MR. FLAGLERS LOVELY SPEEDWAY TO AMERICA'S PLAYGROUND WILL ROLL AGAIN!
1968, it was an overcast afternoon when train number 2, The Florida East Coast Local to Jacksonville, whistled through St. Augustine, for the last time. If memory serves me correctly it was running four hours late due to official farewells, speeches and crowds. When the big General Motors EMD E Unit rumbled past us on the St. Augustine station platform it seemed to be weeping. Maybe it was just the late hour playing shadows across the tracks, or the mars light rolling and sweeping back and forth over the line ahead, but there was a tangible air of finality for a man made object, that I had never felt before.
Those final miles, there were only two first class passengers, though the coach was full. The train usually only warranted a single locomotive and two cars. A coach, and a tavern lounge observation car. The later came from the FEC'S old East Coast Champion pool, and depending on direction was either the St. Lucie Sound, or the Lake Okeechobee. I always felt these two cars had such comfort and luxury, plus beverage service, that they easily warranted the extra couple of dollars they commanded. Just before Conductor Fields picked up his portable boarding stool, and waved us off, I finally climbed aboard. Making certain I was the last paying first class passenger on a Florida East Coast Train.
The miles clicked by way too fast, as we blew through San Marco, and past the abandoned South Jacksonville Station. In just a matter of seconds with bell ringing, we came alongside the platforms of Jacksonville Terminal. We came to a stop out around track 15 - 20 of 29 at the grand old station. My friend and I stayed behind and spoke with the aging conductor as he wiped his eyes and told us the rail fans had torn up his train in coach, and he gave each of us a set of headrest covers. We thanked him profusely and headed out the door, again myself making sure I was the last person to ever step off an FEC passenger train. We learned that this was a fact in the station, where they told us the Southbound train had arrived in Miami, an hour or two ahead of us.
Then came 2002, and a sudden urge by the State of Florida to restore service to the Florida East Coast. Insane as it seems, a region at least as populated as Portland - Seattle, Chicago - Milwaukee, Los Angeles - San Diego, had been caught up in Florida's unique highway only thinking for an eternity. I believe those in the know about railroads in Florida, were pinching ourselves that this most anti-rail state was doing something positive. But all the hype was for nothing, Bush slashed Amtrak's budget and rather then gain a new route, something our state had already funded, a freeze was put on the whole Amtrak network. Worse still, for "economics" we are told, Amtrak decided to leave the former "S" line down the center of the State, Waldo (Gaineville/UF) , Ocala, Wildwood and Dade City, and consolidate our only two remaining trains on the former Atlantic Coast Line, or "A" line of the CSX. Over on the Florida East Coast route, we were once again, abandoned.
Spin the clock forward and we have the new economic recovery package, and Florida wants it's share. The state dusted off their poorly planned high speed rail plan claiming that thousands of travelers will go from the Orlando Airport, to Disney, and hence to a freeway interchange in Tampa. Phase two would run from the Orlando Airport to Miami's new inter modal terminal. In the process, perhaps as a second thought, or perhaps to toss a bone to Jacksonville, the Florida East Coast train proposal suddenly reappeared on a "TRACK 2" application to the FRA.
The application applies for funds to raise the track speed for passenger trains to 90 mph, which on the FEC will involve mostly signal changes as the track is superb. In November of 2012, Amtrak will start splitting both the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star in Jacksonville. A section of both trains will run down the Florida East Coast, while another section runs to Tampa on the CSX. The state and Amtrak also want to establish 3 more trains daily between Jacksonville and Miami, on the FEC route, creating a new Amtrak corridor service, not unlike the "Local to Miami" and "Local to Jacksonville" of 1968.
There is no money in the application for reconstruction of the rail side of Jacksonville Terminal, but there are plans to see it restored. Right now it's a foot race between a lethargic Jacksonville government, very short on ideas and leadership, and a clique in Tallahassee, that has shifted a great deal of power from North to Central and South Florida. To do the station properly, the Convention Center built on that property needs to come down. This would leave only the original rail buildings, and the concourse of the Convention Center. The entire plan for the Transportation Authority's, "Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center," will easily fit into the space of the former Terminal and Railway Post Office location. Will anyone in city hall or Tallahassee have sense enough to pull it off? Only time will tell, if not we are prepared to scatter this project over 6 blocks of LaVilla, in downtown. Hardly a Transportation Center and more of a Transportation Neighborhood. Either way, the coals are in the fire, and there is no time to waste, Jacksonville either moves forward now, or surrenders it's rail supremacy to a lesser facility... and THAT would be a tragedy.