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Text by Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner

    Passenger trains played a significant role in the development of Florida's east coast as Henry Flagler's railroad, today's Florida East Coast Railway, eventually linked the north with the tropical climate of southeast Florida.  As the Flagler System worked its way south, resort hotels were opened by Flagler to provide prosperous northerners a place to stay and a reason to ride his trains.  The grand Ponce de Leon Hotel lured visitors to St. Augustine, the elegant Breakers stood on the shore at Palm Beach and other Flagler hotels graced various coastal communities.  The railway arrived in the sleepy town of Miami by 1896.  In 1912 the railroad reached Key West where passengers could stay at another Flagler hotel or transfer to steamers headed to Cuba.
   Through the first half of the 1900s it was not uncommon for multiple sections of the FEC's crack passenger trains to operate during the height of the winter tourist season.  These trains carried tropical names such as the Ponce de Leon, Flamingo, Everglades, Havana Special, and Florida Special.  During the streamliner era the East Coast Champion, City of Miami, South Wind, and Dixie Flagler were part of the FEC stable.  

    The FEC passenger train tradition came to a halt on January 22, 1963 when a labor strike caused the line to stop operations.  While the railroad managed to eventually resume freight service, the passenger trains appeared to have run their last miles over the FEC as the Atlantic Coast Line, which was the principle operator of most of the trains handed off to the FEC at Jacksonville, rerouted trains to Miami via its own rails to Auburndale thence competitor Seaboard Air Line to Miami.  When the ACL and SAL merged in 1967, any hope that the East Coast Champion, City of Miami, South Wind, or Florida Special would return to FEC rails disappeared.  A brief respite did occur between  1965 and 1968 when a court ordered daily except Sunday train ran between Jacksonville and North Miami over FEC rails.  For the bulk of their life, FEC numbers 1 and 2 carried a single coach and an observation-lounge car whose seating was sold as a parlor car.  This train's southern terminus in North Miami was 8 miles north of downtown Miami whose old wood sided depot was demolished in the fall of 1963.

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FEC Train # 2 coach Boynton passes in front of FEC's Miller Shops in St. Augustine in June 1967.

FEC Train # 2 seen from Flagler System's Ponce de Leon Lodge (a motel style facility opposite Miller Shops) in June 1967.  Flat end observation car Lake Okeechobee is on the rear of the train.

    With the historical footnote that no passenger train had departed from downtown Miami in over 47 years, a crowd gathered along FEC's lead track to the Port of Miami in the shadow of the Miami MetroRail's Overtown station to witness the sendoff of an Amtrak/FEC inspection train on May 1, 2010.  The boarding location was a few blocks north of the site of the old FEC passenger station which was located approximately one block from the Dade County Courthouse.  The tracks to the old station site were pulled up in the 1970s when service to end of track near Homestead was rerouted via another FEC line through central Dade County.  (The Key West extension had washed away in the Labor Day 1935 hurricane.)  Freight service to Homestead ended years later and today MetroRail elevated trains run above the old FEC right-of-way to the Dadeland/Kendall area and an express busway operates over the right-of-way through southern Miami-Dade County.

The old FEC station was located adjacent to the Dade County Courthouse (the building with the pointed top at right).  The Amtrak/FEC Inspection Train departed from the closest piece of active track behind P42 number 1.

The Amtrak/FEC Inspection Train backs down to its boarding site along NW 1st Avenue in downtown Miami on May 1, 2010.

Heavy media coverage in Miami is indicative of the day's coverage.

    Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper opened the festivities with brief speeches about the importance of passenger rail to the Sunshine State then politicians, tourism representatives, regional planners, and the media were invited aboard for all or part of a nine hour trip to Jacksonville.  A pair of P42 engines led a Viewliner sleeper, 3 Amfleet II coaches, a full dome, and Amtrak office car Beech Grove.  As we settled into seats under the dome car glass, I was reminded of my one and only prior departure from downtown Miami, a short ride to West Palm Beach on the City of Miami with my father and my brother in the early 1960s.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist addresses the crowd before sending the train on its journey along the FEC.

Amtrak Chairman of the Board Tom Carper thanks Florida Governor Charlie Crist for supporting the proposed passenger service along the state's east coast.

