Skift Travel News Blog

Short stories and posts about the daily news happenings around the travel industry.

Ground Transport

Amtrak Ridership Jumped a Quarter in Fiscal 2023, Fell Short of Full Recovery

3 months ago

Amtrak carried 28.6 million customers on train trips during its latest fiscal year. That number, while an improvement of nearly a quarter from 2022, fell short of its aim to match pre-pandemic ridership of 32.5 million trips.

But even as overall numbers fell short of those four years ago, Amtrak said Thursday that the number of trips across its national passenger rail network had fully recovered — and was up in some places — by September, the last month of its 2023 fiscal year.

“Amtrak ridership continues to set post-pandemic records,” CEO Stephen Gardner said in a statement Thursday. “We’re inspired by the soaring demand for intercity passenger rail and are eager to continue connecting more people and places.”

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains in San Diego
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains in San Diego. (wyliepoon/Flickr)

The railroad has ambitious expansion plans, dubbed Connect U.S. and largely funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that could see it add dozens of new passenger rail corridors and trains across the country over the next decade. The first route of that expansion could be new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., sometime next year. The route was previously operated in 2005 but suspended after Hurricane Katrina damaged tracks. And, new engines and passenger cars on order will add capacity and improve service on everything from Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train to its state-funded corridors and long-distance trains.

During the year ending in September, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor that connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., was once again its busiest route. The railroad carried 12.1 million riders on the corridor, up 31% from last year and down just 3% from 2019. Ridership fell 7% on its second busiest route, the Pacific Surfliner in California, to 1.5 million trips during the year; trains on the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego were affected for up to six months last fall after coastal erosion temporarily closed the tracks.

Amtrak’s ridership numbers indicate that privately owned Brightline’s new Miami-Orlando passenger rail line that opened in September will likely be the second busiest intercity passenger train this year.

Amtrak posted some of its biggest ridership gains on state-supported routes in Connecticut, North Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. The largest jump was to Norfolk where ridership doubled from 2019 to more than 480,000 passengers this year; Amtrak added a third daily train to Norfolk from Washington in 2022. And, affirming the maxim “build it and they will come,” ridership climbed nearly 72% compared to four years ago to nearly 87,000 passengers on the railroad’s Ethan Allen service to Vermont that was extended to Burlington last July.

Amtrak leadership will discuss the railroad’s performance and plans at a public board meeting on Friday.


JetBlue Would ‘Love’ to Partner with Brightline Trains in Florida

3 months ago

JetBlue Airways President Joanna Geraghty said the airline would “love” to partner with passenger rail operator Brightline in Florida.

While she did not provide many details of what such a partnership could look like, it would likely include single-itinerary trips that combine both a JetBlue flight and Brightline train, and protections for travelers if either their flight or train is late. This could make the transfer experience between flights and trains smoother for many travelers. Many European airlines offer similar rail partnerships, including Air France with French rail operator SNCF and Lufthansa with German operator Deutsche Bahn.

JetBlue already offers similar joint itineraries, including protections for connections, with cruise operators and other partners through its Paisly travel products booking site.

Brightline train at Orlando Airport
A Brightline train at the Orlando Airport station. (Edward Russell)

Brightline began passenger rail service between Orlando and Miami in September. The trip takes roughly three-and-a-half-hours with four intermediate stops, including in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The operator’s Orlando station is located at the airport adjacent to Terminal C where JetBlue flights arrive and depart.

Geraghty, who was speaking at the U.S. Travel Association’s Future of Travel Mobility conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, said JetBlue would also be interested in partnering with Brightline at the Fort Lauderdale airport. That, however, would require a new train station and likely airport facilities to connect the two; Brightline’s tracks pass the terminal complex at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

JetBlue has large bases in both Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Ground Transport

Brightline Sets Date for First New U.S. Intercity Passenger Rail Line in Decades

5 months ago

Private rail operator Brightline will open long-awaited passenger service between Miami and Orlando on September 22, three weeks later than previously planned.

Brightline will initially offer 16 daily trains between Florida’s two largest metropolitan areas. Trips will take a little over three-and-a-half hours — comparable to the time it takes to drive between Miami and Orlando — and make four intermediate stops, including in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Brightline previously planned to begin train service to Orlando on September 1.

Brightline trains Orlando
Brightline plans to begin passenger rail service to Orlando on September 22. (Brightline)

The rail line is the first newly built passenger train in the U.S. in decades. Amtrak has opened several new lines in recent years, including to Burlington, Vt., in 2022, but those expansions mostly involved upgrading existing tracks. Brightline upgraded existing tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, Fla., and built 40 miles of new track and right-of-way to Orlando. Trains terminate in the new South Terminal complex at the Orlando airport.

