Amtrak wants to expand service in Florida after previous stalled attempts, most notably, a failed expansion plan that was scrapped by Congress in 2002 when it barred Amtrak from adding routes. Based on one of the state's stimulus applications, the Silver Star and the Silver Meteor will be split in Jacksonville by October 2012. Four local Jacksonville-Miami trains would serve the east coast in a second phase.
Tampa's Current Routing
The biggest problem that I've had with Florida's current service is the nonsensical routing through Tampa. In 1994, the Palmetto was extended from Jacksonville to Tampa via Ocala. However, due to the following year's cutbacks, that route was eliminated. At that time, Amtrak split and merged the Silver Service trains in either Jacksonville or Auburndale. Once the Silver Palm was established to replace the Palmetto in 1996, the other two routes became Miami via Orlando only, and the Silver Palm traveled via Ocala to Tampa, then onward to Miami. The reason given for the backtracking through Tampa was that Amtrak wanted to serve Florida's east and west coasts without splitting up the trains. When the renamed Palmetto was cut back to Savannah in 2004, the Ocala's S-Line stops were replaced by a bus, and the Silver Star picked up the Tampa stop. Instead of going back and forth in central Florida, Amtrak had two golden opportunities to set up a standalone local Tampa-Miami train that would have made either the Silver Palm or Silver Star to terminate in Tampa without giving travelers headaches.
A Better Plan for Florida
Instead of loony routings and unrealistic HSR hopes, I have provided a logical alternative--in four phases--on how Florida should proceed with rail service that will be more productive in the end. Unless otherwise noted, the operator is assumed to be Amtrak Florida. I will also use the Jacksonville Union Terminal (JUT) as that city's primary station for all operators. Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa/St. Pete, and Miami would serve as hubs. The numbers on the maps are roundtrips.
a) This is partially based on Amtrak's plans. This assumes that Amtrak (terra cotta) serves both the existing station on Clifford Lane and a renovated Union Terminal in Jacksonville. The splitting and combining of trains would take place at the Clifford Lane station.
b) FEC Locals (golden yellow). This route would serve the east coast of the state and stop at additional locations that Amtrak would miss. Only Amtrak Florida trains would serve every station located along lines that provide both long-distance and local routes.
c) Cross-Florida Service (dark green). Upon Amtrak's Silver Service restructuring, Tampa travelers would have direct access to Miami and no longer worry about backtracking by Silver Service trains or having to be bused when those trains are subject to trackwork.
d) The Sunset Limited has been transferred to my hypothetical consortium's Transcontinental Subdivision (olive green) and would be moved to a new Marietta station in the western part of Jacksonville. All Rail Consortium routes would use the planned downtown LYNX Sunrail Station as its Orlando location.
e) The Flamingo and the Ponce De Leon (violet; Rail Consortium East) would provide Midwest travelers direct access to the Sunshine State for the first time since 1979. The Flamingo would travel via Chicago, Pittsburgh, D.C., Charleston, Orlando and Miami. The latter route would travel via the same cities except its termini would be Detroit and Tampa, and it would stop in Raleigh (S-Line) instead of Charleston (A-Line).
f) To provide Panhandle travelers an alternative to the Sunset Limited, a Houston-New Orleans-Orlando Gulf Wind route (red; Rail Consortium Central) would operate as a complement, and both trains would serve the JUT by this time.
g) A-Line Locals (brown). These trains would relieve the long-distance trains from overcrowding. The Orlando-South stop is the planned Sunrail Sand Lake Road station.
h) S-Line Locals (tan). For the first time since 2004, passenger service would return to this rail line. The Miami segment would run along restored CSX tracks. To sweeten up the pot, there might be some dedicated tracks for intercity trains.
i) SEHSR (blue; operators TBD) would be implemented alongside expanded Amtrak service and RCE's emergence. Only Amtrak would skip the Callahan stop north of Jacksonville. The Atlanta route would be via Jesup while the Raleigh route would serve Savannah.
Additional Frequencies: Amtrak would add two more roundtrips. These trains would supplement the Silver Service routes and would be extended to maximize ridership. The Orange Blossom would be a companion to the Silver Star and would be extended to Boston via Hartford while the Champion would provide Silver Meteor and Palmetto travelers a third option along the A-Line in the Carolinas. The Champion's northern terminus would be Montreal, essentially picking up where the Montrealer left off in 1995 and providing Northeastern travelers an alternative to the Adirondack and Vermonter. One more roundtrip would be added to the FEC Local while two would be added to the Cross-Florida route.
j) Once the tracks are repaired in certain parts of the country, RCC would add service to provide Midwest-Florida travelers an alternative to RCE.The Floridian (Chicago-Nashville-Birmingham-Jacksonville-Daytona Beach-Miami), South Wind (Chicago-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa), Southland (Detroit-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Ocala-Miami), and Royal Palm (Cleveland-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Ocala-Miami) will attract more riders from the Midwest.
k) Amtrak Florida would begin providing local Panhandle service (peach) and would serve additional stops since the train would be at a more marketable time of the day as opposed to the Sunset Limited and Gulf Wind.
l) It would only be then that FLHSR (orange; Japan Central) would implement Stage 1 due to increased demand for travel in three of the state's four hubs. I have gone ahead and put the Japanese in charge of the system because they want to build a system in this country, and they--not the FL taxpayers--would pick up the tab.
Additional Frequencies: RCT (Sunset) and RCC (Gulf Wind) would extend their respective east-west routes to Tampa. Up to four Cross-Florida roundtrips would be extended to St.Petersburg. Amtrak Florida would add one more roundtrip to the FEC Locals, three more to the Cross-Florida route, and four more each to the A and S Lines.
m) Amtrak Florida expands to other markets like Venice (pink) and Naples (via Jacksonville [light blue] and via Tampa [light green]).
n) Stage 2 of FLHSR is implemented. Japan Central extends the route from Orlando Airport to Miami on one end and from the Tampa Intermodal Center to the St. Petersburg Intermodal Center on the other end.
Additional Frequencies: Amtrak expands to serve additional markets like Charlotte and Indianapolis via the Crescent and Cardinal routes. Amtrak Florida adds a Panhandle roundtrip. RCC adds service to and from St. Louis and Kansas City. Japan Central doubles frequencies on its Tampa-Orlando stretch.
As for additional RCE routes and Auto Train-related service, that will be determined at a later date.
Inspiration and sources
URPA's This Week at Amtrak April 18, 2008 and August 28, 2009 editions (for providing better ideas like local service than the flawed HSR plan)
Trains Magazine December 2009 pgs. 52-53 (for the names of Florida trains of yesteryear)
SunRail (for an alternative location should another operator run long-distance trains in central Florida)
Florida DOT's stimulus application