Bonita Springs Florida Weekly

FAST TRAIN

Will expanded Brightline change the way Florida travels?



Will expanded Brightline change the way Florida travels?

Will expanded Brightline change the way Florida travels?

When Brightline fast trains finally made their initial runs between Miami and the newly opened train station in Terminal C at Orlando International Airport starting the first day of autumn — a 235-mile trip of about 3.5 hours envisioned more than a decade ago, and currently with four stops en route — owners and riders appeared ecstatic.

For good reason.

“It’s what people in America have been asking for, for decades — rail comparable to Europe and Asia,” says Bill Pooritt, Brightline’s senior vice president of corporate affairs. “We’re all desperate for different ways to get there. We want and desire eco-friendly transportation wherever we are. Fortunately in Florida, we were able to do this and put it in place.” Travelers who have used the nation’s only privately owned train service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami since 2018 were not surprised the longer runs went so smoothly.

“Traffic is so horrible in Miami you have to plan your life around what time you’re riding in a car,” says Mark Alexander, formerly an engineer for Exxon Comp USA and now president of Mark Alexander Commercial Realty. He moved from Miami to Fort Lauderdale in 2019.

The new Brightline train connection from Miami to Orlando makes the 235-mile trip in about 3.5 hours. At left are the stations at Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Aventura (from top to bottom).

The new Brightline train connection from Miami to Orlando makes the 235-mile trip in about 3.5 hours. At left are the stations at Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Aventura (from top to bottom).

“A drive from Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami with no traffic — like in the middle of the night — takes 40 minutes. Rush hour, that same trip can take two-plus hours.”

A Brightline train from Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami during rush hour or any other time, however, takes about 35 minutes. “And you travel in the lap of luxury,” Alexander adds.

The commuting experience has been so rewarding, apparently, Brightline was able to report almost 1 million riders in the first six months of this year, officials say. Stops and sophisticated new stations north of Miami now include Aventura and Boca Raton, in addition to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Between two of the most heavily visited cities in the United States — Miami and Orlando — “there’s a tremendous amount of business travel back and forth, and we give you a productive and amazing trip,” Pooritt says.

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

You can’t get on your laptop or your cellphone, or for that matter gaze vacantly out the window, if you’re driving.

“The value of productivity, the peace of mind and the reliability is what Brightline offers. And every hour between these regions, if you happen to miss a train there’s one right behind it.”

A near million riders in six months is a far cry from the 8 million riders each year Brightline officials hope for in years to come, but nevertheless impressive given the times. That was almost double the number who rode Brightline in the previous year, following an 18-month hiatus when COVID swept the state and the country.

The plum in the pudding, however, is Orlando. Roughly a month after the first run, the company — now owned by Fortress Investment Group, an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, according to news reports — has upped service to the maximum number of daily trips planned: 16 round trips. That means 32 trains traveling north or south each day, slowing to a mere 70 or 80 mph in towns where the train doesn’t stop, the company has said.

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

Although Brightline expansion led to legal squabbles over road-widening projects and the locations of railroad crossings for cars and trucks, costing taxpayers several millions after out-of-court settlements between the company and local governments, those troubles now seem to lie in the past.

Now Brightline is looking to take its next steps.

Going forward

The competition is on between communities in Martin and St. Lucie counties to win the company’s approval as the newest stop, serving the Treasure Coast.

Although Brightline officials have not said where that will be — the announcement will come in the next 24 months, with a station operating in five years, they’ve promised — train supporters in both Stuart and Fort Pierce are vying for the lucrative prize. Vero Beach in Indian River County also may be a possibility.

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

“We think Brightline will think this is the right place,” says Linda Hudson, mayor of Fort Pierce.

“All of St. Lucie County, including the residents of Fort Pierce, are in support of a station here, and it will either be here or in Martin County. The staff and I are working closely with Brightline officials, and our transportation committee has set aside $360,000 (to study and identify the most favorable location in Fort Pierce).”

