MIAMI -- The first big test of whether privately owned high-speed passenger train service can prosper in the United States is set to start today when Florida's Brightline begins running trains between Miami and Orlando, reaching speeds of 125 mph.
It's a $5 billion bet Brightline's owner, Fortress Investment Group, is making, believing that eventually 8 million people annually will take the 3.5-hour, 235-mile trip between the state's biggest tourist hubs. The company is charging single riders $158 round-trip for business class and $298 for first-class, with families and groups able to buy four round-trip tickets for $398. Thirty-two trains will run daily.
Brightline, which began running its neon-yellow trains the 70 miles between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018, is the first private intercity passenger service to begin U.S. operations in a century. It's also building a line connecting Southern California and Las Vegas that it hopes to open in 2027 with trains that will reach 190 mph. The only other U.S. high-speed line is Amtrak's Acela service between Boston and Washington, D.C., which began in 2000.
"This is a pretty important moment, whether you're thinking about it in the context of the state of Florida or what it might mean for these kinds of products as they develop elsewhere in the United States," Brightline Chief Executive Officer Mike Reininger said in a recent interview. "The idea that my car is the only way for me to get where I need to go is being challenged by a new product. A new product that's safer, that's greener, that is a great value proposition (and) it's fun."
The Florida trains, which run on biodiesel, will travel up to 79 mph in urban areas, 110 mph in less-populated regions and 125 mph through central Florida's farmland. Brightline plans possible extensions to Tampa and Jacksonville.
John Renne, director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, said the Miami-Orlando corridor is a perfect spot for high-speed rail -- about 40 million Floridians and visitors make the trip annually, with more than 90% of them driving.
If Brightline succeeds that could lead to more high-speed lines between major cities 200 to 300 miles apart, both by Brightline and competitors, he said.
"It is quite exciting for South Florida to kind of be a test bed for what could be seen as a new paradigm for transportation, particularly high-speed rail transportation, in the United States," Renne said.
Because Brightline is privately owned and seeking a profit, it was more sensitive to getting the project completed quickly to save money. On the government side, Renne pointed to California's effort to build a high-speed rail system. Approved by voters in 2008, it isn't near fruition, has already cost billions more than expected and its prospects for completion are uncertain as finding a route through mountains is proving difficult and politicians added dubious side projects. Brightline began planning in 2012.
Brightline's development has suffered setbacks, though. Covid-19 shut down the Miami-West Palm Beach line for 17 months. A 2018 partnership with Richard Branson's Virgin Group to rebrand Brightline as Virgin Trains USA quickly soured. Brightline terminated the partnership in 2020 and Virgin sued in London. According to the lawsuit, Brightline says Virgin "ceased to constitute a brand of international high repute, largely because of matters related to the pandemic." That case is pending.
Then there is the question of safety for residents near the tracks.
Brightline trains have the highest death rate in the U.S., fatally striking 98 people since Miami-West Palm operations began -- about one death for every 32,000 miles its trains travel, according to an ongoing Associated Press analysis of federal data that began in 2019. The next-worst major railroad has a fatality every 130,000 miles.
None of the deaths have been found to be Brightline's fault -- most have been suicides, drivers who go around crossing gates or pedestrians running across tracks. The company hasn't had a fatality since June, its longest stretch except during the pandemic shutdown.
Still, the company's fatality rate concerns officials in the extension area.
Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers said a Brightline official seemed callous during a recent meeting, saying he seemed more worried about explaining Brightline's procedure for getting passengers to their destination after an accident than how it deals with deaths.
"They don't seem to have any empathy for our community. We're just in their way," said Flowers, whose county includes Vero Beach. "It's a cost of doing business for them that they're going to run some people over."
Brightline leaders say they have taken steps to enhance safety, including adding closed-circuit cameras near tracks, installing better crossing gates and pedestrian barriers and posting signage that includes the suicide prevention hotline.
"We have invested heavily in the infrastructure so that we have a safe corridor," Reininger said. "We continue to operate literally every day with safety at top of mind."
Reininger said most of Brightline's Miami-Orlando passengers will come from those who drive the route regularly and others who stay home because they hate the drive. Prime targets are families headed to Orlando's theme parks and travelers to South Florida's nightlife, concerts, sports and cruises.
The drive between Miami and Orlando takes about four hours each way on Florida's Turnpike with round-trip tolls costing between $40 and $60. Gas costs between $50 and $80, plus wear and tear on the vehicle.
Reininger said his company's challenge is to convince travelers that its trains' amenities make any extra cost worthwhile.
"It's the value of your time," Reininger said. The train "gives you the ability to use your time that you are dedicating to travel in any number of ways that you can't do when you are behind the wheel."
Robert Barr, who lives near Miami and publishes guides on rum and South Florida locales, has taken Brightline to West Palm Beach and looks forward to traveling the line to Orlando. He said Brightline's accommodations "compare really well to some of the best trains" he's taken in Europe, where high-speed rail between cities is common.
"You've got comfortable seats and a relatively quiet ride. It feels very modern," said Barr.