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Amtrak is no All Aboard Florida, but it’s rolling

As All Aboard Florida tries to get everyone onboard its proposal to run higher-speed passenger trains between Orlando and South Florida, my wife and I boarded the closest thing last week, Amtrak’s Silver Meteor train, for a getaway from Orlando to South Beach.

All Aboard Florida wants to run 16 passenger trains a day on round trips between the Orlando International Airport and stops in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, starting late next year. The company says its Brightline trains could go 79 to 125 mph on the route, which would head east from the Orlando airport into Brevard County, then cruise south along the coast for a 220-mile trip, and make it in just three hours.

The Amtrak Silver Meteor route travels down the center of the state then veers east toward the coast in Palm Beach County, all at speeds far less than 79 mph. We bought tickets starting from Winter Park, for a scheduled seven-hour trip to Miami.

Even at seven hours, the train was an easy choice for us, leaving us wondering whether All Aboard would be able to deliver better at a comparable price, as it proposes. Driving to Miami is draining. Flying to Miami strikes me as overkill, and airplanes are not comfortable enough nor airport experiences simple enough anymore to rate as worth the added cost of flying a short trip.

Trains, as All Aboard would want everyone to know, offer neither problem.

My wife and I arrived at the Winter Park Amtrak station at 11:35 a.m. and found a free Amtrak passenger parking space, 30 feet from the station door. By 11:42 we and our suitcase were checked in, so we had almost 45 minutes to kill. It was a gorgeous Florida day, so we wandered Winter Park’s Park Avenue shopping district.

Relatively few Orlandoans ever consider taking Amtrak to South Florida.

Amtrak reported that 377,550 riders got on or off its two trains on this route, the Silver Meteor or the Silver Star, in Orlando or South Florida last year. That included riders who got on the trains anywhere between Orlando and New York, where these trains originate.

Estimates for Brightline’s annual passengers start at about 1.5 million.

All Aboard Florida does not publicly discuss detailed ridership projections or firm ticket fares. The company promised that its ticket costs would be “highly competitive with other transportation options.”

The company’s plan has some well-organized, and well-funded opponents. One of them, Citizens Against Rail Expansion Florida, commissioned its own analysis and got results highly critical of All Aboard’s proposal.

John N. Friedman, an associate professor of economics at Brown University, concluded All Aboard Florida would have to charge $34 each way to persuade enough people to leave cars and airplanes, and at that price the company could lose more than $100 million a year, and not be able to service its bond debts.

To be economically viable, Friedman projected All Aboard Florida would have to charge $273 per one-way train ticket between Orlando and Miami.

All Aboard entirely dismissed Friedman’s numbers as uninformed, developed without any knowledge of the company’s research, yet deferred to an analysis of them by Robert Poole, director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank.

“It strikes me that Friedman has analyzed the planned service as if it were Amtrak — i.e. as if run as a government enterprise,” Poole wrote. “What has impressed me from day one about AAF is that it appears to be designed around an actual business model, not something cobbled together by politicians.”

Amtrak’s Winter Park-to-Miami round-trip fares start at $96. Because we went during the holidays, we paid a little more, $110 apiece.

Our 12:26 p.m. train was late, a chronic problem with Amtrak. It arrived at 12:41, and rolled away at 12:51.

Amtrak reported that its two Silver Service trains had about a 51 percent on-time performance for the first 11 months of 2015.

We boarded and moved down broad aisles to our reserved seats. They were high, wide and comfortable recliners, with ample leg room, foot rests and electrical outlets for our devices.

All Aboard promises continuous high-speed Internet. On the Silver Meteor, I found an Amtrak Wi-Fi signal but couldn’t connect. The conductor announced that Amtrak intends to “soon” add Wi-Fi to the train. It was the last week of 2015; I thought: Apparently nothing happens fast on Amtrak.

All Aboard also promises “delicious,” and “sensible” food and beverages. The Silver Meteor had a dining car too, so I checked it out. If you love 7-Eleven food, you’d love Amtrak food, though there are no roller dogs. For $9.25, I ordered a soda, chips and a prepackaged Hebrew National hot dog, which the cook microwaved.

Still, the gently-joggling ride was relaxing. Connie binge-watched a Netflix series on her phone. I read a book and dozed. I looked out the window occasionally at the agricultural or natural scenery of Florida’s interior. Any time I wanted, I got up and walked around. This is the kind of advantage over driving that All Aboard espouses.

But All Aboard’s detractors wonder whether the Brightline trains will ever roll.