TrainWeb photographer John Turner with Governor Charlie Crist.

    Designated train number P240, the special eased onto the Miami Lead (the former mainline) at 8:35am for a 10 mph trek to the junction with FEC's Belt Line which heads west to FEC's yard near Miami International Airport.  FEC freights today originate and terminate at that yard while in bygone days the busy Buena Vista Yards located adjacent to the mainline south of the Belt Line serviced the many passenger trains that reached Miami each day. Buena Vista is long gone, replaced by typical urban development.

Crossing the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The Goodyear Blimp's hangar at Pompano Airpark in Pompano Beach.

A welcome aboard sign and a historic photo of FEC passenger trains beside the Dade County Courthouse are displayed in the dome car.

Inside the Amtrak full dome.

    Once the mainline was reached at Little River, the twin P42s attained regular track speed and soon the special rolled through downtown Hollywood, passed the eastern perimeter of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and crossed the New River into downtown Fort Lauderdale.  Amtrak's northbound Silver Meteor had departed from the Amtrak station at Hialeah Yard at about the same time we left downtown Miami and it was very possible that it passed the western edge of the airport as we traveled along its eastern boundary.  The two lines are often one to two miles apart all the way to West Palm Beach with the FEC generally following US Highway 1 while the CSX/Tri-Rail line parallels I-95 most of the way.
   Local residents appeared surprised at the sight of a passenger train on the Florida East Coast with many people displaying looks of great surprise and confusion that amused invited guests in the dome car.  Several guests boarded at West Palm Beach, our first stop.  The old FEC depot was demolished in the late 1960s as were most stations along the line thus a makeshift passenger stop was made at a local street crossing.  Just north of West Palm the Mission Spur branched off to the west; this line will likely be used by future Amtrak trains to interchange from the FEC to the CSX/Tri-Rail line which would permit use of existing Amtrak stations between West Palm Beach and Miami.  The spur line needs major work before being suitable for regular passenger train use and also poses an operational challenge as the connection with FEC would presently require a three mile reverse move.

    The coastal nature of the FEC was emphasized at Jupiter as we crossed the Jupiter Draw(bridge) over the sparkling wide waters of Jupiter Inlet.  In fact, vistas of inviting waterways, busy golf courses, and old Florida downtowns dominated much of the day's journey.  Just beyond Hobe Sound southbound FEC intermodal train 109 waited on a siding for the Amtrak special at Port Sewell moments before we reached Stuart, our second stop.  A sizable crowd, which included a brass band, greeted Amtrak at Stuart with many locals taking in the scene from lawn chairs set beneath trackside palm trees.  The dome car's forward windows provided a unique view of the lowering of the St. Lucie Canal drawbridge which crossed the wide Intracoastal Waterway just north of town.  This waterway crosses the state via Lake Okeechobee, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico thus reducing travel distance for small boats.

Departing West Palm Beach as seen from the dome's forward windows.
Crossing Jupiter Inlet.

The attractive downtown Stuart area is similar to many downtowns along the Florida East Coast in southeast Florida.

A sailfish sculpture honors Stuart's nickname.

A crowd greets the Amtrak/FEC special in Stuart.

A brass band entertains at trackside in Stuart.

The dome provides a unique view of the raised drawbridge over the St. Lucie Canal.

Looking west crossing the St. Lucie Canal.

The view to the east crossing the St. Lucie Canal.

    The next stop, Fort Pierce, has a deep connection with the Florida East Coast Railway with its yard serving freight off the branch line that skirts the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.  That former FEC line, which primarily serves sugar cane fields, is now operated by a shortline railroad.  Another large contingent met the Amtrak special at Fort Pierce including two riders on horseback dressed in western attire and numerous supporters waving signs.  One such sign succinctly read: "Bring back FEC passenger service."  As the special departed town, another crowd waved from beside a preserved FEC steam locomotive whose whistle was blown in a salute to the passenger train.

A sizable crowd including two horsemen greets the Amtrak/FEC special at Fort Pierce.

One of many signs supporting passenger train service at Fort Pierce.

Another show of support for Amtrak as the crowd waves goodbye to the special.

