Sunday, September 20, 2009

Conch Train

Streets blocked by trains, it happens all over the island as these convoys snake around the town showing off all that there is to see in a ninety minute tour. And as though that were not enough one can even take an alternative, the all-weather trolley car:
The shtick is the train, in a nod to Flagler's original Over The Sea Railroad:The drivers of the lightly disguised Jeeps treat this as a railroading experience around town. All Aboard!
There are a number of depots, train stops, around town and passengers can take a break and get off at any one of them.
The stops offer lots of different key West related dust catchers including mugs, ash trays and t-shirts of course:
And a place to sit in the shade when you are all shopped out:
This is the other depot on Front Street at the top end of Duval:
Like good train drivers everywhere the station is place to recharge one's batteries:
I think the fare has gone up to $22 a person which seems like a deal to me. The drivers are trained to give the same speech in the same spots as they drive around highlighting architecture and history and quirky stuff to keep the passengers amused. The amusement for people trapped in their cars behind these slow moving trains is a little less obvious.
The drivers keep to a speed not much above walking pace, and they spend huge amounts of time pulling away from traffic lights. The deal here is to catch as many red lights as you decently can to be able to take the time to expound on the story telling.
Lane splitting in Florida is not legal and it's probably wise as drivers here pay as little attention to their driving as drivers elsewhere in the US. But the temptation to sneak past these slow moving machines can be overwhelming:
The Conch Trains cause friction in the city, of that there is no doubt. In winter especially the Citizen's Voice reverberates with complaints from people who live alongside the routes and hear the same portion of the driver's spiel a dozen times a day. Drivers moan all the time about get the streets getting clogged by these dinosaurs ambling along. The trains fight back with their own propaganda:
For my part I just try to avoid them and use one of the many alternative streets paralleling their routes:Historic Tours of America operates these trains in several other cities all over America: St Augustine, Savannah, San Diego, Boston and the District of Columbia as well as a ferry to the Dry Tortugas and amphibious tours of the nation's capital. The duck tour of the Potomac is an ironic one for someone living in Key West. The city just settled a suit brought by the original duck tour operator who charged the Key West with running him out of town and giving an illegal "tour monopoly" to ed Swift's HTA. Eventually the city settled the suit for eight million dollars, but now there is another tour outfit vying to run trains in Key West. The city is apparently obliged to give the new company a license to operate though it seems the deal is still being worked out. The fact that the new operator is Ed Swift's former son-in-law leads one to speculate that there is more to this than simply business competition. So much drama in such a small town.
The Conch Train is a well established operation with a maintenance facility of Flagler called the Roundhouse:
I find it hard to imagine that some new start up is going to find it easy to get established in an expensive town like this, and with a limited pool of tourists to haul around town.
Ed Swift doesn't have it easy in Key West as he is the constant target of critics who hate his trains and his developments and his influence. He has supported the former school's superintendent with a job, he supports Mayor McPherson who finds himself embroiled peripherally in the college fracas and yet I find him rather admirable and I get shot down every time I say it. He built up his fortune with his own hands, taking a chance on redeveloping Duval Street when the main drag was a wreck, and he provided his own manual labor for that task. Since then he has run for public office and served as a county commissioner. He speaks up in favor of affordable housing and has built a great deal of it. He pays, I am told a decent wage to the Conch Train people. His high end development at the Steam Plant included a separate affordable apartment complex alongside and on Stock Island he alone has built the Meridian West complex which is decent housing on an island filled with substandard mobile homes. In short he puts his money where his mouth is and has a commitment to Key West that not many newcomers to the city, even the ones with money, can emulate.Of course he does plague the city with his trains and that, for a lot of people is unforgivable and i rather think there is a lot of glee at the expectation that he will now face competition on that front, even though that same competition will put yet more trains on our streets. I always recommend a Conch Train tour to guests if they have the least bit of interest in the history of Key West. I wonder if in the future I will be recommending the new outfit as well.