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The nearly 400-mile stretch of railroad that runs from just west of Jacksonville through Tallahassee to Pensacola – with a short spur between Tallahassee and Attapulgus, Georgia - changed hands in early June. It’s now part of Boca Raton-based RailUSA, which has owned numerous short line and regional railroads over the years. The headquarters for its latest acquisition, now called the Florida Gulf and Atlantic Railroad, is in Tallahassee. Its general manager is Charles “Hank” Hankerson.
“We have an extensive amount of experience,” he said in his temporary office in the Florida Farm Bureau building on West College Avenue. Railroad Assistant Manager David Pope sat nearby. “Myself and David Pope who are known in the industry, we have our hands on this operation with a lot of experience locally and that’s what we’re offering for the community.”
Hankerson explained his rail line has an operating philosophy very different from the nation’s big rail carriers, like Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern AND CSX, which used to own the local rails.
“We run through 11 counties all the way from Baldwin to Pensacola,” he said. “We are very intimately getting to know the county commissioners, we work closely with FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) on so many levels. We work closely with some of the communities already, introducing ourselves to the Panhandle. Whereas the larger Class I railroads aren’t able to be as intimate with the community, we are. We’re 7 weeks into this takeover and we’re doing it.”
Today, Florida Gulf and Atlantic says it serves 30 customers along its right-of-way. Hankerson says the idea is to add lots more.
“There are industries, customers and prospects that want to get into the rail industry and if it requires us to put in a siding track, use existing infrastructure, do something differently, we’re extremely flexible to do that,” he said. “We will partner with new customers and if it takes us to finance the infrastructure that needs to be put in, we have options. That’s what we look at first. We want to grow the business and maintain what we already have in place.”
Florida Gulf and Atlantic has 18 locomotives, which are being repainted into a splashy red, white and blue scheme. It’s hired some 40 people to run the railroad all the livelong day. And Hankerson revealed a community event should be happening in the next few months.\
“(We’ll) do an introduction to the community down at 917 Railroad Avenue, which will eventually be our headquarters. We’ll open a locomotive up to the community for photos and do a meet-and-greet with a cookout to introduce ourselves.”
One local resident who can’t wait to get acquainted with the new railroad in town is Kristin Dozier. She is both a Leon County commissioners and a member of the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency that has an interest in things like railroad activity in the area.
“I like the prospects of having a new owner for our rail system through North Florida,” she exclaimed with obvious enthusiasm. “I love the fact that they will be based in Tallahassee and that this is a company that, from my initial read, operates closer to the communities they work within. All of those things I believe were missing in the past.”
Dozier sees economic development potential.
“Individual business owners in our area may be looking at new opportunities to replace high-cost trucking with some rail service,” she observed. “For me, this creates an opportunity for all of us to start asking questions and looking for new ways of doing business and frankly new businesses to bring into our area.”
And Dozier sees perhaps a more cooperative partner when it comes to infrastructure matters.
“There is a rail bridge near Lake Lafayette that has had issues in the past and it has been a real struggle to address those issues. So whether we’re talking about economic development or general working with the community when things like that come up, I’m really excited about this!”
However one thing a new railroad owner can’t provide is passenger rail service. That is all up to Amtrak. And Kristin Dozier’s commission and agency colleague Bryan Desloge already has the word from Amtrak that North Florida’s chance of ever seeing a passenger train again is next to zero.
This article first appeared on news.wjct.org
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