The crowd at Fort Pierce included this sign toting supporter and a man dressed in an FEC era conductor's uniform.

An FEC steam engine displayed north of downtown Fort Pierce is the selected spot for many train supporters.

    Throughout the day Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper and other Amtrak and FEC officials greeted guests who, in turn, enjoyed mingling with one another.  The operation of this inspection train was a result of hard work and persistence by many of the local government and tourism representatives who have supported the restoration of passenger rail service for many years.  Local television and print media reporters recorded much of the journey to bring the story to their communities.  FEC historian Seth Bramson, whose book Speedway to Sunshine is the definitive book about the Florida East Coast Railway, provided interesting historical facts about the FEC and its trains at intervals during the trip.

FEC historian Seth Bramson.

    A guest who boarded at Vero Beach exclaimed "What a wonderful view up here" as she made her way into the dome car.  None of those who had spent the prior four plus hours beneath the glass observatory would disagree.  Another picturesque body of water, Sebastian Inlet, was bridged south of Melbourne where memories of boarding the court ordered FEC "strike train" to North Miami in 1968 came to mind.  That train had demonstrated FEC ingenuity as the north- and southbound trains paused on a siding near Fort Pierce to exchange operating crews thus saving the railroad "held-away" pay.

Crossing Sebastian Inlet south of Melbourne.

    Recollections of another day were interrupted as this TrainWeb reporter was summoned for an opportunity to interview Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper.  Asked about the potential of the east coast route for passenger service, Mr. Carper stated: "Tremendous.  This line has tremendous potential.  We rode on the line with FEC officials on Thursday" (a southbound trip minus guests). "The line is well maintained and serves downtown areas which is where passenger rail does its best work."  Asked about the timeline and what is next, Mr. Carper stated that Amtrak, the FEC, and the Florida Department of Transportation will analyze various factors and proceed from there.  "This trip is an important step in the process," and he added that the inspection/media train represents a step beyond the initial phase of the considering the route.  Continued Mr. Carper: "The communities have shown great enthusiasm.  It takes many people wanting service, coalitions of universities, convention and visitors bureaus, local officials; everyone needs a dog in this fight."

    The most optimistic timeline for implementing Amtrak service over the Florida East Coast was pegged by Mr. Carper at two years though some estimates bandied among various parties extend that to five years.  As was evident throughout the trip, the rails are in excellent shape as the train ran smoothly at 79 mph, however, stations are needed for all future stops and additional sidings would be needed if passenger service returns.  A decision has not been made yet, according to Mr. Carper, concerning which train Amtrak would run down the FEC if service is indeed started.  Most likely, he noted, either the Silver Meteor or Silver Star would split at Jacksonville with one section running down the FEC while the other section continues to serve the Orlando market.

    A fact sheet provided on board indicated that the Amtrak/FEC Corridor Project should take approximately three years.  The first step was a funding application submitted to the ARRA on October 2, 2009.  The second step will be a second application in mid- to late 2010 with other ARRA funding sources currently under evaluation.  The proposed running time between Jacksonville and Miami is approximately six hours.

    Florida has other passenger rail projects on the drawing board or in the planning stages.  Included are the SunRail commuter line that is expected to link DeLand with Orlando extending south to Poinciana, a high speed line from Orlando to Tampa using a new line to be built mostly in the median of Interstate 4, a possible Tri-Rail route using the FEC from West Palm Beach to Miami, a new intermodal station near Miami International Airport that could serve Tri-Rail, Amtrak, Miami MetroRail, and local and intercity busses, and perhaps commuter service in the Jacksonville areas.  Public support and economic conditions will undoubtedly play a role in determining whether any or all of these projects come to fruition.  Additionally, a return of New Orleans to Florida Amtrak service, absent since the Sunset Limited was truncated following Hurricane Katrina, is still under discussion but the fate of that service remains uncertain.  

    North of Melbourne the Florida East Coast rails offered copious glimpses of the Indian River as the special made its way through technology rich Brevard County.  A stop in Cocoa saw a large contingent board; this stop would serve the cities of Cocoa, Rockledge, Merritt Island, Cape Canaveral, and Cocoa Beach.  Twenty minutes later the third stop in Brevard County was made at Titusville, gateway to the Kennedy Space Center.  Views of KSC's massive Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Complex 39-A where space shuttle Atlantis stood poised for its likely final mission came into view though the orbiter was too far away to be seen.  Five minutes north of Titusville we passed Jay Jay where a wye marks the junction with the NASA Railroad which serves the space center.  The FEC yards and shops at New Smyrna Beach followed 25 minutes later as the special continued to parallel US Highway 1.

