Passenger railroading in Florida took a hit after Hurricane Katrina, as we’ll see below, but it’s on the upswing in a big way with the newly launched SunRail regional railroad in Orlando, and this year’s planned opening of Miami Central Station to intercity and regional trains.
As shown in the map, Florida today has 40 train stations served by three railroads. For intercity service, Florida is the southernmost destination for two long-distance Amtrak trains from New York City, the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star, and for the unique Auto Train, which originates in Virginia’s suburbs of Washington, D.C. Twenty-nine of the state’s train stations have Amtrak service on at least one of these routes.
There are also two regional railroads, the brand new SunRail, which began serving 12 of Florida’s stations in and around Orlando on May 2, 2014, and Tri-Rail, which began service in 1989 and currently (prior to the opening of Miami Central Station) serves 17 of Florida’s stations in and around Miami. Let’s look at the ridership of these two regional railroads going back to October 1994.
As you can see from the chart, average monthly ridership on Tri-Rail has grown to 367,633 rides a month as of September 2014, up 61% from September 1995. (There was no data available for January-March 2006.) It has now surpassed the spike of 2008-2009 that resulted in part from high gas prices. If you look closely at the chart, you can also see that little SunRail has just announced its existence. Over the railroad’s first five months of service, it averaged 67,300 rides a month. Now let’s look to Amtrak’s annual ridership on a station-by-station basis.
The busiest station in the state is Sanford, the terminal of the Auto Train. This might seem surprising, until one realizes that the Auto Train makes just two stops on its entire route. So this one station accounts for essentially the train’s entire ridership since every passenger either gets on or gets off here. The next busiest station is Orlando, a major destination for families going to Disney World and other area resorts. Ridership there has held steady from 2003 to 2014, even though the station no longer receives passengers from Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which was shortened after Hurricane Katrina and no longer serves Florida. Tampa, meanwhile, has grown into a major destination, with ridership doubling then doubling again between 2003 and 2014. Now let’s look at the same information in stacked column form, color-coded in the same way.
When the Sunset Limited stopped traveling as far as Orlando, it also reduced the number of trains serving Deland, Jacksonville, Palatka and Winter Park, which all retain service on the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. It also meant the end of train service altogether for seven stations in Florida’s Panhandle, Chipley, Crestview, Lake City, Madison, Pensacola, Sanford and Tallahassee. Also during the same general timeframe, Amtrak truncated its Silver Palm train, which had run from New York to Miami, to Savannah, Ga., got rid of sleeper cars, made it a daytime-only train and renamed it the Palmetto. This resulted in the end of train service to four Florida stations: Dade City, Ocala, Waldo and Wildwood. Service ended at these stations on October 31, 2004. All together, these 11 stations were not huge ridership stations, and they appear in the chart above as the pink stations at the top of the columns for 2003-2005 and then disappear. Now we can look to the same information in pie chart form. Despite the state’s loss of the Sunset Limited and the Silver Palm, Amtrak ridership in Florida grew 23% from 2003 to 2014.
While ridership has slackened in recent years at some stations in Florida, it’s continued in the upward direction for the Auto Train. Let’s close out this post with a look at the Auto Train’s ridership. As we noted, the train is unique, in that it makes only two stops, and lets you take your car aboard with you. This is evidently a feature people are increasingly growing to appreciate. Mirroring the trend we saw for annual ridership at Sanford, average monthly Auto Train ridership has risen 36% during its steady climb over the past 11 years.