The Florida East Coast Railway (commonly known as the FEC), like many classic American railroads
has had a very rich and interesting past. However, what happily sets
it apart from those railroads is that it is not a fallen flag, and
continues to operate today under its original name just as it has for
the past 116 years. The FEC of today currently hugs Florida’s Atlantic
coast and runs basically north to south, serving the cities of
Jacksonville, St. Augustine, West Palm Beach, and Miami. Perhaps most
fascinating in recent times with this historic railroad was the
announcement in 2012 that privately operated passenger service would be
returning to the property. If this project succeeds the FEC will be the
largest freight railroad to operate such services since the formation
of Amtrak in May of 1971.
The Florida East Coast Railway originally had its beginnings in 1895, on
September 7th to be exact as that was the date when the FEC was
officially dedicated by its most prominent and original owner, Henry
Flagler (who is known not only for his wealth, but also for a number of
successful businesses, such as partnering with John Rockefeller of
Standard Oil fame), who purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine &
Halifax River Railway and renamed it (because this railroad began the
FEC “empire” for many years, until just recently when it moved to
Jacksonville, the railroad’s headquarters were located in St.
Augustine). However, the railroad actually had its beginnings much
earlier than that, as its predecessor railroads date all the way back to
1858 with the narrow-gauge St. John’s Railway, which operated, between
Tocoi and St. Augustine, Florida.
With the newly created FEC Flagler quickly
expanded it, not only to grow the business but also to bring much needed
infrastructure to eastern Florida which, hard to believe by today's
situation, was still very undeveloped during the late 19th century.
Aside from the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax River Railway,
which began the FEC Flagler, he also purchased the St. John's Railway,
the St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax
River Railway which connected the railroad from Jacksonville to Daytona
From this point forward, however, the rest of the FEC was built entirely from new railroad, which stretched from Daytona Beach to Miami (which it reached a year after the railroad was officially incorporated in 1896) and continues to serve as part of the railroad’s Jacksonville-Miami main line. Perhaps what the FEC is best recognized for is its ambitious plan to connect the Florida Keys with the state’s mainland, the Key West Extension. Construction of the project was completed in 1905 and finished in 1912 with Flagler’s ultimate goal of using the line as a link for traffic coming to and from the Panama Canal, whose construction had also begun in 1905.
Hailed as an engineering masterpiece upon completion the line saw a mere 23 years of active service before being destroyed by the massive
Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and the railroad never sought to rebuild
the line (partly because its intended use never came to fruition).
However, the line was so well built that much of the remaining pier
infrastructure was used for Highway 1, which now connects the entire Key
West island system to the state’s mainland. The Florida East Coast
Railway of today continues to operate almost all of its original
railroad lines, although a few segments here and there have been
abandoned over the years. For many years the company also held Class I
status until one of the more recent class changes bumped the railroad to
a Class II, or Regional. Passenger train service on the railroad ended
in 1968 although there is a likelihood that the southern end of its
main line will see state commuter rail operations commence at some point
in the future.
The railroad is and has always been an independent company (although it did have a few brief skirts with receivership and bankruptcy during its lifetime), and today is under the holding company known as Fortress Investment Group, LLC, which oversees the railroad and other businesses. This company also owned the RailAmerica company of shortline railroads for a number of years and in March 2008 RA was designated operator of the line. Sadly, this designation for a time cost the FEC much of its identity as equipment was repainted in RA's standard red, white and blue livery. However, not long after this announcement Fortress reversed its stance and kept the FEC as a separate, independent portfolio outside of the FEC. Today with the emergence of rail once again as a highly demanded form of transportation, coupled with an excellent management team, the FEC's future looks as bright as the Florida sun. Of note, in July of 2012 it was announced that Genesee & Wyoming was purchasing the entirety of RA's shortline family. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the FEC in this regard although it is believed that Fortress will retain ownership of the regional at this time.
Also of note was the announcement during the summer of 2012 that the Florida East Coast plans
to return passenger train service to its property between Miami and
Orlando. The goal, called "All Aboard Florida" is quite ambitious by
building a brand new 40-mile extension to Orlando and once again
double-tracking the main line to Miami. The cost of the project is
slated at $1 billion but is to be financed by all private investments,
which is expected to expedite the project that hopes to be completed by
2015. The trains will operate over a 230-mile corridor and the journey
is expected to take just three hours. If successful it will be interesting to see if other large freight railroads take notice.
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