High-quality, fast, and frequent passenger rail services are exceedingly common across Europe and Asia, but certainly not in North America.
That is why Brightline in Florida is now getting much attention.
When Brightline first launched its initial 105-km-long South Florida route in 2018, linking Miami to the south and West Palm Beach to the north, with stops along the way including Fort Lauderdale, it was the first private intercity passenger service to launch in the United States in a century.
On Friday, the company finally opened its much-anticipated route extension bringing their service to Central Florida — a 274-km-long extension north of West Palm Beach to reach Orlando International Airport (MCO).
“Over the last century, America has perfected the automobile and pioneered space exploration, but we’ve barely budged in terms of passenger rail,” said Wes Edens, co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, owner of Brightline, in a statement.
“Today is an historic event for Brightline and the state of Florida that represents a decade of hard work and determination. This moment also marks the beginning of a new industry and outlines a blueprint for expanding high-speed rail in America.”
Brightline in Florida now spans 378 km with six stations. From downtown Miami to MCO, the end-to-end travel time is between three hours and 3.5 hours, with the segment reaching West Palm Beach being 60 minutes. This travel time between Miami and Orlando is roughly 30 minutes faster than driving.
But the travel time can fluctuate within South Florida as this segment uses a railway that is not grade separated and crosses through roadways. For this reason, train speeds are limited to 130 km/hr south of West Palm Beach.
Friday’s celebrations reaching Orlando were marred by a fatality within the South Florida segment, where a Brightline train fatally struck a pedestrian in Miami, according to local media reports.
The Associated Press also reported this week Brightline’s South Florida segment has the highest death rate in the US, as their passenger trains have killed 98 people between Miami and West Palm Beach since the service began in 2018. This is due to the lack of grade separation and fencing for a railway running through South Florida’s highly urbanized environment, with most of the incidents being suicides, drivers who went around crossing gates, or pedestrians running across the tracks.
However, for the newly opened segment between West Palm Beach and MCO, the company has made significant investments to create purpose-built track for its passenger rail operations, enabling vastly higher speeds, greater reliability, and improved safety. This includes significant fencing along the route, and grade separation at roadways and other crossings.
Between West Palm Beach and Cocoa (a coastal city near Cape Canaveral), Brightline trains can reach up to 180 km/hr.
From Cocoa, the south-north route turns west towards Orlando by following State Road 528 with close to 60 km of newly built track.
While the majority of Brightline’s route is classified as a higher-speed rail service, it technically does have a high-speed rail segment, too, which is the segment between Cocoa and MCO. But it barely meets the the high-speed rail classification of at least 200 km/hr; Brightline’s maximum speed between Cocoa and MCO following the freeway is 201 km/hr.
According to the company, the extension from West Palm Beach to MCO carried a cost of US$6 billon (CA$8.1 billion), which includes 18 new bridges, three new underpasses, upgrades to 156 railroad crossings, drainage installations, track and signalization, about 100 km of new track, and a 62-acre operations and maintenance facility was built near MCO. Construction first began in 2019.
A major Brightline train station was also built immediately adjacent to MCO’s new Terminal C, which includes 37,000 sq ft of indoor space, a 72,000 sq ft platform area, and 350 vehicle parking stalls marked for Brightline passengers. Their train station is accessible to MCO’s other terminals with the use of the Terminal Link automated people mover to reach Terminal A and Terminal B.
“A multimodal vision of planes, trains and automobiles inspired by Orlando International Airport leaders nearly 50 years ago has come to fruition, making this a truly historic day in Florida transportation,” said Kevin Thibault, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
“We warmly welcome Brightline and the beginning of intercity high-speed rail service, which will provide mobility for the unprecedented growth our region is seeing and promote economic activity that benefits us all.”
Brightline currently operates eight trips each way per day for a total of 16 trains per day. From Miami, the first train departs at 6:46 am and the last train departs at 8:41 am. From MCO, the first train departs at 4:38 am and the last train departs at 6:54 pm. During operating hours, a train departs about every two hours.
