RIDING THE AMTRAK INSPECTION TRAIN ALONG THE FLORIDA EAST COAST
RIDING THE AMTRAK INSPECTION TRAIN ALONG THE FLORIDA
EAST COAST RAILWAY
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A fire truck displays a patriotic greeting for
the special train.
A sign urges Amtrak to add a stop in Flagler
Another truck welcomes Amtrak.
Pointing towards the old Ponce de Leon Hotel in
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
Jacksonville Terminal Station has been preserved
as a convention center.
An ACL steam engine displayed outside the convention
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
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
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.
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.