A new railway rivals a glamorous past

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Source: BBC

Gilded Age industrialist Henry Flagler knew a thing or two about tourism; he’s a big reason why St Augustine, West Palm Beach and Miami are the major destinations they are today. In fact, most of Florida owes its modern existence to the great railroad baron, who opened the route south from Jacksonville with his visionary East Coast Railway in the 1880s and built the first hotels that would eventually attract a wealthy clientele.

It makes sense, then, that the Sunshine State’s next big attraction will be a high-speed railway that mimics much of what Flagler pioneered more than 120 years ago.

Whitehall, now the Flagler Museum, houses an old railcar (Credit: Credit: dov makabaw sundry/Alamy)

Whitehall, now the Flagler Museum, houses an old railcar (Credit: dov makabaw sundry/Alamy)

High-speed rail in the US has a chequered history, with more false starts than a nervous sprinter. Plans have been in place for a national high-speed rail network since 1965, but to this day only the 150mph Acela Express from Boston to Washington DC fits that particular bill. California has committed to an intra-state line that will link its major cities, but don’t hold your breath. The tentative completion date is 2029.

It could also take as many as three million cars off the four-hour-long Orlando-to-Miami drive.

All Aboard Florida’s Brightlineservice, on the other hand, is set to open in 2017. Starting at Orlando International Airport, the train – reaching top speeds of 120mph – will head east to the coast, and then pick up Flagler’s original route south, stopping in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale before breezing into the city that was almost named “Flagler”, before Henry insisted it take its title from the original Native American settlers, the Myaamiaki, or Miami Indians.

A rendering of what Brightline’s trains will look like once service begins in 2017 (Credit: Credit: Brightline)

A rendering of what Brightline’s trains will look like once service begins in 2017 (Credit: Brightline)

Trains will run 16 times a day in each direction, taking around three hours – considerably quicker than their predecessors – and offering the latest on-board creature comforts, including wi-fi, full dining service and plenty of luggage storage. It could also take as many as three million cars off the four-hour-long Orlando-to-Miami drive.

(Credit: All Aboard Florida)

It is a bold vision for the Sunshine State, with the southeast’s leading railroad historian, professor Seth Bramson, insisting: “It is an incredible initiative that will put billions of dollars into state infrastructure and hundreds of millions into the state treasury. And it is all being done in the tradition of the single most important name in the history of the state.”

Hotel Ponce de Leon lives on as Flagler College (Credit: Credit: Pat Canova/Alamy Stock Photo)

Hotel Ponce de Leon lives on as Flagler College (Credit: Pat Canova/Alamy Stock Photo)

The historical side of things began in St Augustine, where Flagler arrived in 1883 and discovered a tourist diamond in the rough, a glittering beach resort area lacking only the glitter, which Flagler promptly supplied in the form of Hotel Ponce de Leon, a 540-room Spanish Renaissance marvel of the age, and its sister property, the Hotel Alcazar.

Today, the Ponce de Leon is the centrepiece of artsy Flagler College, while the Alcazar has become the Lightner Museum, a treasure trove of American Gilded Age antiquities. Another of Flagler’s great edifices, the Casa Monica – which he bought in 1888 – remains a bastion of period grace as one of the oldest hotels in the country.

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