By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; June 27, 2023
Welcome to the revolution. Amtrak and Brightline are friendly competitors, and America’s first intercity higher-speed private sector competition is about to begin service between Orlando and Miami in Florida. Amtrak has never had intercity service competition on that corridor. Construction is complete on Brightline’s new infrastructure, tracks and station facilities as of this month and service is set to begin no later than September 1st. If successful safety and other testing is completed before that date, service may begin earlier in the summer. Brightline tickets are now on sale for September 1st and later.
It was reported in this space a year ago, July 2022, that at the time Florida’s sole daily passenger train, the Silver Star (the Silver Meteor was suspended due to COVID) was not only running an 18-car train, but the train was fully booked.
Normally, both the southbound Silver Star and Silver Meteor passenger loads begin to thin out south of Orlando and Kissimmee in Central Florida as passengers detrain for Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and other central Florida powerhouse tourist attractions. Not on the trip reported. The train boarded two coaches full of passengers in Jacksonville, and at Winter Park and Orlando, while there was good turn-over, the conductors announced the train would be fully sold out south of Orlando and every seat would be occupied. The next major stop after Orlando and Kissimmee was Tampa and, again, while a large group of passengers detrained, the train refilled for the further southbound run to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The northbound return trip a week later was similarly a full train.
When the Silver Meteor finally returned months later, both the Meteor and Star have since continued to do well, as the two trains historically have since the Silver Meteor began service in 1939 and the Silver Star followed as part of the post-World War II streamliner revolution in 1947. Since the first day of Amtrak on May 1, 1971, the Florida trains have never faltered, racking up impressive revenue, load factors and ridership.
Since Henry Flagler with his Florida East Coast Railway and arch-rival Henry Plant on the west coast of Florida with his Plant System railroad in the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century created modern Florida, passenger trains have constantly been bringing summer tourists and Winter snowbirds to the Sunshine State. Literally thousands of tourists a day on fleets of passenger trains arrived year after year, including during the Great Depression years.
The invention of modern commercial air conditioning became widely available in the late 1950s and early 1960s, opening Florida and other warm-weather states on a year-round basis. Walt Disney World opened in Central Florida on October 1, 1971 (exactly five months to the day after the first day of Amtrak), creating new and exciting reasons for tourists to come to Florida half a century ago, and they have never stopped coming.
In calendar year 2022, Florida hosted 137,600,000 tourists, a record number of both domestic and international tourists. Additionally, Florida is the country’s third most populous state behind California and Texas with an estimated 22,250,000 denizens, an increase of 706,597 residents since the last formal U.S. Census was conducted in 2020.
Compare the number of visitors to Florida with the entire permanent population of Canada of 40,000,000 and Florida has nearly three and a half times of tourists versus the permanent population of Canada.
Florida is a state which rose from a swampy, mosquito-infested terrain to a population-filled behemoth due to the 19th Century vision of two entrepreneurs who both owned railroads which loved to run passenger trains. And, passenger trains have never stopped serving Florida. But, now a totally new wrinkle in passenger trains has entered Florida, prompting a 21st Century Golden Age of passenger trains: higher-speed passenger trains with 16 roundtrips a day between Orlando and Miami on brand new track with brand new rolling stock.
Amtrak continues to offer two roundtrips a day between Orlando and Miami; private-industry competitor Brightline offers 16 roundtrips a day, beginning September 1, 2023.
Here is the latest press release from Brightline with all of the details:
June 21, 2023
Orlando, Florida – Brightline, the only provider of modern, eco-friendly, intercity rail in America, celebrated the completion of construction to Orlando, paving the way for the launch of service between Central and South Florida this summer. To mark the completion of construction, mayors representing Brightline station cities along with Brightline Orlando construction team members gathered to celebrate with a roundtable conversation on transportation and economic impact in Florida.
Brightline’s Orlando expansion broke ground in June 2019, one year after operations began in South Florida between its Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations. Additional stations were opened in downtown Boca Raton and Aventura in 2022 as construction to Orlando continued. Brightline is the first private entity to deliver an intercity rail system since Henry Flagler built the railroad more than a century ago.
Brightline construction (Phase I & II) generated more than 10,000 jobs and more than $6.4 billion in economic impact to the state of Florida (according to economic studies). Construction teams worked more than seven million hours battling through the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages to finish the 170 mile corridor extension.
Mayors from Brightline’s station cities in Miami, Aventura, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Orlando gathered to celebrate this economic and engineering achievement with a conversation focused on the future impact of connecting the state of Florida with intercity passenger rail. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss, Aventura Mayor Howard Weinberg and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez attended the event held in Brightline’s Orlando Station at Orlando International Airport.
