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The Railroads of Southeast Florida
Author: Jay Vollstedt, USA
While Southeast Florida doesn't have a lot of rail traffic, it does have a wide variety of trains. Two lines, often running within a half of a mile (800m) of each other, provide an interesting mix of passenger and freight trains. Along the stretch of rails in Palm Beach County, both lines closely follow Interstate 95 (I-95), a major thoroughfare connecting South Florida with New York City, on opposite sides. The line to the east of I-95 is owned by the Florida East Coast railroad, while the line to the west is run by CSX. North of West Palm Beach, the lines split with the FEC line following the coast north to Jacksonville, Florida. Meanwhile, the CSX line heads northeast towards Orlando and Tampa, Florida.
The Florida East Coast has a rich history. Henry Flagler, founder of the FEC, is largely responsible for South Florida's development. In its heyday, the FEC hauled freight and passengers from Jacksonville to Miami with great frequency. A majority of the line was double-tracked. The Florida East Coast even had an extension to Key West. Unfortunately, many slumps in the US railroads and a Florida land boom that bottomed out in the late 1920's have reduced the FEC of today to a single-track, freight-only railroad.
Today you can still see GP40s, the FEC's primary motive power, hauling gravel unit trains, intermodals, or the occasional mixed manifest train on the more than 360 miles (580km) of mainline. Until recently, you could still see the 40+ year old GP9s working the mainline. Most of the GP9s have now been relegated to primarily switching or local work. While this article was being written, many of the GP9s were sold off, with the rest to follow in the very near future. As in many urban areas in the US, the FEC's line through Palm Beach County runs through economically depressed and industrial parts of the county. Access for safe railfanning in this area is limited unfortunately. There is a road that parallels the line for quite a distance called US Highway 1 that provides good vantagepoints in my town of residence, Boynton Beach. There is also a road called Dixie Highway that provides equally good viewing in a town called Boca Raton. These locations are fairly safe and very close to the tracks, making them great places to photograph trains rolling by.
The future of the Florida East Coast line appears to be very bright. Norfolk Southern, another large railroad with a big presence on the east coast of the US, has obtained trackage rights over the FEC to Miami in an effort to compete with CSX. The FEC is still the biggest freight carrier along Florida's Atlantic coast in spite of CSX and Norfolk Southern. Passenger service may again return to the FEC's line as Amtrak is currently looking into running trains down the east coast of Florida from New York City on the FEC.
The other line running through Palm Beach County is actually owned by the state of Florida, but is maintained and dispatched by CSX. CSX may run the line, but it takes a back seat to the passenger trains during the day. Long distance carrier, Amtrak, and commuter carrier, Tri-Rail, rule the rails during the day while the majority of CSX's freights run at night. This may change as more and more of this line is double tracked.
The Tri-Rail is Florida's only commuter train line. It was started in 1989 as an alternative to Interstate 95, which was in the midst of a five-year construction phase. This 72-mile (116km), 18-station commuter system running from West Palm Beach to Miami was initially intended to be a temporary service during the I-95 construction. The green and white livery was selected so that the passenger cars could be easily sold to GO Transit in Toronto, Canada, once construction on I-95 was completed. Tri-Rail's popularity has made it a permanent fixture in Southeast Florida. Tri-Rail is now in the midst of selecting its own unique livery.
During the week, trains run every hour or hour and a half, and less frequently on the weekends. Once the double-track project is completed, Tri-Rail would like to run trains every 20 minutes during peak hours. Trains are run in push-pull fashion (push north to West Palm Beach/pull south to Miami) and consist of an F40PH locomotive and three double decked passenger cars with the last car having a driving cab. Trains can reach speeds of 79mph (127km/hr). Tri-Rail stations are excellent places to take photos. They are clean, safe, and have very good access to the tracks.
Amtrak runs six trains per day on the CSX line between New York and Miami. These are the northbound and southbound versions of the Silver Meteor, Silver Palm and Silver Star. A typical consist for one of these trains is a couple of Genesis series I locomotives, a baggage car, a material handling car, a baggage mail express car, a crew dorm car, two Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a dinette-lounge, and four Amfleet II coaches.
As mentioned earlier, Amtrak is considering expanding or moving some of its Silver Service to the Florida East Coast trackage down the Atlantic coast of Florida. Silver Service trains currently follow CSX trackage to Orlando in central Florida, and in some cases, head west to Tampa on Florida's Gulf coast, before heading south to Miami. Providing service along the FEC line would probably speed up service to Miami while opening up new markets along Florida's Atlantic coast at the same time. Photo opportunites are similar to Tri-Rail's. One of the many Tri-Rail stations will provide great rolling shots. Use caution as the Amtrak trains make stops at only two stations in Palm Beach County. A train moving through a station at 79mph can throw up quite a bit of debris!
CSX is the largest railroad in the state of Florida. CSX's famous Tropicana Juice Train, the only food-product unit train in the United States, originates out of Bradenton, Florida. Long phosphate unit trains and fast intermodals criss-cross the state on 1,750 miles (2816km) of track called CSX's Florida Business Unit. CSX's headquarters and dispatching center are located in Jacksonville, Florida. Most lines in Florida originate in Jacksonville, and spread out in a spider web of main and branch lines. Unfortunately, all of this activity has very little to do with the line that passes through Palm Beach County on its way to Miami.
CSX's line through Palm Beach County was originally part of the Seaboard Air Line railway, a direct competitor to Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast. From what little I have seen and read, it appears that CSX runs a few locals during the day. Unfortunately, this activity is primarily south of Palm Beach County. Trains are marshalled in the yard located in Miami in preparation for their departure in the evening. There are only one or two scheduled freight trains each day. This may eventually increase due to the acquisition of part o Conrail, and the increased presence of Norfolk Southern in the area.
Photo opportunities are the same for CSX as they are for Amtrak and Tri-Rail. Unfortunately, if you are taking photos in Palm Beach County, most will be at night. A better choice would be the Tri-Rail's Metrorail stop. This is the transfer point for Miami's elevated rail line called Metrorail. CSX's marshalling yard is just to the north of the station. From Metrorail's elevated platform you can get a good view of CSX and Tri-Rail activity. I believe that Amtrak also has a maintenance shop in the yard as well.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief look at the rail scene in my area. As mentioned above, it is not dense traffic, but there is variety! And there is hope! Passenger service on the FEC, double-tracking of the entire Tri-Rail line, and increased presence by CSX and Norfolk Southern are all signs of a bright future for the railways of southeast Florida.
[ last updated 31st Dec 2003 ]