All Aboard Florida Keeps “Mowing Them Down”

Penney usually reports on Florida East Coast / All Aboard Florida, but she was tied up helping a really neat lady, Ruth Fruehoff, who has just written a book about her father and Fruehoff Trailer Company.

West Palm Beach commissioners on Monday gave All Aboard Florida their blessing to close two downtown rail crossings so that the private venture can build a new station for its express passenger train service planned between Miami and Orlando.

With little discussion, the commission unanimously approved All Aboard’s request to close the Florida East Coast Railroad crossings at Evernia and Datura streets in the heart of the city’s downtown district. The commission’s approval will be sent to the state’s Department of Transportation for review.

Randy Schultz from Boca Mag is a cool writer. He is right on top of crossing closings, quiet zones and things that are little unless that is where you live. Nick Uhren, director of Palm Beach County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The group that has been working with All Aboard Florida, federal railroad officials and local governments on safety upgrades at rail crossings that would obviate the need for trains to blow horns.Uhren said the All Aboard Florida spokeswoman’s scenario is “our intended outcome” and the “likely outcome.” If the improvements happen—and the MPO has set aside a local share of federal money to pay for them—the Federal Railroad Administration will approve a quiet zone for the 83 crossings on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks between 15th Street in West Palm Beach and the Broward County line. (Trains will travel much faster north of West Palm, requiring a different set of improvements.) Broward’s Metropolitan Planning Organization is working on a separate quiet zone for that county. Since the federal government is involved, things can get interesting. The feds assign risk ratings to each crossing, based on car and pedestrian traffic, safety features and accidents. But, Uhren says, the feds don’t tell the locals how they calculate those ratings. The locals must rely on a certain level of trust.

Finally, there’s the question of when the horns will stop blowing. “That’s a sticky issue,” Uhren said. The quiet zone will cover seven cities—Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Hypoluxo, Lantana, Lake Worth and West Palm Beach—and Palm Beach County. Uhren said any one could apply for the quiet zone designation, representing all the governments. The cities are reluctant, Uhren said, because if an accident occurs in another jurisdiction, the city that applied could face liability issues. The county, Uhren said, would be the most logical. With just one applicant, the designation could come sooner.

Some elected officials still may not be clear about all the details of the quiet zone and related improvements. The same goes for the public. Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said after last week’s city commission discussion that there’s “a lot of misinformation” about All Aboard Florida. I hope these last two postings have made more things clear.

In the mleantime: Waterway Guide, authority on cruising America’s coastal waterways since 1947, is urging boaters to participate in the U.S. Coast Guard comment period — giving the USCG their views on how railway bridges across South Florida waterways will affect them if and when All Aboard Florida becomes a reality.

“All Aboard Florida and Siemens have been working together extensively on the development and design of the passenger railcars that will transport millions of tourists, leisure and business travelers along Florida’s east coast,” Siemens said.

All Aboard Florida initially plans to launch service in late 2016 linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Plans call for service to be extended north to Orlando, including Orlando International Airport, in central Florida, then both west to Tampa, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and north to Jacksonville. Speeds of up to 125 mph are envisioned for the service.

All Aboard Florida is a subsidiary of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), and the passenger service will utilize right-of-way used by FECI freight operator, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Florida East Coast Railway. FECI in turn is owned by New York-based Fortress Investment Group LLC..

“This is an exciting time for rail in America. Intercity rail is an important lever to improve existing infrastructure challenges and bolster city and state economies, clearly something that All Aboard Florida will succeed at doing,” said Michael Cahill, president of Siemens’ Rail Systems Division in the U.S. “Everyone is watching the development of this progressive operation with great interest, and we are extremely proud to be part of this effort.”

Said All Aboard Florida President and COO Don Robinson, “Our partnership with Siemens is another tremendous step forward for All Aboard Florida. We carefully chose Siemens technology knowing it will set a new industry standard, while providing the world class amenities our customers will expect from our passenger service.”

The initial five-trainset purchase to serve the Miami to West Palm Beach segment will consist of two diesel-electric locomotives, one on each end of four passenger coaches. These diesel-electric locomotives will meet U.S. EPA Tier 4 emissions standards. All Aboard Florida and Siemens plan to expand the initial trainsets to seven coaches, and purchase an additional five trainsets, concurrent with environmental approvals and additional financing for the segment from West Palm Beach to the Orlando International Airport.

