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Florida by train? Small, picturesque segments are the way to ride the rails

Planes and cars may be faster from Point A to Point B, but they can't compare with a train for the ride. Or the picture-window view:

• In Winter Park, a station set in a park fronts a famed retail row.

• In Lakeland, the station on a rise overlooks one of Florida's best examples of the City Beautiful Movement.

• West of Fort Lauderdale, trains pass yards of mega-yachts on the New River.

• Between Orlando and Sanford, they run alongside cars on U.S. Highway 17.

• West of DeLand, trains play peek-a-boo with a popular Central Florida cycling trail.

Passengers get to talking with their neighbors. Some meet over dinner in the dining car. Others text and work on their computers. Some, steeped in the setting, read books about trains by Paul Theroux and Dick Francis, or legendary train mysteries by Graham Greene and Agatha Christie.

Florida's best rides aren't limited to places that Mickey, Shamu and Harry Potter call home. Florida trains trace loops in the air, whistle and squeal, and clang along city streets.

For most people, trains stall us at rail crossings when we're already late. Freight trains are galleries of rolling graffiti. Passenger trains are dinosaurs. On a recent northbound ride aboard Amtrak's Silver Star, a young man traveling on a friend's advice from Orlando to Jacksonville told me, "I didn't know anybody rode trains anymore."

Amtrak dominates Florida service, its twice-daily trains running mostly inland. They connect Jacksonville with Tampa, 252 miles and 5.5 hours distant; Tampa with Miami, 260 miles and 5.25 hours; and Miami-Jacksonville (avoiding Tampa yet by way of Orlando), 412 miles and 8.25 hours.

In Sanford, Amtrak's Auto Train provides overnight service that compares well with European trains for its comfortable bedrooms, cheese, wine and veggies before departure, and wine again with cooked-to-order complimentary dinners.

Miami's Metromover is undoubtedly the best free ride in Florida. Twin cars run a 4.4-mile loop with kite-tail extensions north to the city's majestic performing arts center, and south across the Miami River to a corporate row and a boutique, restaurant and nightlife zone.

Jacksonville's 2.5-mile Skyway costs 50 cents (a dime for seniors) and outdoes Miami with its crossing of the St. Johns River. Skyway's twin cars (smaller than Miami's) drop roller coaster-like to the ground before ascending through a spaghetti of freeway ramps to views that flaunt Jacksonville's skyline, four more bridges and the river almost a mile wide.

You have to love the clang of the Tampa Streetcar along its 2.7-mile route that, between Ybor City and downtown, swerves past the Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay History Center and St. Pete Times Forum. Most of the way, rails embed in roadway pavement. Where a stretch opens with rail bolted to cross ties set in ballast stone – the same beds used for cross-country trains – the ride recalls yesteryear's rural inter-urban trains that connected small cities everywhere.

At Orlando, Tampa and Miami international airports, rails connect terminals to plane gates, and Disney has its monorail that 40 years ago indicated a new era for Sunshine State rail.

Yet most persuasive about Florida's train future is where Tri-Rail commuter trains at ground level and Miami's elevated Metrorail cross at a transfer station.

Double-deck Tri-Rail trains run 71 miles between Miami and northern Palm Beach County; Metrorail runs 22 miles from northwest Hialeah south to the corporate and shopping district at Dadeland.

Heading for Tri-Rail's southernmost station, you cross beneath the soaring extension of Metrorail on its reach to the intermodal center. Today's airport station is a short bus ride from the airport itself. Arriving passengers step directly onto Tri-Rail trains. Some ride to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Others connect by Metrorail to downtown. When the intermodal center opens in 2013, people will arrive from around the world in a Sunshine State where anyone might easily believe that rail rules.

Herb Hiller likes to write about trains, which he has ridden across America, Europe, Argentina, in Jamaica and Guyana.

Editor's note: This story was first published on

Florida by train? Small, picturesque segments are the way to ride the rails 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 6:06pm]
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