Florida tourist line loses route

Trains Industry Newsletter
Get a weekly roundup of the industry news you need.
By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine. View our privacy policy.
Clinchfield No. 800 pulls a Royal Palm Railway Experience train to Mount Dora in January 2018.
Trains: Jim Wrinn
MOUNT DORA, Fla. — What’s good for one railroad may not necessarily be good for another, and a tourist railroad in Florida will have to cope with that reality this spring.

The Royal Palm Railway Experience, which operates several trains per week across trackage owned by shortline operator Florida Central Railway, will be forced to cease some operations in April. Florida Central informed Royal Palm on Feb. 5 that the company will no longer maintain its Tavares-to-Mount Dora trackage to passenger specifications, and the Royal Palm will no longer be allowed to operate its tourist trains on that stretch of track. The Royal Palm Railway currently operates three-to-five days per week across Tavares-Mount Dora track but will be forced to cease operations there beginning April 22, thereby possibly losing a significant portion of business.

“It was a devastating move,” says Royal Palm Railway spokesman Neil Bagaus.

The 4.6-mile-long Tavares-to-Mount Dora leg is roughly half of Royal Palm’s total excursion route. The excursions operate over former Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line routes. Riders are welcomed to get off trains at Eustis and Mount Dora and seek out the dining, shopping, and entertainment opportunities at those locations, and catch a later train back to Tavares.

The former Atlantic Coast Line route to Mount Dora is jointed rail, and Bagaus says, includes rail that was laid more than a century ago. Bagaus says the track has been maintained to passenger specifications by Florida Central. In the notification sent to Royal Palm, however, Florida Central — to which Royal Palm pays a monthly fee to operate across — said they will no longer maintain the track as such.

“They informed us that maintenance costs were too high to keep that track up to passenger train standards,” Bagaus says. “(Florida Central) has been an excellent host for (the Royal Palm Railway Experience). Were we caught by surprise? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have had a good working relationship with them and will continue to do so.”

The discontinuance is “just a business decision,” according to a representative from Pinsly Railroad Co., the parent company of Florida Central. Pete Petree, vice president of operations for Pinsly, says Florida Central’s growing freight business was a major factor in the railroad’s decision to discontinue passenger operations between Tavares and Mount Dora.

“We’re a third-generation, family-owned freight operation, and that’s where our focus lies,” Petree says. “We have to consider the overall practicality of maintaining that track for freight rail versus passenger rail, and it was just a business decision.”

Petree says anticipated business growth was also a factor in the decision. Florida Central is benefiting from a strong freight market, Petree says, and the company anticipates further growth in the near future.

“The central Florida markets are doing very well,” Petree says. “We’ve got some new opportunities for development and some other opportunities for some organic growth and some transloading opportunities, so business is good.”

While that business growth is good for Florida Central Railway, it has turned into bad news for Royal Palm. Bagaus says the bulk of the tourist railroad’s business — between 50 and 60 percent — is derived from the Tavares-to-Mount Dora trips. He says Royal Palm has experienced “extraordinary” ridership numbers over the last two years.

“We carried four times as many passengers this past January as we did last January,” Bagaus says, adding that Royal Palm is the sixth attempt over the past two decades at establishing lasting tourist rail service in the area. “Business has been building. We’ve had some growing pains, as any newer operation would, but we’ve done very well.”

A significant draw for the Royal Palm Railway Experience has been the inclusion of a celebrity locomotive on the railway’s roster. Former Clinchfield Railroad EMD F7 No. 800 has been on-lease to Royal Palm since shortly after it led the 75th running of CSX’s Santa Train in the Appalachian Mountains in 2017. Bagaus says the locomotive, one of four now on the roster, has been popular amongst riders and railfans.

“We see a lot of people coming down to take pictures of it,” Bagaus says of the Clinchfield 800. “We run it a lot. We run it every weekend because it’s been so popular. It’s been really exciting to take the trips and see all the photographers lined along the tracks whenever it runs.”

Bagaus says it’s not yet been determined how long the 800 will stick around the Royal Palm’s operations. It’s also yet to be determined what Royal Palm will do next after its route is scaled back. In addition to the Tavares-to-Mount Dora leg, the Royal Palm Railway Experience also includes a 4.5-mile trek across welded rail from Tavares to Eustis, Fla. The Tavares-to-Eustis portion of the trip, across former Seaboard Air Line trackage, will continue past April 22 and there are currently no plans to discontinue that route. Bagaus says Royal Palm will simply have to figure out how to proceed following April 22.

“We are not folding,” Bagaus says. “We will continue to run to Mount Dora until April 22nd, and in the meantime, we will have to figure out how to redirect our trains going forward. It’s time for us to sit down and rethink what we’re doing.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

  • Previous Day
  • February 27, 2019
  • Next Day
Leave a Comment
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of TrainsMag.com are allowed to leave comments. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
Please keep your feedback on-topic and respectful. Trains staffers reserve the right to edit or delete any comments.


The Genesee & Wyoming 

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy
Subscribe Up To 58% off the newsstand price!
Subscribe To Trains Mag Today