Thursday, May 16, 2013

Florida's Rail Problems

                One of the many locations in the U.S. trying to push ahead in regards to rail travel is the state of Florida.  I grew up in Central Florida, and traffic and an inadequate public transit system have been a problem in the state for decades.  Major development in the state coincided with the rise in auto-centric society, which created a very spread out suburban infrastructure.  The number of major highways and interstates in the state has, however, remained very low, meaning that getting around without taking congested routes is very difficult.  Compared with Oregon, Florida is only smaller physically; the population of Florida is five times that of Oregon (19,000,000 vs. 3,800,000, respectively).

Highway Traffic Congestion During Peak Hours
Image courtesy Federal Highway Administration

Florida's Population Density

Central Florida, while it does possess a public transportation system, that system could hardly be called robust.  Trimet covers a service area of 570 sq. miles, while Lynx, which serves Osceola, Seminole, and Orange counties in Central Florida, services 2,500 sq. miles with a third the number of buses as Trimet.  Lynx also carries a third as many passengers as Trimet, 29.1 million passengers versus over 100 million carried on Trimet.  This bus system is wholly inadequate for the amount of use Central Florida needs to relieve their highway congestion.

In 2000, Floridians voted to amend the state constitution to require that a high speed rail system be built.  That constitutional mandate was repealed shortly after, but .  Recently, a number of projects have begun to create commuter and high speed rail systems throughout the state, interconnecting at a number of points and run by various agencies including Amtrak, Sunrail, and the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.  Through heated political battles which almost killed off rail plans in Florida and the loss of two billion dollars in ARRA money, work is finally underway on some of these projects, namely the Sunrail commuter system in Central Florida.

Map Courtesy: Transport Politic

The Sunrail system will run on currently in-use standard gauge track shared by CSX freight trains and Amtrak.  Construction has begun on the project, which will be completed in two phases.  Currently, the construction consists of inspection bays and maintenance facilities, 12 stations, park and rides, grade crossing improvements, and double tracking to allow trains to travel simultaneously in both directions.  Phase One construction is slated to be finished and the system brought online in Spring 2014.  The final construction will be 61 miles long and consist of two phases, both north and south of the original run from Debary to Sand Lake Road.  Phase Two is expected to be completed by 2016.  The plan also includes exclusive travel times where CSX is able to move freight along the line without interference from commuter trains. 

Map courtesy: Wikipedia

                The system will cost a total of $615 million, of which the Federal government will pay for half.  The state of Florida and local governments will each be responsible for 25% of the costs.  The state will also be responsible for the maintenance and operations of the system, including dispatch of commuter trains and freight moving through the area.  Fares are expected to be $2.50 within a single county and an additional $1 for each county the rider is travelling through.  This presents a significant cost benefit to driving and a moderate time savings as well. 

                It will be interesting to see how the Sunrail system affects travel along the I-4 corridor and whether or not it will alleviate traffic in the area.  The plan was developed as backbone to serve other areas of the state, so it is possible that the system could grow significantly in the next decade.  High-speed rail may not still be a possibility, but at least the residents of Florida are getting some sort of highway alternative.

Thanks to Asawari Kulkarni for reviewing this post.



  1. It will be interesting to see what affects Sunrail has in the Orlando area. The major problem I see with it is that the Orlando area is unique in having such a high combination of tourist traffic and commute traffic that compounded by the auto centric development patterns area that I am not sure Sunrail is the answer for the problems although at least something is being done.

    Another point is that the service will not be very usefull to those outside of commuters with trains running only every two hours or so in the off peak hours.

    Some argue that we shouldn't spend money on commuter rail that is only designed to help commuters but instead put the money to solving intra urban transportation problems.

    It is also interesting to note that as part of Sunrail CSX will be moving more of their frieght traffic to their rail line to the west that avoids many of the major cities although it has made many of those along that line very unhappy over the prospect of more trains. The advantage is that it will move through frieght trains out of the major urban areas of the Orlando area which is a plus.

    1. I definitely agree with you. What the area needs is a light-rail network, but such a network would need to be pretty expansive because of the spread-out nature of the metropolitan area. Sunrail will hopefully alleviate some of the rush-hour problems the area has, though.

      When I lived in Orlando, freight trains moving through the urban area was a huge problem for traffic congestion. Hopefully moving the CSX trains will alleviate some of the problems that the area has had where major thoroughfares intersect with rail lines.


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