Mayors, members of Brightline’s construction management team and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority commemorated the end of construction with the creation of an iconic photo that symbolizes the connection between Miami and Orlando by rail.
The Next Phase
Brightline is continuing critical high speed train testing throughout the corridor between West Palm Beach and Orlando and will test up to 110 mph through Brevard County in July.
In addition to testing, Brightline recently completed its final rail and track cutover on the 170-mile project, which integrates a new second track into the existing corridor. Once testing is complete, brightline will conduct crew certification and revenue service demonstration.
Brightline’s Orlando extension project is divided into four zones, which includes a state-of-the-art vehicle maintenance facility, tenant buildout of the Orlando station at Orlando International Airport, 56 bridges, three underpasses and upgrades to 156 railroad crossings.
Zone 1 – Basecamp – Brightline’s vehicle maintenance facility – located on a 62-acre site south of Orlando International Airport. The 138,000 square foot facility spans the length of two football fields and is large enough to service 16 trains daily with a fully-automated train wash and an 80,000 gallon biodiesel fuel farm.
Brightline Orlando Station – 37,350 square foot train station located in Orlando International Airport’s new 80,000 square foot Train Station. The train station connects directly to the airport’s new Terminal C and the automated people mover “Terminal Link” connects the Train Station to the rest of the airport facilities including Terminal A and B in under five minutes. Station buildout includes signature Mary Mary Bar, MRKT Place, a BrightKids children’s play area and SMART and PREMIUM lounges.
Zone 2 – This 3.5 mile section is located in the heart of Orlando International Airport and represents one of the most complex and challenging areas of construction for the entire project. The engineered double track travels under active airport taxiways and over tug roads and includes six bridges, two underpasses and several airport improvements, including a new traffic interchange configuration and the airport’s first roundabout designed to assist with traffic flow.
Zone 3 – The 35-mile corridor of new rail alignment follows the Beachline Expressway/State Road 528 corridor between Orlando International Airport and Cocoa. Efforts include 3 million cubic yards of excavation, 5.4 million cubic yards of embankment fill, 865,000 square feet of mechanically stabilized earth into permanent retaining walls, 100,000 linear feet of piling, 18 new bridges, three underpasses, drainage installations, track and signalization installation and 60 track miles of new rail.
Zone 4 – This 129-mile corridor of existing track between Cocoa and West Palm Beach was upgraded from Class IV to VI (allowing service up to 110 MPH) and included a second main track built parallel to the existing track. Work includes the shift of 56 miles of existing track, construction of 100 miles of new Class VI track within the existing right of way, rehabilitation of 28 miles of existing sidings, the installation or relocation of approximately 80 turnouts and crossovers, relocation of fiber duct parallel to the ROW, and upgrades and added improvements to 156 railroad crossings. Work also included replacement of 19 bridges including two movable bridges, the replacement of the Loxahatchee River Bridge and the rehabilitation of the St. Lucie River Bridge.
Safety Components and crossings
Brightline has made crucial safety improvements at all 156 railroad crossings along the 129-mile corridor from Cocoa to West Palm Beach. Those improvements vary per crossing, but include new crossing gates, signal systems, pedestrian gates, pavement markings and roadway profiles. Where trains will operate above 79 mph, crossings have quad gates or medians to prevent motorists from driving around lowered crossing gates.
Brightline is working closely with community partners, government agencies and news media to spread the word and highlight rail safety via multiple channels including on social media and through public service announcements.
Completion of engineering achievements include
- Over two million spikes and bolts
- 2.3 million tons of granite and limestone transported by 20,000 railcars
- 225 million pounds of 100 percent recycled American steel
- 6 million cubic yards of rail embankment fill
- 450,000 concrete ties made in Fort Pierce, Florida
Brightline used a box-jacking method for the first time outside the northeast to build two train underpasses in a fraction of the time it would take using conventional methods. Precast concrete boxes under two Central Florida roadways took just weeks to complete, compared to traditional underpass methods that would have shut down local roadways for nearly a year. Hydraulic jacks were used to move the concrete boxes, each weighing more than 3,000 tons, the equivalent of 15 Boeing 757’s, standing three stories high and holding three semi-trucks end-to-end. The installation moved at approximately 3 feet per hour, running 24/7.
The St. Lucie River Bridge, Martin County
Among the work on 56 bridges connecting Central to South Florida on the Brightline route was the rehabilitation of the 100-year-old St. Lucie River railroad bridge in Stuart, Florida. Brightline crews worked 24/7 in May 2023 to complete the infrastructure work that included the replacement of the mechanical, electrical and control components of the bridge. Boaters will now see several benefits, including dependability of bridge openings and closings, which will reduce the risk of extended unplanned closures.