Siemens said the stainless steel passenger coaches, “the first to be manufactured by Siemens in the United States,” will be ADA compliant and designed for comfort, featuring special ergonomic seating and Wi-Fi. The trainsets will also be level boarding, which allows for the ease of boarding without steps and provides easier access for bikes, walkers, strollers and wheelchairs.

The locomotives will meet the latest federal rail safety regulations, including enhanced carbody structure safety with crash energy management components, Siemens said.

As the Florida East Coast Industries-owned railroad plans a three-hour express passenger service from Miami to Orlando — with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale — it is spending $1.5 billion on track upgrades, railway stations and sleek European-styled trains. What it didn’t have to pay for was safety improvements at the roadway crossings, per easement agreements with the local governments, some of which are more than 50 years old.

FECI Executive Vice President Jose Gonzalez on Thursday told the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization that All Aboard Florida saw the community conversation “playing out as a negative” when the company believes the express passenger rail is a positive project for Southeast Florida.

All Aboard Florida will upgrade crossings to safety levels needed for the passenger rail during its track upgrades, Gonzalez said, and not hold cities responsible for that work. Afterward, municipalities will resume responsibility for maintenance.

We see this as a true partnership,” Gonzalez said.

That was good news for officials who are looking for money to ensure residents have relief from 32 additional train horns each day.

Thank you for taking that burden off of us,” said Boynton Beach Vice Mayor Woodrow Hay, who sits on the MPO board.

Local governments were stunned this summer to discover what their decades-old agreements with the railroad meant in costs of crossing upgrades. Those governments had been working with regional planning agencies to figure out how to add safety measures at crossings that would allow quiet zones, as much of the CSX tracks have for the frequent Tri-Rail trains.

The “delta” between a safe passenger rail line and a quiet passenger rail line is still thousands of dollars. But All Aboard Florida is absorbing millions of dollars in needed improvements between Miami and Cocoa.

New passenger service will add 32 trains a day to the 14 freight trains traveling through. Though they will travel much faster and be much shorter, the horn blasts will be just as loud. Unless local jurisdictions get quiet zones put in place.

Palm Beach MPO Chairwoman Susan Haynie, a Boca Raton council member, said cities had been focused on quiet zones and realized they had a “big problem” when they read the details of the easement agreements. While support for the passenger rail has been widespread, the call for quiet zones to offset the impact to those living along the track has been strong.

Palm Beach County has four times the number of residences affected as Miami-Dade County and twice that of Broward County because communities grew up along the railroad. West Palm Beach has more than 30 crossings, including those on county- and state-owned roads.

Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council liaison Kim DeLaney gave MPO board members some examples.

A four-lane road with a single set of tracks may need two gates, flashing lights and horns.

To upgrade that for passenger rail might require four gates, instead of two. Four-quadrant gates cost as much as $600,000.

To upgrade that crossing for quiet zones may only require the additional of a median — something that costs less than $100,000.

Another piece of good news was that a federal transportation TIGER grant was awarded to a Colorado town for quiet zone upgrades in the latest round of funding. A South Florida coalition received money to build connector tracks in Miami and in the Northwood neighborhood of West Palm Beach to allow trains to cross from the FEC tracks to the CSX tracks to the west. Regional planning officials said they will plan to tap that funding source.

MPO Executive Director Nick Uhren cautioned the gathered officials that state transportation officials will not be responsible for the quiet zone upgrades, and local officials are also trying to speed development of Tri-Rail Coastal Link commuter service along the FEC tracks.

Adding Tri-Rail service to South Florida cities along the FEC tracks has long been discussed, and the upgrades for All Aboard Florida and quiet zones will make it a much more feasible project. The Palm Beach MPO is part of a regional group trying to figure out needed upgrades to piggyback onto the ongoing projects.

There’s a little time pressure on the conversation,” DeLaney said.

On Thursday, the MPO agreed to spend up to $500,000 to study how much the safety upgrades will cost and explore how to fund them. Officials Thursday conceded that some crossings may have to be closed to achieve safety levels needed for a quiet zone.

Crews that include Federal Railroad Administration and state transportation officials, as well as local government and railroad representatives, will begin surveying the crossings this fall.

Actual costs for railroad safety upgrades and quiet zone upgrades will not be known for some months.

 

 

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