FEC railway to give Miami port a competitive edge

The Port of Miami is getting major upgrades, with the construction of a tunnel to connect the terminal with the highway system and now a rebuilt rail line that officials say will the port more attractive and competitive to world maritime companies.

Mounds of earth and stacks of construction equipment mark the progress of a $50-million railway project that is scheduled to begin hauling cargo as early as next year from the Port of Miami to the country’s rail network – an important milestone in the strategy to prepare the port for mega-freighters crossing a widened Panama Canal.

Reconstruction of the 4.4-mile Florida East Coast Railway line is a small but vital part of the renovation of the port, along with dredging of the cargo harbor and construction of a $1-billion tunnel giving trucks a direct connection between the port and expressways, according to port and railway officials.

Most of the old railway track already has been removed and the installation of the new one will begin soon, said project manager Jonathan Slaton.

The first cargo train is expected to run on the rebuilt track by mid-2012, said the FEC’s Husein Cumber, executive vice president for FEC’s corporate development. The FEC is reconstructing the track in partnership with the Port of Miami and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Miami wants to be in a position to compete for the bigger cargo ships, known as Post-Panamax - longer and wider freighters capable of transporting two to three times the cargo carried by current vessels now using the waterway.

While port officials believe the railway, dredging and tunnel upgrades will position the port as an attractive facility for world shippers, local environmental activists are concerned about the entire project, particularly dredging, fearing it could seriously damage Biscayne Bay. Activists also have questioned assertions that the upgrades will draw more cargo business to Miami.

But railway officials say they want to be in a position to compete when the widened Panama Canal is finished and ready for business in 2014.

A newly rebuilt railway between the port and a junction near Northeast 71st Street will give the port the ability to transfer cargo directly from ships to railroad cars, instead of having to truck it in, as is done now.

Officials say the new railway will make the port a more attractive facility for world maritime companies, and will put Miami in competition to be the first stop out of the Canal for East Coast-bound freight.

“The idea is to place containers arriving at the Port of Miami bound for, say, Charlotte, North Carolina, directly onto railroad cars at the port and dispatch the train as quickly as possible to Jacksonville, where it would link up with railways of partner railroad companies en route to Charlotte,” said Cumber.

Some cargo also will be transported by railroad between the port and the FEC’s Hialeah distribution yard.

“If someone sends cargo to the port for delivery in South Florida, it would be taken from there to the Hialeah yard, where it will be loaded onto trucks for its final local destination,” Cumber said.

The railway begins inside the port and runs west crossing Biscayne Boulevard between the AmericanAirlines Arena and Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami. A few blocks west of the Freedom Tower, the railway track turns north toward to 71st Street.

It is there where the track divides: one line goes north to connect with the existing FEC line to Jacksonville, while the other goes west toward the FEC Hialeah Railyard, near Miami International Airport.

FEC stopped using the railway track in 2005 after it was battered by a storm, though it was not ideal for relatively fast trains. When it was in use, it could accommodate trains moving at a maximum speed of five miles per hour. FEC wants to run trains on the rebuilt track at speeds of between 25 and 30 miles per hour to be able to cross major intersections in 90 seconds to avoid tying up traffic.

“Trains will have a length of about 2,500 feet and we need them to cross the city quickly,” said Cumber.