The Loxahatchee River Bridge, Jupiter, Palm Beach County
The second movable bridge on the project, the 583-foot long Loxahatchee River railroad bridge in Jupiter, Florida was built in 1926, and was replaced with a brand-new structure bringing improved reliability and efficiency to the bridge in 2022. Due to the type of construction work and necessary safety precautions, installation of the new drawbridge took place over a seven-week period in April and May of 2022. Brightline rehab work on the bridge also included full replacement of the electrical system and operating machinery and the addition of a second track. Boaters now see improved dependability of bridge openings and closings and additional clearance for small watercraft. A new small craft navigation span was added at the south end of the bridge, increasing the vertical clearance by 14” to allow more vessels to pass without the need to open the drawbridge.
New Track for the Fastest Train in Florida
In March 2023, Brightline became the fastest train in Florida and the Southeastern United States after reaching speeds of 130 mph. The momentous accomplishment took place while Brightline conducted train testing along its new 35-mile dedicated rail corridor between Orlando International Airport and Cocoa, Florida. The new tracks were built along the Beachline Expressway/State Road 528, fenced in and with no grade crossings.
Tickets Now On Sale
Guests can purchase tickets for service between Orlando and South Florida (Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach) from September through early 2024 at gobrightline.com or by downloading the app. Brightline will offer one-way SMART fares starting at $79 for adults and $39 for kids and one-way PREMIUM fares start at $149. Groups of 4+ automatically save an additional 25 percent on SMART fares. For more information on Brightline Orlando, visit www.gobrightline.com/Orlando.
Brightline is the only provider of modern, eco-friendly, higher-speed rail service in America. The company currently serves Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, with its Orlando Station beginning service in Summer 2023. Brightline was recognized by Fast Company as one of the Most Innovative Companies in Travel, offering a guest-first experience designed to reinvent train travel and take cars off the road. Brightline plans to bring its award-winning service to additional city pairs and congested corridors across the country that are too close to fly and too long to drive, with immediate plans to connect Las Vegas to Southern California. For more information, visit www.gobrightline.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
– End of press release
The story of Brightline is extensive. The company is a hospitality company which happens to run a passenger railroad, and the focus on passenger comfort, service and amenities is impressive. As a hospitality company, Brightline has attempted to consider just about every aspect of corridor intercity travel for both local Florida residents and both domestic and international tourists. Brightline has a strong emphasis on Americans With Disabilities Act accommodations which blend in pleasantly with needs for other passengers.
Food service – in stations as well as onboard – is well-designed and plentiful. As with most hospitality companies, employees which deal with passengers are pleasant, well-informed and helpful.
Stations, designed as money-makers on their own beyond serving arriving and departing passengers, are designed and purpose-built for a modern intercity service.
Perhaps the only service which seems to be less than perfect is handling passenger baggage. While each passenger car has storage room for baggage, it will be interesting to see once full tourist season and full trains arrive with lots of international passengers traveling between Florida’s two main tourism areas if the onboard baggage storage areas can accommodate what is likely to be a lot more than traditional carry-on luggage without a dedicated checked baggage service.
In other positive areas Brightline has solved the first mile/last mile problem with the ability to book Uber car service when booking a ticket for within five miles of entraining/detraining stations. Brightline bicycles are also available for local use at stations as well as rental car services. Parking garages have monthly passes available for those using the service as a commuter service in South Florida or otherwise frequently ride Brightline.
Brightline’s Orlando terminal is part of Orlando International Airport and stations in Fort Lauderdale and the downtown MiamiCentral station also are designed to offer convenient connections to cruise ships in those two cities.
A highly important aspect is the ease-of-use of Brightline’s website at www.gobrightline.com. The website is chocked-full of useful information and locating fares and departure times is quick and easy.
Brightline is already hard at work figuring out how to extend its service from Orlando to the resort area in Central Florida and then into downtown Tampa on Florida’s west coast. Ultimately, Brightline also plans to run trains the entire length of Florida’s peninsula and Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad from MiamiCentral station to Jacksonville, recreating Florida’s original passenger train service which has been gone since the 1960s.
Brightline West is barreling along buying land, creating and building a new, 100% electrified service from Las Vegas to Southern California via Victorville into Rancho Cucamonga and ultimately into Los Angeles Union Station.
Again, welcome to the revolution; it’s begun in tropical Florida. Amtrak will continue to bring tourists into Florida, and Brightline will move locals and tourists which arrive by air. With 137,600,000 tourists coming to Florida from all over the world and 22,250,000 permanent residents of Florida (with the state growing an over of 800 new residents a day), there is plenty of business for everyone. In a world where competition breeds benefits for consumers, Brightline and Amtrak should both find the sun-soaked passenger train pool of users pleasant and plentiful.