Motorists along U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway might have seen some action in recent weeks on Florida East Coast Railway’s stretch through Brevard County.
Workers with HSR Consructors’ Melbourne office are helping turn the county’s decades-old track from one of slow-moving freight trains into part of a 235-mile high-speed rail between Miami and Orlando.
"Construction is about 30 percent complete," said Katie Mitzner, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based Brightline Trains LLC. "We expect the project to be finished in late 2022."
The FEC’s 20 freight trains a day travel at about 40 to 60 mph, slower than most drivers travel on Interstate-95. But Brightline will be sending its passenger trains through the county at 110 mph on the stretch between Cocoa and West Palm Beach.
Revving the old freight line into a $2.7 billion new passenger route takes a lot of new hardware. That’s where HSR and other contractors come in.
Brightline’s contractors are laying a second higher-speed track along the freight track from Miami north to Cocoa, including doubling trestles over rivers along the way. Meanwhile, they’re laying about 40 miles of all-new track along State Road 528, capable of taking trains at 125 mph, from Cocoa west to a new terminal at the Orlando International Airport.
HSR crews currently are installing switches to the track in Grant-Valkaria. There will be 155 switches between West Palm Beach and Cocoa alone, Mitzner said.
At a conductor’s request, Brightline dispatchers in Miami will be able to send signals to the switch and shift the train from one track to the other. This is in case a train needs to get around another train or other obstructions on the track ahead, she said.
"This allows more flexibility for the personnel running the trains,"
Brightline trains are planned to make 32 trips a day, 16 each way, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. In Brevard County, they would go over 21 crossings in Melbourne, nine in the unincorporated county, six in Cocoa, five in Rockledge, four in Grant-Valkaria and three in Palm Bay, records show.
The goal is to get passengers — mostly tourists — between Orlando and Miami in three hours or less. That’s two or three times as fast as a freight train.
Mitzner said a Brevard County resident, heading to Miami, would be able to backtrack 40 miles west and get on the train in Orlando, and then reach Miami in three hours — safer and maybe even quicker than driving I-95 all the way south.
That’s because there might not be any stations in Brevard for several years, if at all. Not that county officials haven’t pressed Brightline.
County transportation officials in 2016 asked for a new station and suggested two possible sites, a former FEC Railway passenger station straddling the Cocoa-Rockledge city limits and a parcel site on Michigan Avenue in Cocoa.
Brightline has stations now in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, in addition to the new Orlando terminal. But Mitzner said company officials want to get the track finished and the trains running first and see ridership numbers before agreeing to a Brevard station — or even one on the Treasure Coast, where locals also have demanded stations.
But on a grander scale, they are planning expansion. Brightline in February started engineering designs for a spur from Orlando International to Walt Disney World.
And further ahead, Mitzner said, Brightline is looking to Tampa and even Jacksonville.