Private passenger train vision calls for double-tracking Florida East Coast

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MIAMI – Even if 40 miles of new track are not built by 2014, a new privately-run passenger service in Florida may run anyway, the head of passenger rail development for Florida East Coast Industries tells Trains News Wire.

Eugene Skoropowski, who was named senior vice president of passenger rail development earlier this month, said the railroad would run on the existing FEC from Miami to Cocoa, and until the new extension was completed, it could offer connecting service at Cocoa to Orlando. Skoropowski said that while months of studies remain, the company envisions operating trains on one-hour headways. He told Trains columnist Fred Frailey that the existing FEC would need to be double-tracked for the service. “The FEC once was double track, and all the sub-ballast and the bridges are still there,” Skoropowski said.

Skoropowski, well known in the railroad industry for his successful management of California’s Capitol Corridor passenger service, said he looks at the new service as “Capitol Corridor East” but with a much bigger market. He said FEC has been studying the service and went public because it has reached the point where engineering work and ridership surveys need to begin. The difference with this proposal, he said, is that this is an existing railroad that already owns 200 miles of track.

Florida East Coast Industries announced Thursday plans for the privately owned and operated passenger service to connect South Florida and Orlando. The company said the project, called All Aboard Florida, would be operational in 2014. Stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando would allow transfers to Metrorail, Metromover, and SunRail commuter operations.

Passenger trains would operate over a 240-mile route combining 200 miles of existing Florida East Coast Railway track between Miami and Cocoa, and 40 miles of new track to Orlando. Eventually it could be expanded with connections to Tampa and Jacksonville, the company said.

Florida East Coast Railway is privately held by funds managed by Fortress Investment Group, which also owns Florida East Coast Industries. Fortress also holds a 59 percent stake in short line conglomerate RailAmerica. Although RailAmerica operated FEC for a time, the two have never merged, and FEC is not part of the RailAmerica group of railroads.

The company said the majority of the approximately $1 billion construction cost would be privately funded without taxpayer dollars.

The announcement did not address several issues, such as how FECI will raise the $1 billion it says will be necessary for the project, and how it will gain approvals and acquire right-of-way to build 40 miles of new track.

Financing the project may not be as large a hurdle as it would appear. Florida East Coast Industries’ parent Fortress Investment Group has $43.7 billion in assets and raised $4.2 billion in capital during 2011. Fortress says it has more than 1,000 institutional clients and private investors worldwide, but it lost $1.1 billion in 2011.

Florida East Coast Industries has real estate expertise since it also owns Flagler Development Group, one of South Florida’s largest development companies. It owns 5,000 acres of land in the state, including nine acres in downtown Miami that would be used for new development, including a new passenger station.

Skoropowski said if the project moves ahead, the railroad would likely run trains at 79 mph from Miami to West Palm Beach, 110 mph from West Palm Beach to Cocoa, and 125 mph on the new segment to Orlando. He said two possible alignments are under consideration for the new Orlando route.
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