The Amtrak/FEC inspection train storms into Cocoa (Photo by Eric A. Harms).

NASA's massive Vehicle Assembly Building seen from the train.

The wye at Jay Jay, jct. with the NASA Railroad.  Note the drawbridge in the distance.

TrainWeb author Jack Turner and photographer John Turner pose with Cocoa Deputy Mayor James McCarthy (left) and Cocoa Mayor Michael Blake (right).

FEC's New Smyrna Beach Yard.

    More respect was shown to Amtrak as a golfer on the links at Daytona Beach raised his club in salute then an onlooker at the Daytona Beach stop held up a sign stating: "Daytona Loves Amtrak".  The day's biggest surprise awaited as our train rounded a curve into the town of Bunnell where the tracks were lined with American flags, fire trucks with their red lights flashing and ladders extended skyward in homage to Amtrak, and seemingly every citizen of this community of a couple thousand residents waved as the inspection train slowed through town.  Our attention was drawn to a pair of tow trucks  holding a large sign reading "Welcome to Bunnell, the Gateway to Flagler County.  Amtrak, please stop here."  Within minutes 79 mph was again attained en route to one final FEC stop.  The entrance to St. Augustine was impressive as directly ahead was the old Flagler System Ponce de Leon Hotel, now the center of Flagler College.  Off to the right of the railway, the former FEC corporate headquarters, now owned by the college, stood as a sentinel to the nation's oldest city.  Here the tracks made a sweeping left hand curve along broad tidal marshes before passing the former FEC passenger station followed by the site of FEC's long demolished Miller Shops.  The designated stop north of the city welcomed many detraining guests as southbound freight 101 cooled its heels at Magnolia siding.

Flags and a large crowd line the tracks entering Bunnell.

A fire truck displays a patriotic greeting for the special train.

A sign urges Amtrak to add a stop in Flagler County (Bunnell).

Another truck welcomes Amtrak.

Pointing towards the old Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine.

The former FEC headquarters in St. Augustine.

Curving along the marshes as we enter St. Augustine.

The former FEC station in St. Augustine.  The tracks were relocated several yards west many years ago.

Southbound FEC hotshot intermodal train # 101 pauses for us on a siding at Magnolia.

    The final hour of the journey included a brief stop at FEC's Bowden Yard then a scenic crossing of the St. John's River adjacent to downtown Jacksonville and passage by the former Jacksonville Terminal once served by the ACL, SAL, FEC, and Southern Railway.  Soon we joined the regular route of Amtrak's Florida streamliners for the last 4 or 5 miles to Amtrak's Jacksonville station off Clifford Lane.  Five minutes after our arrival, the northbound Silver Meteor arrived from Miami and Orlando after having paced us through south Florida.  The FEC route typically would be up to two hours faster than the current Amtrak route via Orlando, however, extended stops for various ceremonies and some speed restrictions required for the special train stretched the schedule beyond the time anticipated for normal operation.

Bowden Yard, south Jacksonville.

A CSX switcher at Bowden Yard.

Approaching the St. John's River, Jacksonville.

Crossing the St. John's River at downtown Jacksonville.

The view from the dome car crossing the St. John's River.

Jacksonville Terminal Station has been preserved as a convention center.

An ACL steam engine displayed outside the convention center.

The Amtrak/FEC special (left) and northbound Silver Meteor at Jacksonville.

    Without a doubt there is a market for passenger rail service along Florida's east coast.  The route is dotted with communities popular with tourists, all of which are minutes from beautiful Atlantic beaches.  With exceptionally maintained tracks that produce a smooth ride, the FEC is close to being ready to host Amtrak should a commitment be made.  The need for stations at almost every stop, the retiming of crossing gates, the addition of passing tracks, and a much needed upgrade to the connecting track near West Palm Beach are the main improvements that would be required before inaugurating service.

