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COAL TRAIN TO CRAWL THROUGH PLANT CITY

The 110-car train will carry coal to the Big Bend power plant several times week.

A long train carrying coal for TECO Energy will chug through downtown Plant City several times a week starting in December.

The 110-car train will travel from Illinois, through Plant City, to TECO's Big Bend Power Station. As it goes through Plant City, it will have to slow to meet the 10 mph speed limit. At that rate, the train will take about 8 minutes to pass through each intersection.

"That will definitely have some bearing on people's driving routes," said Plant City resident Charlotte Butler-Nelson.

She said she worries that police and fire rescue response times will slow as the train goes through town. City Manager David Sollenberger echoed her concern.

"We do have a lot of the town cut off when you have a slow train like that," he said.

But Plant City fire and police officials said they'll be prepared.

Fire Rescue has stations north and south of the tracks, so it can respond while the train passes, said spokesman Capt. Jim Wilson. In the event of a big incident, they'd be able to call on nearby Hillsborough County units.

"We literally have Hillsborough waiting in the wings to come in to help us," he said.

Plant City police Capt. Jerry Stwan said officers patrol all parts of the city, even though there is only one station. He said the chief is trying to obtain the train's schedule so he can advise officers to head to their assigned regions when the coal train passes.

But that may prove difficult. CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the train will run whenever there's an open slot. That could be any time.

The train will run every other day, on average, TECO spokesman Rick Morera said. It will travel the same route as it returns north.

Trains aren't new to Plant City. The scattered agriculture-heavy town boomed in the late 1800s because of the railroad line Henry B. Plant built. Businesses arrived, and packing houses sprang up along the line, said Plant City historian Gil Gott.

In the 1920s, Plant City was the second-largest railway hub in Florida, after Jacksonville, he said.

"There were 100 trains a day," Gott said. That number diminished as the interstate system grew.

TECO's coal train will deliver about 2 million tons of coal a year to the Big Bend Power Station. But the energy company isn't increasing its coal use, Morera said. The train simply provides another delivery option. Now, TECO brings in all its coal on ships traveling through the Gulf of Mexico.

"One of the primary benefits is if there happens to be a storm in the gulf, we'll have the ability to receive the coal by rail," he said.

Staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

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