Drivers on the BeachLine Expressway between Orlando’s airport and Cocoa have begun to witness both a moment in history and one of the more unusual scenes in the nation – construction of an entirely new rail line.
The higher-speed Brightline passenger system, now transitioning to the name of Virgin Trains USA, is clearing shrub, forest and muck from a corridor just south of the BeachLine.
The more than 35 miles of new dual track – running east and west across Orange and Brevard counties – will require six, 10-hour workdays a week for nearly three years.
“Construction of a new passenger rail service in the United States like Brightline is very rare,” said Ashley Wieland, president of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association.
Brightline’s service began last year along 67 miles of rail corridor, connecting stations in a trip of 70 minutes at Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
The 235-mile run from Miami’s station to a station already built at Orlando International Airport is to take three hours, although the passenger-rail company is negotiating with government leaders in Martin County over potentially building a station there. An additional stop could add some minutes to the Miami-to-Orlando time.
Brightline also has announced its intentions, but without a timetable, to build track from Orlando to Tampa and a station at Walt Disney World.
In Central Florida, the BeachLine, also called State Road 528, and the Brightline tracks will hug each other closely between the airport and the intersection with the existing Florida East Coast Railway tracks in Cocoa that parallel U.S. Highway 1.
In some sections, motorists and passengers will be about 50 feet apart and might be able to make out each other’s expressions – though briefly.
The speed limit on the Beachline is 70 mph and for the train will be as much as 125 mph.
From the airport to Cocoa, there will be no crossings with roads at the same level. The crossings will happen via two-dozen tunnels and bridges.
Two of the most challenging construction feats, according to Brightline officials, will occur at Goldenrod Road adjacent to the airport and at the Beachline near U.S. 1.
Tracks will cross beneath those roads via tunnels built as very large box culverts.
The contractor will shove sections of box culverts under Goldenrod and the Beachline without having to close and slice open the pavement of those roads.
Those tunnels will ensure that the rail corridor has a specialized role: they will be large enough for the dual tracks of passenger trains but not high enough for the stacked containers of freight trains.
Along with several roads to be crossed, the tracks will span a vast expanse of wetland forest owned by Deseret Ranches and within the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area.
The rural stretch across east Orange and central Brevard counties includes Second Creek, Jim Creek, Taylor Creek and the St. Johns River, which will require the largest bridge in the project.
Meanwhile, crews are building or rebuilding the existing rail corridor from Cocoa to West Palm Beach, a job that will require extensive bridge work and rail installation.
In all, Brightline expects to install a half-million rail ties.