The team building the 32-mile-long first phase of a $1.2-billion Central Florida commuter rail project, which endured years of political delay, is making its way through a unique set of coordination challenges to get the first trains moving next spring.

The $168.1-million design-build-maintain contract for Phase 1—held by a joint venture of Archer Western Contractors, Tampa, and RailWorks Track Systems, New York City—is transforming an active freight line into a hybrid system that is passenger-centric during commuter hours. The first phase of the total 62-mile SunRail line, which stretches 32 miles from DeBary in Volusia County to Sand Lake Road in Orange County, is about 85% done.

The contract includes reconstructing more than 70 of the section's 96 grade crossings, installing 18 miles of double-tracking and building platforms for a dozen stations. Work also calls for an overhaul of existing signal and dispatch systems.

When finished, the line, with ongoing Amtrak service, will handle commuter traffic during the day and evening. The former system owner, CSX, will continue to use the corridor overnight for freight.

Continuing freight service on a passenger rail project—funded partly by a Federal Transit Administration grant—resulted in the first twist. Both the FTA and the Federal Railroad Administration, which typically oversees freight rail, are involved.

"That's not the norm," says Mike Gwynne, senior project engineer for HNTB, the firm leading the construction-engineering inspection team. "You typically don't have two federal agencies with jurisdiction over the same stretch of corridor."

The 62-mile section, now known as the Central Florida Rail Corridor (CFRC), will be owned and operated by the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT), which has never before run a railroad. That is another challenge.

Targeting late July or early September, Bombardier, working for FDOT, will take over dispatch for the 62-mile stretch, with CSX picking up duties on either side of the CFRC. HNTB's Gwynne calls the situation "unique."

"Normally, railroads (don't) dispatch trains across a territory that they don't own and maintain," he says.

The arrangement has had an impact on design and construction.

Start and Stop

The SunRail plan endured years as a political football within the Florida Legislature. Finally, the project began to move forward, and in February 2009, FDOT named the Archer Western/RailWorks joint venture as its apparent low bidder for a design-build-maintain contract. Then, the project stalled. Shortly after his election in January 2010, Gov. Rick Scott (R) suspended SunRail for review.

Eighteen months later, on July 1, 2011, the governor announced his approval. Four days after that, FDOT issued its first notice to proceed for design work. To make a January 2012 construction start, the joint venture scrambled to reassemble its original staff, which was no longer in place, says James Lapp, project manager for Archer Western.

Significant design changes awaited the Archer Western/RailWorks team, working with Parsons Transportation Group, the engineer of record.

"They were looking to change the alignment, station platforms and the configuration of the yard for the control center," Lapp says. "They more or less changed everything except a bridge and (some) crash walls."