There are three possibilities, she said, “but the one with fewer obstacles is near the intersection on Orange Avenue and U.S. 1, across from the federal courthouse where the Trump trial (scheduled for next May) will take place.”

One of the attractions, in the mayor’s mind, is that “people will drive from the Treasure Coast to use the station here.”

In distances, a train ride from West Palm Beach to Stuart would be about 40 miles, and from West Palm to Fort Pierce almost 70 miles, with Vero Beach an additional 20 miles north of that.

The Orlando Brightline station, above, and ticketing and security station, at left.

The Orlando Brightline station, above, and ticketing and security station, at left.

Fort Pierce lies about 120 miles from Orlando.

Answering the question about location for a new station and making it happen is only one of two goals Brightline aims to reach or at least begin this decade, the company has said. The other is construction of tracks west across the state from Orlando to Tampa, a distance of about 85 miles.

That would take a lot more cars off the road and would require a lot more burden sharing between the private train company and public interests.

“What I always say is, even though we’re a private company, it’s still a good example of a public-private partnership,” explains Pooritt. “Everywhere we operate and operate through, we build significant and strong relationships with everybody in the community.”

And not just in Florida. While this work moves forward, Brightline’s western branch is planning what would become the nation’s only high-speed train dedicated to service between just two stops, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. About 50,000 cars a day cross the California-Nevada border between those cities. They lie about 270 miles apart, and that train would be able to achieve 200 mph speeds, Brightline officials have said.

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

The effect

Brightline trains have given the southeastern and south central coast of Florida what Europe has, or what the northeastern United States has had for decades, according to officials: a chance to get out from behind the wheel.

“The northeast corridor is a tremendous service provided by Amtrak — a great model for what other parts of the nation could have,” says Pooritt.

Especially in the nation’s third most populous state, where crowding, fuel emissions and climate change with more intense storms all threaten future generations of Floridians, that’s significant.

The West Palm Beach Brightline station is in the heart of downtown. BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

The West Palm Beach Brightline station is in the heart of downtown. BRIGHTLINE / COURTESY IMAGES

Brightline describes itself as having a “100% carbon-neutral footprint” in the Sunshine State.

Additionally in Florida, “we help remove 3 million cars from the road each year,” the company has said.

The stations have FPL Solar Trees that can power and provide shade to its facilities, along with charging stations for electric vehicles.

In effect, Brightline has taken a 19th-century technology into 21st-century living, not just in its American-made diesel-electric trains but in the infrastructure. The company built new bridges across the St. Sebastian River, and brought the rusty, century-old bridge over the St. Lucie up to par, although it remains a single-track bridge and will one day need to be replaced, officials have said.

Why have Americans been so slow getting to this point, when Europeans and Asians have been there for decades?

“When the rest of the world was investing in high-speed rail, we were building the greatest highway and freight transportation system in the world,” Pooritt explains.

“But now we need to look at our transportation corridors and give them new life and new value. In Florida, Brightline is using a freight system corridor we’ve modernized and updated. But between Orlando and Cocoa Beach (about 60 miles) we worked to build track in a new corridor. That’s a glimpse into what can be done.”

Modernizing the old corridors is no easy task, either.

“The St. Lucie River Bridge is one of the only pieces of single-track infrastructure left on the corridor,” Pooritt notes.

“A lot of people came together to get a new bridge — and that’s what it takes. We have community partners and elected partners working together.”

The work on that old bridge, to date, included “the replacement of the mechanical, electrical and control components,” the company has said.

“In the end, adds Pooritt, “we will get a bridge double-tracked and better for both passengers and the freight system movement of goods up and down the corridor.”

Not only that, but boaters will benefit several ways, including from reliable bridge schedules for opening and closing.

Is it worth it?

Alexander is unequivocal: This is worth the price of admission for tourists on the long trip or commuters on a short one.

