Florida’s images of swaying palm trees, sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and family fun destinations have wooed tourists for years.
But Florida’s tourism future has reached a critical juncture. How do you change the mind-set of tourists to have them think of Florida as a series of interconnected destinations rather than just a one-stop Central or South Florida trip?
All Aboard Florida believes it has the answer: a higher-speed, hourly passenger rail service linking the state’s two largest tourism draws, Orlando and Miami.
The idea harkens back more than a century to the entrepreneurial vision of Henry Flagler, the driving force behind Florida’s East Coast Railway, which helped establish tourism and agriculture as the state’s two leading industries. Flagler saw the benefit of a rail line from Jacksonville to Miami to connect with major cities to the north, bringing tourists and land developers to the Sunshine State and transporting Florida’s citrus commodity to points north.
All Aboard Florida, a privately owned, operated and maintained venture, would offer a 21st century take on Flagler’s legacy, with clean-diesel-burning locomotives and WiFi onboard.
The train would whisk riders from one city to the other (with planned stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach) in under three hours, at speeds of up to 110 mph.
The service is scheduled to begin in 2016.
“This is a combination of a transportation and a hospitality project. It’s an opportunity to connect the state and think of Florida as a destination, not just a pick one location,” said Don Robinson, president and COO of All Aboard Florida.
Chief Marketing Officer Julie Edwards added, “Central Florida to Miami is too long to drive and too short to fly. This is a great answer for the state of Florida.”
Work on the railroad is already underway. All Aboard Florida is updating and outfitting the current rail lines in the southern portion of the line and building 40 new miles of track to complete the line to Orlando Airport, located about 20 minutes from the city and its theme park attractions. (Passengers headed for the city or theme parks will need to use existing options to reach those destinations — buses, theme park shuttles, etc. — although the soon-to-launch SunRail commuter train is expected to eventually be expanded south to Kissimmee and Poinciana.)
In addition to WiFi, riders will enjoy larger seats than first-class airlines, food-and-beverage service and activity-based reserved seating catering to families, business travelers and tourists. The sleek, 1,000-foot-long trains will seat 400 passengers and depart hourly for stops at Orlando Airport and downtown hubs in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, with 16 departures planned daily.
While pricing for the train tickets have not been announced, Edwards says fares will be competitive with other modes of transportation and they are looking at all options to package tickets for seasonal, commuter and multiple travel segments.
While executives are confident ridership will be there to support and eventually expand the service to other areas, they are meeting with Visit Florida, local convention and visitor bureaus and other travel industry professionals to promote and drive tourism to the four destination markets.
Tadayuki Hara, associate dean at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, supports the idea of a new passenger rail system in Florida for all travelers.
“Foreign tourists will be able to use the train and make longer stays in Florida without worrying about driving on unfamiliar roads, or looking for bus service or transportation options that are not convenient,” he said. “Business travelers will be able to plan meetings and have complete freedom on the train to work, relax and know they will arrive at their destination and can plan a meeting shortly afterwards. The railroad system is very precise.”
Hara says the new train depots will also help revitalize the surrounding areas with an increase of new retail and dining options for travelers and a build out of other unique businesses and real estate offerings at each location.
All Aboard Florida is also exploring ways to make travel seamless with one-stop shopping for airline and train tickets and provide access to current transportation options, like SunRail in Orange County and Metrorail and Metromover in Miami-Dade County.
The hope is that the addition of passenger rail will also provide a dramatic step in relieving bumper-to-bumper traffic on clogged interstates during rush hour, a hinderance to visitors and Floridians alike. All Aboard’s Robinson said he believes train ridership will have the ability to take as many as 3 million cars off the roads each year.
“The vision of this project is the most exciting. It can single-handedly change the way Florida travels around. Ten years from now, people won’t think about the train that didn’t exist,” said Robinson.