Skift Take

Brightline backer Fortress Investment is confident that trains will begin rolling, but maybe without passengers, to Orlando in time for the Christmas holidays.

Private rail operator Brightline aims to be running its trains to Orlando by Christmas, as the railroad races to complete work of the line from Miami.

“You’re going to have the train running [to] Orlando hopefully by Christmas time,” Brightline owner Fortress Investment founder and Co-CEO Wes Edens said at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday. The railroad has said the extension to Orlando from Miami would open to passengers in early 2023.

When the extension opens, it will be the first modern passenger rail line to connect the two population centers of Florida — Miami and Orlando. The line is expected to be a boon for tourism by allowing travelers, especially those from outside of the U.S. who are more accustomed to riding trains, to visit both the beaches and nightlife of south Florida and the theme parks and golf courses in the center of the state. Brightline estimates that a trip between Miami and Orlando will take a little over three hours; the same trip by car takes more than 3 hours and 20 minutes, according to Google Maps.

Edens described the rail line connecting Miami and Orlando as an “obvious place” for private investment in passenger rail given demand projections. The company is also building a high-speed rail line, known as Brightline West, between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., in the Los Angeles basin that he hopes will break ground on construction by Christmas. Edens said Brightline West could begin carrying passengers roughly three years after construction begins, or as early as 2025.

Fortress’ Brightline investments in California and Florida come as the U.S. is poised to make a historic investment in passenger rail travel. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was signed in November includes $66 billion over five years for rail investments. While a significant piece will go towards needed upgrades on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., billions of dollars are available for other projects. The U.S. Department of Transportation is accepting applications for these funds from Amtrak, private rail operators like Brightline, and state and regional authorities.

The federal investment in passenger rail comes as U.S. consumers face historically high inflation and gas prices. The average price for regular gas was $4.88 per gallon, and in many states it was over $5 a gallon, on June 6, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Many public transit operators and Amtrak have reported more riders in recent months though most ridership figures still remain below pre-pandemic levels. However, many proposed rail projects will take years to come to fruition, and will not provide travelers relief this summer. For example, Fortress has been working on the Miami-Orlando line since 2012.

Edens criticized the amount of time it takes to develop a new rail line in the U.S. The permitting process, which involves local, state, and federal entities, “takes too long, costs too much money, [and] is too cumbersome,” he said. Brightline West, which will be built on entirely new track that runs along Interstate 15, has taken 15 years and some $550 million to get to the point where construction can begin.

“Over half a billion dollars cash outlay to get to the starting gate just makes it too hard … We have to make it a little bit easier for people to access,” Edens said.

While Brightline is expected to seek Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds for the Las Vegas line, the operator recently received federal funds for a planned expansion to its Florida line. Earlier in June, the operator, along with Orlando-area commuter rail operator SunRail, received a $15.9 million Department of Transportation grant for environmental approvals and engineering work on a planned extension to Tampa from Orlando. The extension would include a stop at Disney World.

Brightline operated its first test train to its Orlando station, which is part of a new terminal complex set to open at the Orlando airport this summer, in May.

Story updated to clarify that Edens said trains would be running to Orlando by Christmas, but made no mention of revenue passenger service.

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Tags: amtrak, Brightline, rail, rail travel, tourism, trains, transport

Photo credit: Private rail operator Brightline hopes to be carrying passengers to Orlando by Christmas. Brightline