“An attendant pushes a beverage/snack car around selling items (even) for that short trip. So nice. My daughter lives in Fort Lauderdale and recently attended the Drake concert in Miami with friends. She took the Brightline to and from the concert.”

Easy to ride, safer, more fun, and competitively priced, as well.

“The experience is similar to boarding a plane at the airport,” Alexander explains, “but much easier. The terminals are new and much smaller than an airport’s. The trains are new and so nice and roomy. It’s better than any first-class seat on a commercial airline.”

The trains have Wi-Fi and a broad range of other amenities including level boarding that meets ADA standards, and ergonomic seating. The coaches also have wider seats than any commercial aircraft made by Boeing, which typically give passengers either 17 or 18 inches, depending on the plane model.

Seats on Brightline’s trains are either 19- or 21-inches wide. But for how much?

In mid-October, prices to or from Miami and Orlando started at $79 for a “smart” ticket, and cost $149 for the luxury ticket.

By comparison, an Amtak trip of less than 200 miles between Boston and New York City, where trains are a way of life, also takes longer: about four hours on the Northeast Regional. The average ticket price for that journey is $169, according to busbud.com.

In New York, about 500,000 people a day use Penn Station, with service from the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, according to Amtrak.

Meanwhile, Greyhound bus tickets from Miami to Orlando start at $23, the company says, with an average price of about $36.

Speed is not the virtue of buses. The fastest bus makes the journey in just over five hours, barring traffic back-ups or congestion. But the slow bus is a seven hour, 20-minute ride with more stops.

Although Brightline is comparatively fast, on the Florida tracks it barely qualifies as “high-speed rail” in the standard established by the U.S. Department of transportation, which cites a minimum of 125 mph for that qualification.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Acela Train in New England was able to describe itself as the first “bullet” train in the U.S. because it reaches a top speed of 150 mph — but only along 18 miles of track between Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Safety issues

One thing you don’t want to do: Walk along the train tracks. In five years of Brightline operations, 99 fatalities had been reported as of the end of September, some of them intentional, police have said, and some accidental.

It happens on any tracks. Between 2012 and last year, according to Statista.com, rail “accidents and incidents” in the U.S. ranged between about 11,500 and 12,000, with injuries resulting in thousands of cases and deaths per year ranging from 702 in 2013, to 950 last year.

And don’t try to cross the tracks if the crossing’s barrier arms are down or coming down, either. “Don’t drive around the gates. It’s never OK to try to beat a train,” Pooritt states bluntly.

Whether or not they’re down, it’s imperative to look both directions anyway, before crossing, officials say.

On the first day of operations between Miami and Orlando, one of Brightline’s trainsets, as they call an engine and either four or seven passenger cars, blew through an intersection before the safety arms came down, observers said. It didn’t happen again, but the possibility suggests a need for abundant caution.

When a train is coming at 60 mph, it’s difficult to estimate how long you have to cross before it arrives. When its speed is double that, it’s probably twice as difficult.

Safety issues aside, users tout the convenience.

“It will do wonderful things economically for the region, especially now that it is connected to Orlando.

“For example, many new apartment and condo developments have been sprouting up in areas near these stations, since many who work in Miami can live farther north from Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton, and commute to work much easier with Brightline.

“Europe has a vast network of trains that their citizens use frequently but America lags behind in this area. We are making small steps to improve with the advent of Brightline in Florida.”

There’s more, and it’s good, he adds.

“The tourist industry should see a very nice boost, as families planning Disney trips can now more affordably add days to their trip anywhere from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton and West Palm Beach,” Alexander noted.

“So it will help residents and tourists. Also, it will help storm evacuations to quickly get to Central Florida from southeast Florida.”

In Alexander’s view, finally, “There are not many good things I can say about Florida these days. But Brightline is certainly one of them.” ¦

In the KNOW

TO TRY THE ORLANDO RUN:

· www.gobrightline.com/train-stations/fl/orlando

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