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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Arriving now: Fast passenger trains from Miami to Orlando

Erin Lachaal, right, photographs Steve Coffed and their dog, Marvin, before they board a Brightline train bound for Miami at the station in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

By Patricia Mazzei and Niraj Chokshi

The fastest train in the country outside of the Northeast began service between Miami and Orlando late last week, connecting two major cities in car-loving Florida and testing whether private passenger rail can thrive in the United States.

Brightline will make the trip in 3 1/2 hours, about 30 minutes faster than the average car ride, reaching speeds of 125 mph. Tickets from Miami to Orlando start at $158 round trip for business class and $298 for first class, with discounts for families and larger groups.

Brightline became the nation’s first private passenger rail to launch in a century when it started its service between Miami and West Palm Beach, where the company’s trains do not reach such high speeds, in 2018.

If Brightline proves profitable in Florida, it could represent a turning point for American passenger rail. The last private intercity passenger train — the Rio Grande Zephyr, which connected Denver and Salt Lake City — shut down four decades ago. Since then, domestic rail travel has mainly been limited to Amtrak, the publicly funded but privately operated corporation, and a smattering of regional commuter and transit lines.

“This is an extraordinary development in U.S. transportation,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University, referring to Brightline’s rise. Schwieterman also wrote “When the Railroad Leaves Town,” a book about the decline of American railroads.

The company’s success in the state has been marred by a striking number of pedestrian fatalities on its tracks that continued even as one of its neon-colored trains made the maiden trip to Orlando on Friday morning. A train traveling southbound from West Palm Beach killed a pedestrian on the tracks while the Orlando-bound train made its way north, underscoring questions about the safety of residents near the rail line. Brightline trains have the highest death rate in the U.S., according to an ongoing Associated Press analysis.

Ninety-eight people have been killed by Brightline trains since 2019, according to the AP. Most of the deaths have been suicides, drivers going through crossing gates or pedestrians running across the tracks. A spokesperson for the Delray Beach Police Department said that the death Friday appeared to be a suicide.

“We have made tremendous investments in the safety of the corridor,” P. Michael Reininger, Brightline’s CEO, said aboard the maiden train, the Brightpink, whose passengers could see police investigators collecting evidence on the southbound tracks as it slowed in Delray Beach. “We’ve worked really hard in terms of outreach to make sure that the local communities are aware of our train service coming. We work with local law enforcement.”

Passenger rail was introduced in the United States two centuries ago and survived several economic and national crises. But rising competition from airlines and highways after World War II devastated the industry. By 1970, railroads were in such dire straits that the federal government created Amtrak to take over passenger rail, allowing the industry to focus on freight.

Amtrak has crushed the competition for travel in the Northeast Corridor that connects Washington, New York and Boston. When it launched its high-speed Acela line along that stretch in 2000, only about 37% of people traveling between New York and Washington made the trip by rail, compared with flying. That share grew to 83% by the 2021 fiscal year.

More than a decade ago, Florida considered the possibility of high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, when the Obama administration offered $2.4 billion for the project. But then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, rejected the funds in 2011, saying the rail would be too expensive for the state to operate.

Brightline received no federal grants for construction but did get billions of dollars in investment through tax-exempt bonds. Its service could eventually stretch to Tampa and get new stations along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Reininger said.

This year, Brightline submitted an application for a $3.75 billion federal grant to help it build an ambitious $12 billion electric high-speed railroad from Las Vegas to Southern California. Brightline says it has finished the first, most difficult phase of that project, which includes completing environmental reviews and securing right of way, most of it along a highway median.

Construction is set to begin before the end of the year, with the aim of having the train running in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

For the company, the true test of its business will be whether it can attract enough passengers to turn a profit.

Brightline’s service between Miami and West Palm Beach has so far appealed to both tourists and business types — especially lawyers, real estate agents and medical providers who work in several Florida cities. Now that there is service to Orlando, Brightline President Patrick Goddard said he expects leisure travelers will make up 60% of passengers, including international travelers more comfortable with trains than rental cars.

Because of the pandemic, Brightline paused service throughout most of 2020 and 2021. It carried more than 1.2 million passengers last year but also reported a $260 million loss, driven by startup and development costs, according to a financial disclosure. So far this year, Brightline has carried more passengers than in 2022 and has collected over $38 million in revenue, more than double what it earned over the same period last year.

Experts credit its successful start to factors including support from local officials, lucrative development of the real estate surrounding the company’s stations, booming tourism, robust population growth and persistent highway congestion. With the Everglades to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, there is also limited ability to expand roadways along a substantial stretch of Brightline’s route.

But perhaps the most important reason behind the company’s success so far, experts and Brightline officials said, is that it was able to establish itself mostly on an existing freight railroad, the same one that put Florida on the map more than a century ago. Because of that, Brightline was able to avoid the perilous task of cobbling together a right of way over hundreds of miles.

On Friday, the Brightpink arriving from Miami notably sped up on the final stretch of track from Cocoa to Orlando, where trains can go fastest. Among the passengers on a later train to Miami were Pam and Jeff Landry of Tampa, who bought tickets in advance to ride Brightline on the first day of the service from Orlando.

“We love trains,” said Pam Landry, 59, as she cuddled the couple’s year-old mini Dachshund, Sedona. “We rode them all over Europe.”

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