TAMPA — Ever since 1884, when Henry B. Plant ran the first steam engine to Tampa, trains have been contributing to the local economy.
Today, trains remain a visible part of business in Hillsborough County. On any given day, commuters are likely to encounter one — a CSX freight train hauling phosphate to Port Tampa Bay, the Amtrak Silver Star hauling people between New York City and Miami, or the Tropicana train delivering citrus juice from Central Florida up the east coast.
Tampa Union Station will open its doors to the public on Saturday to highlight its place in Tampa history and in the local economy. National Train Day is an opportunity to introduce the masses to trains and train history in Florida and to celebrate the 75th anniversary of streamline passenger service to Florida.
The day’s events run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the station, located at 601 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa and will include displays of model trains, live music, food trucks and fun activities for youngsters.
A private 1950s-era rail car called the Hollywood Beach will be there and open for touring. The Georgia 300, a private rail car used by U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and by Barack Obama on his inauguration day, will be on display.
Friends of Tampa Union Station, an all-volunteer group which advocates the preservation of the local station as a landmark and a transportation asset, will host the day’s events. There will be a display on the history of railroading and a portion of the Burgert Brothers Photograph Collection featuring trains right here in Hillsborough County.
National Train Day marks 145 years of connecting travelers coast to coast and commemorates the day the first transcontinental railroad was created and America’s love for trains and for historic depots like Tampa Union Station.
The Tampa depot is the third-busiest passenger train station in the state, after the Auto Train station in Sanford, and the Orlando Amtrak Station, said Jackson McQuigg, vice president of Friends of Tampa Union Station.
“It’s a busy place,” said Jim Langston, secretary for Friends of Tampa Union Station and a CSX employ for 29 years. “A lot of people should come (to National Train Day) for a bunch of reasons. Mostly because it’s a chance to see an historic structure actively being used here in Tampa.”
McQuigg said trains and the train station are a significant part of history in the Tampa region.
“Streamline passenger service kicked off an era of modern, more affordable travel and opened up Florida to seasonal travelers,” McQuigg said. “That was quite a significant achievement, right up there with air conditioning in making Florida what it is today.”
Amtrak operates four long-distance trains in Florida with nearly 140,000 people getting on and off at Tampa Union Station in 2013, according to the company. Amtrak employs 782 Florida residents and pays them $52.6 million, annually.
It was trains that helped develop Florida in the early days, McQuigg said, not highways. Plant on the west coast and Henry Flagler on Florida’s east coast, brought people here on their trains who may never have come, otherwise, McQuigg said.
Today, a majority of the state’s train traffic involves freight hauling.
CSX operates and maintains 2,800 miles of track in Florida with some 4,900 employees. In 2012, the company invested $142 million in its Florida network, according to its web site. Virtually all of the trains running through Hillsborough County are traveling on CSX tracks, including the tracks Amtrak uses to reach Tampa Union Station.