauderdale’s station, part of the city’s “City of Tomorrow” concept.

Fort Lauderdale’s station, part of the city’s “City of Tomorrow” concept.

 

Rethinking passenger rail

All Aboard Florida, in leveraging a more than 100-year-old infrastructure backbone to develop Brightline, enjoys a significant advantage in its existing asset base and route characteristics. The Florida East Coast Railway, FECI’s sister company, has been operating railroad service on this corridor since the 1890s. The new service will capitalize on decades of railway investment, while augmenting its present condition with more than $1.5 billion in rail infrastructure upgrades.

 

Developers studied successful passenger rail systems around the U.S. and concluded that intercity passenger rail operates best between major destination cities, such as Orlando and Miami. The I-95 corridor is densely populated and made up of a diverse mix of business and leisure travelers that mirror the complexion of Florida’s economy, both international and domestic.

 

Research also showed passenger rail systems capture the majority of the market in distances that are too close to fly and too far to drive. At present, hundreds of millions of trips are taken between the project’s planned four destinations, and each trip is subject to unpredictability. A three-hour window for train service is the sweet spot. The new system will offer hourly service in order to hit the mark, a timetable that has been proven in the Northeast Corridor and on California’s rail corridors.

 

The 3 million-sq-ft Miami Central hub.

The 3 million-sq-ft Miami Central hub.

 

Higher grade, higher speed

The Brightline train fleet is currently being manufactured in Sacramento, Calif., by Siemens USA. These trains have been designed with guests and optimal efficiency in mind. Passenger coaches are single level with no stairs, but feature wide aisles, creating the world’s first fully accessible train. Each car also will be equipped with Bode door systems that utilize state-of-the-art retractable devices to fill the gap between train cars and floor-height station platforms, providing ease and safety for those entering and exiting, and satisfying the FRA-level boarding requirements.

 

A fuel-efficient Cummins diesel-electric engine was selected to power each locomotive. The lightweight engines contain 16 cylinders pumping up to 4,400 hp with the added benefits of lower emissions and reduced noise, ensuring reliability and efficiency with every mile.

 

The interior architecture of a future Brightline rail car.

The interior architecture of a future Brightline rail car.

 

Station development

Four stations are planned to connect the new service with passengers throughout Florida. Three south Florida stations are currently under vertical construction in the downtown areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. A fourth station in central Florida is under construction at the future Intermodal South Terminal Facility, which is a new transit hub at the Orlando International Airport.

 

Each station will be unique in its design and offerings. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), in association with Zyscovich Architects, designed the three south Florida stations.

 

Miami Central will serve as the premier hub, encompassing 3 million sq ft of development. The property will feature a mixed-use design that incorporates two residential towers, an office tower, retail, dining and entertainment options, and a “super tower” featuring additional office space, residences and a hotel.

 

The Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations and platforms will span approximately 60,000 sq ft. The real estate plan in Fort Lauderdale is still in development, but the result is expected to be a mix of residential and office space. In West Palm Beach, the company is developing a 300-unit rental complex, ground-floor retail and an 800-space parking garage.

 

In addition to significant investments in fleet and stations, All Aboard Florida is financing improvements on approximately 200 miles of track on an existing rail corridor between Miami and Cocoa, as well as constructing a new second main track. From Cocoa to Orlando International Airport, new tracks are going in, as is related infrastructure required to traverse this 35-mile corridor by rail with no grade crossings. The new track construction and related upgrades, as well as installation of new crossings, warning devices and signal systems, will allow passenger trains to safely achieve a maximum speed of up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach; up to 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa; and up to 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando. Federal Railroad Administration and Florida Department of Transportation safety standards are driving design, as is compliance with the federal requirement for positive train control.

 

Timeline

Using rail to link the greater South Florida region—which is the most densely populated in the state—to central Florida, the most visited area in the state, has always been a part of the discussion. When legislature decided against state-funded high-speed rail, All Aboard Florida decided to leverage its significant private resources in order to fulfill unmet market demand. After careful analysis and determination, the new passenger rail project was announced in March 2012. Following Siemens’ appointment as train manufacturer in late 2014, construction began on the three south Florida stations early the following year. Rail infrastructure construction between West Palm Beach and Miami was underway by summer 2015, as was construction initiated on the foundations for the three transit-oriented development towers to be located on top of Miami Central in downtown Miami. As the year progressed, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority began construction on the Intermodal Facility Terminal, including the planned Orlando Station. In 2016, construction is intensifying on the terminals and the rail corridor itself, with service between Miami and West Palm Beach expected to begin early next year.

 

The West Palm Beach station is presently under construction.

The West Palm Beach station is presently under construction.

 

Finally Florida

When fully in service, the rail line is expected to generate billions of dollars in direct economic impact for the state of Florida through development of the line and other related investments, including construction and operation of two maintenance facilities to service the Brightline trains, located in West Palm Beach and Orlando. In total, the project investment in infrastructure and real estate development will provide a boost of $3.5 billion to Florida’s GDP, with direct and indirect economic impact expected to reach $6.4 billion over the next eight years. More than 10,000 new jobs are being created through the construction phase of the rail line, and an additional 2,000 jobs will grow after completion.

 

The introduction of Brightline is finally turning Florida’s long-awaited passenger rail solution into reality: A project that not only meets regional transportation needs, but provides economic benefits throughout the state well into the foreseeable future.

 

About the author: 
Skoropowski is senior vice president of railroad operations for Brightline.
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