Florida Central Railroad freight trains soon will be able to pick up the pace through Lake and Orange counties as an $18.4 million railroad-track upgrade will be completed nearly a year earlier than expected.
City and county leaders hope the superior rail line — and faster trains — will spark more business from companies that transport goods.
"We've had a lot of inquiries since the announcement of this upgrade," said Pete Petree, vice president of the Pinsly Railroad Co., Florida Central Railroad's parent company.
Most of the fixes — which also could open the door to passenger-train service between the two counties, including downtown Orlando — are expected to wrap up in March. The company originally thought construction would last 18 months, but workers are on track to finish in just six, Petree said.
The project includes 20 miles of smoother track from Apopka to Eustis and more than 27,000 new crossties and 76 improved road crossings from Orlando to Umatilla. A 2-mile track in Silver Star Industrial Park in west Orlando is also receiving better track and other upgrades worth $2.7 million.
Since construction revved up in October, workers in bright-red vehicles have installed miles of 1,600-foot "continuous" welded rail to replace vintage "clickety-clack" bolted rail that dated back to the 1920s. The modern track will allow for smoother rides and train speeds up to 60 mph — though trains won't be that speedy just yet.
Trains now chug along at 10 or 20 mph, but with the upgrades speeds will increase to 25 mph along the Apopka-to-Eustis segment sometime after mid-March. The tracks will be able to handle freight cars moving 45 mph and possibly a future commuter passenger train zipping by at 60 mph.
The project is funded with federal, state and county dollars plus contributions from Tavares, Mount Dora, Eustis, Winter Garden, Ocoee, Apopka and the Florida Central Railroad.
Once complete, it will link parts of west Orange and Lake counties to fancier track stretching from Orlando to Apopka that was installed in 2005. Petree said his 43 customers along the line already shuttle beer, potato chips and propane along the line.
Tavares City Administrator John Drury believes the improvements will make Lake County and Tavares more competitive at attracting manufacturing and warehousing companies.
"When fuel prices go up, rail becomes a more efficient form of transporting goods than truck," Drury said. "So having your rail infrastructure up to today's standard is important not only for today but for the future."
But the line someday could haul more than freight.
City and regional planners believe the modernized track could pave the way for an Apopka-Lake County connection to SunRail, the commuter line that currently is set to eventually carry commuters on a line stretching from DeLand to Poinciana. Officials say the railroad-track-improvement project may make it possible for a regional passenger train — dubbed the Orange Blossom Express — with possible stops in Apopka, Tavares and Eustis. Regional and state transportation planners are studying the idea.
Already, Tavares has plans for a parking area for potential commuters near the city's new train station, a replica of a long-ago depot. Many Lake residents travel out of the county for work, which Drury said puts an "awful lot of cars on the road." Having a different mode of transportation, he said, just "makes good planning sense."
Apopka also supports the passenger-train idea, said Richard Anderson, the city's chief administrative officer. Lynx is currently using the site the city has picked out as its depot, at Central Avenue and Station Street near the Apopka Community Center, a short distance from City Hall.
A passenger-train along the line, however, is still years from reality — if it happens at all. Cities with potential for train stations would first have to agree to maintain train service and extra safety improvements along the line would need to be installed, said T.J. Fish, who heads the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization.