High-speed passenger train project from Orlando to Miami comes to fruition

It becomes real, this long-discussed, debated, fought, raved, cautioned, argued, lobbied, opposed, allowed, creatively funded, questioned and relentlessly idea of ​​a private passenger train service at faster speed to connect Orlando and Miami.

Some of the 491,000 railroad ties put in place for Virgin Trains USA’s new railroad.

Real, as in the rail corridor is being cleared and leveled. The dirt is moved. Supplies like railroad ties are made, transported, and stacked for use. And more substantial elements like piles are driven.

“We are completely under construction,” said Michel CegelisExecutive Vice President of Rail Infrastructure for Virgin Trains USA.

Virgin Trains USA, formerly known as Brightline and before that as All Aboard Florida, has a visible construction zone that essentially extends about 36 miles from Orlando International Airport to the is along State Road 528 to Cocoa.

It’s not just a construction site at the back of Orlando International Airport that could be anything or a few freeway construction barrels around heavy equipment that could mean who knows what next series of road works.

Almost anywhere in the airport, along long stretches of SR 528 through eastern Orange and western Brevard counties, and around the intersection of US 1 and State Road 528 in Brevard, motorists and any other observers can see, if they have any idea what they’re looking at, clear evidence of the creation of the country’s first major new private railroad in about a century.

After approximately seven years of planning, regulatory, litigation, legislative and funding struggles which at times made the proposed high-speed private passenger train service linking Florida’s two largest tourist areas seem more like a dream than a project, Virgin Trains USA is wasting no time now getting it out of the ground.

The company promises around 36 months of construction dating from the official inauguration at the end of June, meaning the first trains would arrive in Orlando in mid-2022.

A borrow pit in Cocoa, providing fill for the Virgin Trains USA railroad.

“It’s like winning the Super Bowl or something, putting yourself in construction. It’s extremely rewarding to see the groundwork and the physical construction going on,” Cegelis said. “I never doubted that this would happen.

“These guys from Fortress [the money interests behind the project] are determined. Getting this project funded is an incredibly difficult task. For a private company to enter the public infrastructure space is incredibly difficult. And these guys are determined. And they had to face enormous obstacles. There is no model for this. You knew, however, they were going to do it,” Cegelis said.

Certainly the idea has seen formidable opposition, organized, financed and supported by powerful political actors. This was especially true on Florida’s Treasure Coast, where most of the public safety and public cost controversies have arisen and can be sustained. This section runs directly through some densely populated urban centers, with many street and highway crossings.

There are construction preparation activities underway, such as fiber optic cable relocations and surveys, as well as the placement of equipment and supplies.

But the actual construction in “Area 4,” which will run along Florida’s existing east coast rail line from Cocoa to where the existing Virgin Trains USA rail line in southern the Florida ends in West Palm Beach, is still a few weeks away. Essentially, this project involves double-tracking much of the corridor, upgrading existing tracks, improving level crossings and bridges, and adding high-speed positive train control safety systems. technology. Most of these operations will take place in a railway bed that has been around for over 100 years. The new work should be well advanced before the end of this year, Cegelis said.

The stretch between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport has been far less controversial, in part because it mostly passes through very vacant rural areas and near undeveloped land, at least outside the airport area. The track will be installed in a completely new rail bed almost entirely within the corridor of the SR 528 freeway, sometimes a few dozen meters from the shoulder of the freeway. There will be no level crossings.

It is in this stretch that trains will be able to reach 125 mph, compared to a maximum of 110 mph south of Cocoa and only 79 mph. on the current system, linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Planning the Cocoa-Orlando route is made easier in part because the Central Florida Expressway Authority and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority have hoped, for more than a decade – since before Virgin Trains USA’s plan was proposed – that ‘a kind of passenger railway would take this route. The airport therefore already has a station and some rail infrastructure. It already has an interchange that was designed and built with room for a railroad to cross everything.

The same is true for a portion of SR 528, which is jointly owned and controlled by the highway authority, Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, and the Florida Department of Transportation. A right of way was reserved years ago for a railroad. When a new interchange was built at Innovation Way, it was built with bridges to accommodate a railway passing underneath.

Work in progress on the Virgin Trains USA maintenance facility and a rail corridor to connect to the OIA rail station.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t many engineering and construction complexities.

The train tracks must cross part of the airside of Orlando International Airport, bringing a host of security and FAA requirements. The railroad must pass over, under, or across a handful of major roads and highways, including Goldenrod Road, Narcoosee Road, State Road 417, State Road 520, and Interstate 95, and must cross SR 528 twice There are two main rivers, Econlockhatchee and St. Johns, and four smaller waterways to cross. The tracks will pass a few meters from a large apartment complex off Narcoosee and two smaller housing estates. Some roads and electrical services will need to be relocated or raised.

Some of those challenges, Cegelis said, are met with creative engineering and construction ideas, such as a technique to push a pre-built rail tunnel through an existing interchange mound. by “box jacking”, a process developed in Europe and not tried in the US until this summer.

Such techniques should save time, money and the hassle of prolonged road closures during construction; and likely would not have been considered had the railway been a public project rather than a private enterprise, Cegelis suggested.

“We are from the private sector. I strongly believe that this type of transport belongs to the private sector because the efficiency with which you provide the railway infrastructure, and really all the infrastructure, really, is [determined by] how quickly you can make decisions and how quickly you can adopt new technology. ” he said.

“We are quite streamlined in this regard. We can make those decisions very quickly.

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Jose P. Rogers