Brightline Passenger Train: Floridian of the Year | Floridian of the Year | Highlighted

Once upon a time, private passenger rail transportation helped create modern Florida. This year, he started reshaping Florida again, with the state becoming a national rail leader thanks to the Brightline passenger train. Brightline began service between Miami and West Palm Beach, began construction on the section to Orlando, and broached the idea of ​​extending the line to Tampa. Meanwhile, as a state-funded high-speed rail effort in California lies in shambles, Brightline’s parent company acquires a company with the rights to develop private passenger rail travel between Las Vegas and the South of California and was inundated with calls from other cities reviewing its model.

Somewhere, Henry Flagler smiles…

Gopal Rajegowda went to Columbia graduate school in New York and worked for years in Manhattan for developer Related Cos. He now runs related projects in West Palm Beach, he has ridden the new Brightline train more than 25 times since it began running between West Palm and Miami in May. .

Fast, clean, comfortable, even chic, according to Conde Nast, Brightline marks the return of private intercity passenger rail travel to America. “As a lifelong New Yorker,” says Rajegowda, “I find it fascinating and exciting that the best rail experience in the country is in Florida.”

Brightline forms strategic partnership with Virgin Group

In November, Brightline and Virgin Group announced that Virgin Group was making a “minority investment” in Brightline as part of a strategic partnership that also involves a license agreement. Brightline will rebrand itself as Virgin Trains USA this month and the transition to the Virgin Trains USA brand in 2019. Executives from Brightline and its parent company, Fortress Investment Group, will continue to manage and operate the train, the first new major private intercity passenger train in more than a year. century. In England, Virgin Group operates Virgin Trains, a high-speed intercity rail system that it has operated for 21 years. More in the press release.

Modern Florida arrived by rail with Henry Flagler, a 19th-century industrialist who co-founded Standard Oil and built what became the Florida East Coast Railway on the state’s east coast. But by the mid-1960s, intercity passenger rail travel was dwindling in the United States, disrupted by the ease and comfort of car travel on the expanding network of interstate highways. Ultimately, 20 railroads handed over their remaining passenger routes to a government-created company, Amtrak, which has operated intercity passenger service ever since, with hefty subsidies totaling more than $46 billion since 1971.

Starting in the 1980s, various governments talked about copying high-speed rail systems in Europe and Japan. Plans in Florida started and stopped under a series of governors. In 2000, Florida voters approved an amendment that enshrined high-speed rail in Florida’s Constitution, then changed their minds four years later and removed it.

The Obama administration has resurrected the idea of ​​high-speed rail in Florida and dangled $1.25 billion in federal funds to pay for half the cost of an Orlando-Tampa ride. As projected costs soared north of $20 billion for a statewide system — with the prospect of the state ending up with a big bill going to run it — Governor Rick Scott in 2011 followed the lead of other states and rejected federal money. California, which maintained the voter-mandated Los Angeles-San Francisco high-speed rail, saw its costs more than double to $77 billion in seven years. Completion – once slated for 2020 – has been pushed back to at least 2033. Funding is uncertain and California courts are littered with train-related lawsuits.

Meanwhile, in 2007, as Florida swayed over a government-run train project, New York-based private equity firm Fortress Investment Group paid $3.5 billion for Florida East Coast Industries, the freight line and real estate descending from the Flagler Railroad.

Fortress’ core strategy is to think up new ways to raise money from old assets like the Florida Railroad. Fortress co-founder Wes Edens, co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, has evolved his career from financial investments to building a business. Edens read “The Last Train to Heaven: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean” by author Les Standiford, an account of Flagler and his railroad. “In many ways, it was the train that created Florida,” Edens says.

Edens thought there might be an opportunity to reintroduce passenger service on Flagler’s old line. He sent executives from Florida’s east coast to study trains in Europe, Asia and the northeastern United States, the only region where Amtrak routes, including the Acela, are profitable. . They concluded that there was a viable niche for intercity passenger rail linking cities 250 to 300 miles apart, a distance “too short to fly, too long to drive” – ​​a phrase that has become a mantra in the industry. ‘business.

They came to another conclusion: building “high-speed” high-speed trains was too expensive. A true high-speed train can shave 30 to 45 minutes off a 300-mile journey, but if trains travel over 200 mph they become subject to a host of regulatory and logistical considerations that make the cost exorbitant. High-speed trains, for example, need a roadless corridor or need to be elevated. (One reason the California train will be so expensive is that it essentially requires building a 300-mile bridge between Los Angeles and San Francisco.)

Edens and the Florida East Coast Braintrust decided the answer in Florida was not high-speed rail but fast rail, with trains reaching 79 mph in southeast Florida and over 125 mph between Brevard and Orlando.

Florida is an ideal test bed. Orlando and Southeast Florida are major population centers and tourist markets, a good distance apart with heavily congested roads at either end.

In 2012, Fortress surprised the state and industry with a plan to develop passenger rail – to be built and operated privately – along a 235-mile route from Miami to West Palm Beach and onward. ‘to Cocoa along the old Flagler Road, with a new leg to be built from Cocoa to Orlando. At the time, company executives said the idea for passenger rail came from group discussions. In reality, it was Edens’ vision. “I’ll take credit for it if it works out,” he joked in an October interview. “Otherwise, I might want to rephrase the story.”

Advantages

The fortress has things in its favor. He did not have to acquire real estate or rights of way in Southeast Florida since he owned the Florida East Coast Railway line, and although he sold the business and the freight line from FEC to Grupo Mexico last year, Fortress and Brightline have a perpetual easement to run passenger rail on the line.

Tags: Floridian of the Year, Transportation

Jose P. Rogers