The first private passenger rail line is about to link Miami and Orlando at high speed

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The first big test of whether high-speed private passenger rail service can thrive in the United States will launch Friday when Florida's Brightline begins operating trains between Miami and Orlando, reaching speeds of 125 mph (200 kph).

It's a $5 billion bet that Brightline's owner, Fortress Investment Group, is making, believing that eventually 8 million people a year will make the 3.5-hour, 235-mile (378-kilometer) trip between major resorts. big ones in the state. The company charges individual passengers $158 for business class round-trip and $298 for first class, and families and groups can purchase four round-trip tickets for $398. Thirty-two trains will circulate daily.

Brightline, which began operating its neon yellow trains along 70 miles (112 kilometers) between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018, is the first private intercity passenger service to begin operating in the United States in a century. It is also building a line that connects Southern California and Las Vegas which hopes to open in 2027 with trains that will reach 190 mph (305 kph). The only other high-speed line in the United States is Amtrak's Acela service between Boston and Washington, DC, which began in 2000. Amtrak is owned by the federal government.

"This is a pretty important moment, whether you think about it in the context of the state of Florida or what it could mean for these types of products as they are developed in other parts of the United States," said the CEO of Brightline, Mike Reininger, in a recent interview. “The idea that my car is the only way to get where I need is being challenged by a new product. “A new product that is safer, greener, a great value proposition and fun.”

Florida's biodiesel-powered trains will travel up to 79 mph (127 kph) in urban areas, 110 mph (177 kph) in less populated regions and 125 mph (200 kph) through central Florida farmland. Florida. Brightline plans possible extensions to Tampa and Jacksonville.

John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University, said the Miami-Orlando corridor is a perfect location for high-speed rail: About 40 million Floridians and visitors make the trip annually, and more than 90% of them drive. .

If Brightline is successful, that could lead to more high-speed lines between major cities separated by 200 to 300 miles (320 to 480 kilometers), both by Brightline and its competitors, he said.

"It's very exciting for South Florida to be kind of a testbed 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 held and seeks to make a profit, it was more sensitive to completing the project quickly to save money. On the part of the government, Renne highlighted the California effort to build a high-speed rail system. Approved by voters in 2008, it is no closer to fruition, has already cost billions more than expected and its prospects for completion are uncertain, as finding a route through the mountains is proving difficult and politicians have added side projects. doubtful Brightline began planning in 2012.

However, Brightline's development has suffered setbacks. COVID-19 closed the Miami-West Palm Beach line for 17 months. A partnership from 2018 with Richard Branson's Virgin Group to change the name from Brightline to Virgin Trains USA quickly went sour. Brightline ended the partnership in 2020 and Virgin filed a lawsuit in London. According to the lawsuit, Brightline says Virgin “ceased to be a highly regarded international brand, largely due to issues related to the pandemic.” That case is pending.

Then there is the issue of the safety of residents near the tracks.

Brightline trains have the highest fatality rate in the U.S., fatally striking 98 people since Miami-West Palm operations began — about one death for every 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) its trains travel, according to an ongoing Associated Press analysis of federal data that began in 2019. The next worst major railroad has one death every 130,000 miles (209,200 kilometers).

None of the deaths have been found to be the fault of Brightline; the majority have been suicides, drivers crossing doors or pedestrians crossing roads. The company has not had a death since June, its longest period except during the pandemic shutdown.

However, the company's mortality rate worries extension officials.

Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers said a Brightline official seemed insensitive during a recent meeting, saying he seemed more concerned with explaining Brightline's procedure for getting passengers to their destination after an accident than with how addresses the 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. "For them it is a cost of doing business that is going to run over some people."

Brightline has taken steps that Its leaders believe they improve safety, including adding closed-circuit cameras near tracks, installing better crossing gates and pedestrian barriers and posting signs that include the suicide prevention hotline.

"We've invested a lot in infrastructure to have a safe corridor," Reininger said. “We continue to operate literally every day with safety in mind.”

Reininger said the majority of Brightline Miami-Orlando riders will come from those who drive the route regularly and others who stay home because they hate driving. Primary targets are families headed to Orlando's theme parks and travelers visiting South Florida's nightlife, concerts, sports and cruises.

The trip between Miami and Orlando takes about four hours each way on the Florida Turnpike, and round-trip tolls cost between $40 and $60. Gasoline costs between $50 and $80, plus wear and tear on the vehicle.

Reininger said his company's challenge is convincing travelers that the amenities on its trains make any additional costs worth it.

"It's the value of your time," Reininger said. The train “gives you the opportunity to use the time you spend traveling in many ways that you cannot do when you are behind the wheel.”

Robert Barr, who lives near Miami and publishes South Florida rum and venue guides, has brought Brightline to West Palm Beach and hopes to ride the line to Orlando. He said Brightline's accommodations "compare very well to some of the best trains" he has taken in Europe, where high-speed rail between cities is common.

“You get comfortable seats and a relatively quiet ride. It feels very modern,” Barr said.

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