Last updated: 01:21 PM ET, Wed April 09 2014

Riding the Sunshine State With All Aboard Florida

Car Rental & Rail | James Ruggia | April 09, 2014

Riding the Sunshine State With All Aboard Florida

Big changes are on the horizon for the Sunshine State. All Aboard Florida (AAF) is going to revolutionize the way tourists experience Florida when it introduces a three-hour rail connection between Miami and Orlando in 2016. AAF sums up the 230-mile distance between the two magnetic poles of Florida Tourism as “too short to fly and too long to drive.” The coming of the train revives the East Coast Railroad that Henry Flagler (a stakeholder in Standard Oil) in the final days of late 19th century. The new train will run on Flagler’s rail corridor. Not technically a “High Speed” train, the AAF trains will top out at 125mph making them Higher Speed Trains. We spoke with AAF’s Don Robinson, the president and COO, and Julie Edwards, the chief marketing officer.

TravelPulse: What impact will this train have on Florida tourism?

Julie Edwards: Tourists coming to Florida have usually either come for the theme parks and entertainment industry of Orlando or the international vibrancy of Miami, the sophisticated gateway city to Latin America. In restoring Henry Flagler’s vision, we’ll be providing a much more convenient experience that will allow them to do both with 16 departures per day from both Miami and Orlando.

Visitors will be able to see the state as a single destination instead of a South and a Central tourist experience. We signed up to attend the next PowWow so that we can begin forming all of those partnerships that are part and parcel of the tourism industry. Increasingly, we’re growing into as much of a hospitality company as a transit company. The cruise industry is extremely excited at the prospect of being able to create bigger land packages in Florida using the train.

Don Robinson: Each train will have the capacity to carry 400 passengers on seven passenger cars and a café car. The seating will be configured in different categories to serve tourists, local residents and business travelers. Our research shows that our passenger mix will break down into thirds according to these three groups. Instead of dealing with the traffic, the weather, the distance, they’ll come into a comfortable train with great seats, free Wi-fi and a café car.

JE: About 50 million people travel between Central Florida (Orlando) and Southern Florida (Miami) per year, almost all of them driving. This is a real breakthrough in many ways. The traffic on the highways between the two cities is awful, especially on I-95. It’s one of the most congested roadways in the country. It’s a four- or five-hour drive. It’s too long to drive and too short to fly.

Environmentally, the impact will be huge. We expect the train to take 5 million cars off the road per year. Moving one passenger by train between Orlando and Miami uses a gallon of fuel. And for tourists, Florida needs the extra capacity. We get 95 million tourists per year now and the governor has set a goal of 100 million.

TP: A couple of years ago Governor Rick Scott rejected Federal funds to build high-speed rail in Florida and yet he’s enthusiastic about AAF. What is his thinking?

DR: The high-speed rail project was different in scope; it was connecting Tampa and Orlando, and the governor didn’t want to get involved in long-term federal subsidies. We brought a much different project to the table. We already owned the corridor between Orlando and Miami, so there are no operating subsidies required. We already have most of the infrastructure; in fact, we have been running freight on it all along. All of this previous investment alleviates the cost.

TP: Do you see this project as a one-off project or a prototype that can be copied in other parts of the U.S.?

DR: I believe we are a prototype because we have the opportunity to be the first of the kind here in the U.S. In the future we can look for other opportunities within that three-hour window of travel time that joins two cities together. A lot of our visitors in Florida are from Europe and they’re well acquainted with rail In Europe. The three-hour train trip is the ideal length for maximum train ridership. The Chunnel and the Eurostar have pushed airlines connecting Paris and London out of the market.

TP: What sort of investment is required?

DR: We have to build three stations, upgrade the tracks for the higher speeds and add the rolling stock. Two of our stations, in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, are located near the government centers in the cities. We are partnering with Orlando Airport to build a third station there. 

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