Consist of Amtrak/FEC Inspection Train # P240

(All equipment Amtrak): 1, 67 (P42 locomotives), 62020 Viewliner sleeper (ex-Moonlight View), 25031, 25081, 25091 (Amfleet II coaches), 10031 Full Dome (ex-GN Ocean View), 10001 Beech Grove (office car).

A Guide To Stops Along the FEC Route

    Stops along the Gold Coast between Miami and West Palm Beach would most likely continue to serve stations along the present Amtrak line shared with Tri-Rail and CSX.  This double track line parallels Interstate 95 farther inland than the FEC and includes four intermediate Amtrak stations stops.

    Stuart: Known as "The Sailfish Capital of the World", Stuart is a boating center with sheltered marinas along the St. Lucie Canal which provides small boats a shortcut across the state via Lake Okeechobee.  Jensen Beach and Hutchinson Island house popular Treasure Coast beaches just minutes east of town.

    Fort Pierce: Close by is Port St. Lucie, spring training home to the New York Mets, whose fans are a natural source of ridership for a future passenger train.  The northern end of Hutchinson Island is reached from Fort Pierce making this another popular access point for the beaches.

    Vero Beach: A long time favorite of northern snowbirds, Vero Beach has miles of prime coastal beaches and has been home to small aircraft manufacturing and citrus groves for many years.  

    Melbourne: A notable high tech center due to its proximity to the space center and Patrick Air Force Base.  The Florida Marlins visit for spring training and one of their minor league affiliates calls the region home.  Florida Institute of Technology is located in this Space Coast city.

    Cocoa: Gateway to Rockledge, Merritt Island, Cocoa Beach, and the Port Canaveral cruise terminal.  A water tower decorated with a huge painted American flag marks the center of the city.  Beaches in central Brevard County are popular with sun bathers and surfers alike.  This stop is the southern access point for the Kennedy Space Center and is about 50 miles due east of Orlando.

    Titusville: Located directly opposite Kennedy Space Center, this stop would likely be patronized by tourists headed to the KSC visitor
center, the nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the dune covered beaches of Playalinda Beach.

Space shuttle Atlantis launch in May 2009.

A Saturn 1-B rocket is one of many pieces of space hardware displayed at Kennedy Space Center.

    Daytona Beach: One of Florida's original spring break meccas, this city is now much more.  The Daytona International Speedway attracts thousands of visitors for its races in the spring and summer while its beaches are among the most popular of the entire Atlantic coast.  The Daytona Beach Cubs, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, play in an early 1900s ballpark, Jackie Robinson Stadium, located on an island near the Halifax River/Intracoastal Waterway.  Bethune Cookman University and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University are major players in this city.

The Halifax River outside Jackie Robinson Stadium in Daytona Beach.

The Daytona Cubs take on the Lakeland Flying Tigers at Daytona Beach's Jackie Robinson Stadium in April 2010.  The historic ballpark features a manual scoreboard, classic main grandstand, and tropical breezes off the ocean.

The Daytona Cubs mascot.

    St. Augustine: The nation's oldest city is loaded with history ranging from the Castillo de San Marcos fort (a national monument) to the Nation's Oldest School House, the nation's oldest jail, the site considered to be Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, and numerous other noteworthy attractions.  Flagler College is located in the FEC's former Ponce de Leon Hotel while the pristine beaches of St. Augustine Beach and Vilano Beach are easily reached.

Castillo de San Marcos

    Jacksonville: A sports minded city which is home of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, minor league baseball Class AA Jacksonville Suns, the annual Gator Bowl game, and the TPC Golf Tournament at the Sawgrass Resort.  Excellent First Coast beaches are about 30 minutes away at Ponte Vedra Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Amelia Island, linked by iconic highway A1A which includes a short ferry boat ride at Mayport.  Jacksonville University and the University of North Florida are two of the city's three four year institutions.

Jacksonville Beach.

The First Coast region near Jacksonville features many sandy beaches.

Jacksonville Suns minor league baseball games are played at The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is home to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars seen here against the Miami Dolphins during the 2009 season.

The Florida State Seminoles battle the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Gator Bowl game on New Years Day 2010 in Jacksonville.

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