December 17, 2023 - TRA Commentary -

After recently opening their Miami-Orlando line to rising passenger numbers and getting ready to build a Southern California to Las Vegas intercity run, could Brightline set it's sights next on Texas?

The country's only privately owned and operated passenger railroad is carving out a name for itself in Florida with colorful and comfortable trains, frequent service between cities, onboard amenities and a strong branding campaign that has travelers in the "sunshine state" starting to move from roads to rails. 

Is this something that could get travelers excited who spend hours in the I-35 travel corridor? 

WESH-TV quoted two college students who said Brightline made traveling to and from their home in Fort Lauderdale for the holidays so much easier than driving. "With traffic (Orlando to Fort Lauderdale), definitely over four hours. And with this train, three hours, maybe even less sometimes," said Sydney and Alexandria Cohen, who are both juniors at Rollins College.  "We can do homework, we can study for our exams. We can sleep if we want to. Yeah, it's so convenient. It's so quick and easy, especially with the college discount."

The newly opened $6 billion dollar line, which serves Orlando International Airport, has already carried nearly 200,000 passengers in its first three months of operation. 

It prompted Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who is pushing for passenger rail between Austin, San Antonio and beyond to tour Brightline in Miami and see why intercity passenger rail is working in Florida. He posted this video on X.

Judge Brown and Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, looking at dynamic growth in Central Texas and highways that will not keep up with demand, have been very vocal lately about passenger rail service for the Austin-San Antonio region and also north to Dallas-Fort Worth and south to the Rio Grande Valley. Earlier this month, the Federal Railroad Administration turned down a Corridor Identification Planning Grant submitted by the Texas Department of Transportation to determine the scope, schedule, and cost estimate for preparing a service development plan (SDP) along the I-35 Lone Star Rail Corridor. The FRA has not issued a reason for dismissing the proposal at this time. 

As far back as 2018Wes Edens, co-founder, principal and co-chief executive officer of Brightline owner Fortress Investment Group, says that his firm has a vision “well beyond the state of Florida” for corridors that share the same characteristics of the cities Brightline connects in Florida -- “too far to drive, too short to fly.” That vision included the mention of Texas. 

The Brightline website notes that the railroad "offers a guest-first experience designed to reinvent train travel and take cars off the road by connecting city pairs and congested corridors that are too short to fly and too long to drive. Brightline is currently operating its first passenger rail system in Florida connecting Central and South Florida with stations in Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Orlando."

Brightline now runs 16 roundtrips a day between Orlando in Central Florida and Miami in South Florida. The trains run as fast as 125 miles per hour in dedicated right-of-way in their northern section and down to 79mph in congested areas close to Miami.  The 235 mile trip takes about 3 to 3.5 hours, depending on stops. That corridor service makes it very competitive with driving  when a road trip on a good day could take 3.5 hours with no traffic delays for accidents or construction. 

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) worked closely to support innovative transportation solutions like Brightline. In partnership with Brightline Trains Florida, FDOT initiated the Florida East Coast Corridor Trespassing and Intrusion Mitigation Project that provides $25 million in grant funding to enhance safety along the Florida East Coast Corridor (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, and Brevard Counties). The investment constructs supplemental safety measures at 328 roadway-railroad grade crossings and installs 33 miles of pedestrian protection features. Planned safety improvements included as part of this grant are rail dynamic envelopes, delineators, raised pavement markers, edge striping, fencing and additional safety signage. 

Brightline West, as it is called, will be a $12 billion investment supporting over 10,000 construction jobs and 900 permanent jobs once the line opens. Construction is expected to begin in early 2024. There are some 50 million annual trips between Los Angeles and Las Vegas with over 85% of them by car. Brightline West expects to serve more than 11 million one-way passengers annually, according to the company.

According to RailwayAge Contributing Editor David Peter Alan, "Brightline is the first private-sector railroad in the United States to operate passenger trains since the Denver & Rio Grande Western gave up its independent tri-weekly Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver, Colo., and Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1983 and the route became a part of Amtrak’s California Zephyr route, which continues to operate today."

Photo credits: Brightline, Texas Rail Advocates