By Angel Streeter, Sun Sentinel
More trains rumbling through South Florida neighborhoods could be coming soon, and with them drivers sitting longer at railroad crossings. The number of freight trains could more than double after a widened Panama Canal opens. The wider canal and new shipping lane will allow a massive new line of mega-ships to pass through in early 2016, increasing the amount of freight heading to South Florida ports.
Ports have been expanded to handle the larger ships. And the goods from those ships would be transported by train. Some projections estimate that 24 to 28 freight trains a day will travel on railroads in South Florida in the next five years compared to about eight to 11 riding the rails now.
That has many folks worrying about trains blocking roads as they drive to and from work, take their children to school or drive for any reason.
"Some of those freight trains seem extremely long," said Glenn Smith, of Wilton Manors, who lives three blocks from the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks. "You can back up an intersection real fast with a big train."
All those lowered railroad gates would back up traffic more often. With passenger trains such as the upcoming All Aboard Florida Miami-to-Orlando passenger service added to the mix, there could be as many 32 trains a day starting in 2016. Tri-Rail has proposed a commuter service on the Florida East Coast Railroad's freight tracks that could bring as many as 26 to 50 trains a day. It's unclear when Tri-Rail trains will be on the East Coast Railroad tracks, as the two sides are still negotiating.
To get ready for all those potential trains and delays, the Florida Department of Transportation already is looking at ways to ease the starting and stopping. Minor delays could be fixed with new technology to coordinate gate closings. The department also could align oncoming trains with traffic-signal patterns.
The transportation department is asking railroads to run freight trains at more varied times of the day or double-stack train cars to shorten them, said Jeff Weidner, a strategic development manager for the transportation department.
To avoid long delays at major crossings, the department is looking at using bridges for either the roads or the tracks so road vehicles and trains don't have to interact at all. Another possibility is creating a new rail line near U.S. 27, where freight trains could operate far away from crowded areas.
"A lot of this depends on what happens," Weidner said. "If we're really successful and attract new business, we have to look at [overpasses or underpasses]. They won't be popular and will be very expensive. Then we have to look at a new rail line west of the urban area."
Now, the transportation department is studying what kind of traffic delays already take place at 17 railroad crossings in South Florida. It wants to find the possible benefits of building overpasses or underpasses at railroad tracks or the new rail line near U.S. 27.
n a 2012 report on railroad crossing delays, most traffic holdups were at the CSX railroad tracks, which closely parallel Interstate 95. Those delays are because of the frequent Tri-Rail passenger trains. But the gates are down there for a little over a minute because Tri-Rail trains are short.
Compare those wait times to the Florida East Coast tracks — the easternmost railway that mostly parallels Federal Highway — which only has freight trains and is expected to get the increased traffic after the Panama Canal widening. Drivers wait about twice as long because freight trains can have hundreds of cars.