All Aboard is developed by Florida East Coast Industries, which is owned by the equity fund Fortress Investment Group LLC.

It has plenty of powerful supporters, including Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Reps. John Mica, Corrine Brown and Alan Grayson. All Aboard’s vice president for government relations, Rusty Roberts, was Mica’s former longtime chief of staff. One-time FECI executive Adam Hollingsworth staffed for both Brown and Scott.

Critics and doubters start with many of the people and politicians living in the ride-by Treasure Coast counties of Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin, including Grayson’s Democratic primary opponent in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter.

“Most of the arguments AAF has made about this rail project don’t withstand transparency,” said Citizens Against Rail Expansion FL attorney Stephen Ryan. “The safety of the corridor is our main concern. If you are running 32 high-speed trains at 110 mph … interspersed with an increasing number of freight trains on multiple tracks, that will change the safety of the community.”

In August All Aboard Florida persuaded the Florida Development Finance Corp. to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds. In his analysis, Friedman concluded that the lost taxes from those bonds, plus myriad infrastructure improvements could equal more than $50 million in ancillary taxpayer support.

Those bonds, plus another $405 million the company sold in 2014, would give All Aboard money to build the South Florida stations; lay tracks from Orlando International Airport, where it intends to lease part of the airport’s railroad station, to All Aboard’s existing Florida East Coast Railroad in Brevard County; upgrade the rest of the tracks; buy the trains; and then try to do what no other American company has succeeded at in generations: run a private, passenger-service railroad.

So far they have not been able to sell the tax-exempt bonds. Bloomberg Business reported in November that the markets just aren’t that excited about large junk bond deals currently, and that All Aboard’s unrated tax-exempt bonds were likely to be rated junk bonds.

“The private markets are speaking loud and clear that they are not able to sell the bonds. It’s a very high-risk project. The market sees that,” said K.C. Ingram Traylor, founder of NOT All Aboard Florida. “They’re adding a third rail system into a market that already has Tri-Rail, it already has Amtrak, (which) are losing money.”

Amtrak’s Silver Meteor is no high-speed train. It’s rated for a maximum speed of 79 mph, but I estimated we ranged from 10 to 55 mph most of the way. The train slowed frequently. Just north of Sebring, it stopped altogether in the middle of a lemon grove. Eventually, a northbound train blew past and we got underway again.

Amtrak reported its Silver Service trains’ delays were most commonly caused by such “train interference,” 41.1 percent; followed by track and signal issues, 25.1 percent; and passenger issues, 14.7 percent.

As we approached Sebring I checked my watch: 3:51 p.m. If we were on the Brightline, we’d be pulling into the Miami station just about then, assuming that train doesn’t have its own delay issues.

Unlike the Silver Meteor’s route through the center of the state, Brightline’s would be on higher-profile East Coast route, which the company promises to fully upgrade. Amtrak’s route mostly is a single track, while All Aboard’s would be double-tracked most of the way.

Still, Brightline would share its corridor and tracks with other trains, though they all would be dispatched through the same operations center, presumably minimizing interference. The East Coast route has hundreds of grade crossings of roads, and three aging drawbridges over water. An incident at any of them could mean delay, possibly of hours.

Once we got into the South Florida metropolis, our Silver Meteor had several more unexpected delays between West Palm Beach and Miami.

At seven hours on the train, somewhere in a rusty industrial area of Broward County, I was getting antsy. Others were getting goofy. The young, frisky Japanese couple across from us squirmed all over their seats, trying various poses together for silly selfies, as if they were in a large photo booth with reclining seats.

“They’ve been on the train way too long,” Connie observed.

We finally arrived at the Miami station around 8:30 p.m., about an hour late. A teenage boy from Winter Park, who said he rides the Silver Meteor regularly to shuffle between his mother and father, shrugged, saying he had experienced much later arrivals.

All Aboard says that its ridership would be split roughly in thirds: leisure riders from Orlando and South Florida seeking getaways; vacationers from out of state or out of the country seeking to combine Orlando magic and South Florida glitz; and business riders. The tourists might not like the well-worn Miami train station, which is located in hardscrabble northwest Miami, and the business riders might not like the unreliable timing.

As a leisure rider waiting at the Miami Amtrak station taxi stand, I was reminded that our choice to take this train was about getting to Miami easily, not by any particular time. The couple behind us in the queue had ridden down from South Carolina. Their plan was to check into a Miami hotel, get up the next morning, rent a car and go to the Keys. An hour late made no difference to them.

Same for us. South Beach, after all, is open late.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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