As for ticketing, Brightline does not have a traditional economy option, with its Smart class — described as the “comfortable business-class” — as its lowest cost option. The Smart class starts at US$79 (CA$107) for the full journey between Miami and MCO.
The only other option is the Premium class — a “first-class experience with added amenities.” Tickets start at US$149 (CA$200).
The Premium class provides large leather seats, complimentary snacks and beverages, and premium lounge access. In contrast, passengers in the Smart Class will have the option to buy snacks and beverages.
Both Smart and Premium passengers will have access to free Starlink WiFi at both stations and onboard the trains, and chargers and outlets for every seat.
Passengers also have the option of using the Brightline app to not only buy tickets but plan their trips.
Each train currently holds 240 passengers, and there are plans to increase capacity to about 370 passengers when more passenger cars arrive in 2025.
Brightline is using Siemens Mobility’s new Siemens Venture train model, which is also in use by VIA Rail for its services between Windsor and Quebec City in Eastern Canada. The Siemens Venture will also makeup Amtrak’s future fleet, starting in 2026 with the Amtrak Cascades service linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC.
But the completed project of bringing Brightline Florida route to MCO only represents another phase of the service. The ultimate goal is to bring Brightline to Florida’s west coast, reaching Tampa, with ridership growing to eight million annually. In 2022, within the South Florida segment only, Brightline saw an annual ridership of 1.2 million.
But before reaching Tampa, Brightline’s next major phase is anticipated to serve the world’s largest theme park cluster just to the west of Orlando — Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Florida Resort, and Sea World. The exact route the extension will take is still up in the air, but the intention is to bring Brightline as close as possible to the Disney World and Universal resorts. No timeline has been established for reaching The Most Magical Place On Earth.
Currently, in optimal traffic conditions, it is about a 20-minute drive between MCO and the eastern edge of Disney World. As of this week’s service launch, Brightline has a partnership with Mears, which is a 24/7 door-to-door shuttle service linking the airport with hotels, Disney World and Universal resorts, and other Central Florida attractions. Brightline passengers can now take Mears’ services directly from the train station at MCO.
While Brightline has its eyes set on Florida’s west coast, it also has big plans for the west coast of the continental United States.
Earlier in 2023, Brightline reached a major milestone in its plan to build a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles region using all-new purpose-built tracks and infrastructure, running alongside Interstate 15 through the desert.
This will be a true high-speed rail service, with travel speeds of up to 322 km/hr. This will be the first true high-speed passenger rail system in all of North America.
The end-to-end travel time between Rancho Cucamonga in the outskirts of the Los Angeles region and Las Vegas will be about two hours 15 minutes, which is two times faster than driving, and comparable to air travel when the time for arriving early and waiting at airports is factored in.
The eastern terminus station in Las Vegas will be conveniently located near the Las Vegas Strip, on a vacant 110-acre site next to Las Vegas Premium Outlets South Mall.
Brightline’s California/Nevada project is expected to cost US$10 billion (CA$13.5 billion), with the goal of beginning construction soon to have the service ready in time for the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. Further extensions will take the rail line from the interim terminus in the outskirts of the region to downtown Los Angeles.
In 2030, California’s state government’s initial high-speed rail route between Merced to Bakersfield, a distance of 275 km, will open. It remains to be seen whether the project will be able to reach its ultimate destinations of Los Angeles and San Francisco with further phases of construction, given the massive cost increases and delays experienced to date.
By the end of the decade, it is also expected VIA Rail’s trunk route between Windsor and Quebec City will be upgraded to a “high-frequency rail” service, with dedicated passenger tracks enabling greater speeds of up to 177 km/hr to 200 km/hr, and tripling the number of annual trips taken by passengers in the Quebec City to Toronto corridor. This is also made possible by the use of the new Siemens Venture trains.
As well, the governments of Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia are in the early stages of planning a true high-speed rail service linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC.