Guest column: All Aboard Florida rail plan raises red flags

Posted on October 2, 2014

By County Commissioner Trudie Infantini

Have you heard about All Aboard Florida (AAF), a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI)?

AAF is planning high-speed, passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando via the East Coast corridor, including Brevard County. AAF officials talk of a three-hour adventure. Sound good?

The plan is to run 32 trains a day, at speeds as high as 110 miles per hour from Miami to Cocoa, then west through Brevard alongside State Road 528 to the Orlando airport.

How many trains a day are too many? AAF and FECI say they can do whatever they want on the rail lines they own. But what mechanism is in place to protect the public from 32 trains increasing to who knows how many, 100, 200 passenger and freight trains running through the county?

This activity could virtually cut off the east from the west parts of town, impede emergency services and reduce commerce due to the relentless flow of trains. And will the rail cars move from passenger to the more lucrative and consistent freight when revenue falls short of expectations?

A ridership study performed for AAF in 2012 projected annual revenue at $145 million. Yet, the private loan interest is 12 percent or $192 million annually. Therefore, it is reasonable to predict, based on AAF’s study, additional revenue will have to come from somewhere. Is freight the answer?

The expansion at the Panama Canal will be a game changer for the mega container ships transporting cargo. Freight travel will automatically increase on the coastal tracks as a result of the expansions at the Port of Miami and the Panama Canal. Will this additional freight pass through the center of the state on the existing track to get to Orlando? Or, will it travel on the newly renovated and expanded track running along the heavily populated coast?

Risk and liability are a concern. Although FECI may not have plans for AAF to convert from passenger service, it plans to invest $1 billion for its 400-acre rail yard in Miami-Dade County called South Florida Logistics Services. This freight facility is likely the most financially lucrative of FECI’s business ventures.

Is this the reason for the major improvements to the track? Additional hazardous materials, crude oil or other dangerous cargo could soon be added to our rails with greater frequency.

Since SunRail commuter trains began service in the Orlando area in May, there have been four vehicle-versus-train collisions. Regardless of fault, driver impatience and high-speed rail do not mix. SunRail trains travel approximately 65 to 79 mph.

What precautions will be taken to prevent the risk to pedestrians and vehicular traffic when All Aboard Florida trains are traveling at 110 mph? The training necessary to handle a high-speed rail passenger accident are clearly different from what is needed to respond to a low-speed freight incident.

My suggestion is to upgrade the existing track in the center of the state. The upgrades will prevent the high-speed passenger train and additional freight from being transported in the densely populated coastal region. All Aboard Florida has no plans to add stops in Brevard County on its Miami-to-Orlando route. Potential tourists will be “fast-passed,” as if at a theme park, through our county en route to Orlando. Therefore, there is no point in going through Brevard County.

So many questions remain unanswered. Who has the authority to say how many trains are too many? Uninterrupted frequency of trains flowing along the coastal track will diminish commerce and back up traffic. Underperforming passenger service may push freight service as the financial life-saver of the company. The trains’ speed may result in fatal vehicle-versus-train collisions.

The frequency and speed of the passenger and freight train service, as well as the content and increased volume of cargo, are my biggest concerns.

Infantini represents District 3 on the Brevard County Commission.

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