Orlando is only the beginning for Brightline. The company, which is owned by private equity firm Fortress Investment, also plans to build a 281-mile high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., in the Los Angeles area. Work on the roughly $12 billion Brightline West line could begin later this year with a target of opening in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Both the Orlando and Las Vegas rail lines come amid a flurry of new passenger rail investment in the U.S. President Biden’s 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $66 billion for new passenger rail with the bulk of that going to Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor that connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. The Department of Transportation will distribute a portion of those funds as competitive grants to projects around the U.S., funding that Brightline plans to seek for its Las Vegas project.


Brightline to Begin Much Anticipated Rail Service to Orlando by September

9 months ago

Brightline, the first new intercity passenger rail operator in the U.S. in decades, has started selling tickets for its long-awaited extension to Orlando. Riders can now book one of 16 daily trains between Miami and Orlando for travel from September 1.

“While we are finalizing an official launch date, guests can now book travel for Labor Day, Halloween and holidays through the new year,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said. The company said it will begin selling seats earlier in the summer once it sets a date for passenger service to begin. The Orlando station is located in the new South Terminal complex at Orlando International Airport.

A Brightline train at the future Orlando airport station
A Brightline train at the future Orlando Airport station. (Edward Russell)

Backed by Fortress Investment, Brightline is the only private intercity passenger rail company operating in the U.S. Trains between Miami and West Palm Beach via a station in Fort Lauderdale began running in 2018. Two new stations in South Florida, Aventura and Boca Raton, opened in December.

And, despite running trains in car-centric Florida, Brightline has seen steady ridership growth since it resumed operations in late 2021 as the pandemic waned. Trains between Miami and West Palm Beach carried 179,576 riders in March, the latest month available, and the company expects a big boost in ridership once the Orlando extension opens. Brightline carried 1.23 million passengers in 2022, and forecasts up to 7.9 million annual riders by 2025.


Spain’s Renfe to Launch New Through Train Service to France by Summer

1 year ago

Spain’s rail operator Renfe has begun testing two new cross-border high-speed rail routes to France that could begin carrying passengers by summer.

Renfe tested through AVE train service from Madrid Atocha to Marseille on Tuesday, and from Barcelona Sants to Lyon on Monday. Once driver training and familiarization is complete, the operator aims to begin initial revenue service of three weekly trains on each route by summer. Renfe plans to increase the number of trains on both routes to twice daily — or 28 high-speed trains a day between France and Spain — under its second phase service plan.

A Renfe train at the station in Lyon, France.
A Renfe train at the station in Lyon after a test run from Barcelona. (Renfe)

Renfe did not disclose the expected duration of both routes. However, the Madrid-Marseille service would make 13 intermediate stops, including in Barcelona; and the Barcelona-Lyon route would make seven stops, including in Perpignan.

Expanding cross-border rail links is a goal of European Union authorities as they aim to cut the bloc’s carbon emissions. While many individual countries have invested in their own high-speed rail networks, connections between the networks are limited. Only about 7 percent of cross-border trips in Europe are made by rail, according to the European Commission’s DG Move department.

The rail link between France and Spain first opened in 2013. Renfe and France’s SNCF previously cooperated on cross-border rail service between Barcelona and both Lyon and Marseille but terminated their partnership in December. The SNCF operated Barcelona-Lyon trains made the trip in roughly 5 hours. Renfe’s new through trains will replace some of the services previously operated under the partnership.

SNCF operates three daily high-speed TGV trains between Barcelona Sants and Paris Gare de Lyon.


Brightline Carried Record Number of Passengers on Its Trains in 2022

1 year ago

Private passenger rail operator Brightline carried a record 1.23 million passengers last year, the railroad’s first full year of operations since 2019. The number, which the railroad released in a monthly financial disclosure on Wednesday, represents a nearly 22 percent increase in ridership from three years earlier before the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the financial side of the ledger, Brightline’s annual revenues increased nearly 49 percent to $32 million in 2022 compared to three years earlier.

The 2022 numbers bode well for Brightline, which is the only private intercity rail operator in the U.S. The railroad is in the process of extending its Florida line to Orlando, which is expected to open for passengers later this year. Construction of the extension to the Orlando airport was 90 percent complete at the end of December. A future extension to Tampa is planned with Universal Orlando recently committing funds to construction of a critical 11-mile segment across Orlando.

Brightline recently released the first renderings of its new station at the Orlando airport. The facility is directly connected to the airport’s new Terminal C that opened last September.

Ridership on Brightline’s South Florida rail line between Miami and West Palm Beach got a year-end boost with the opening of two new stations — in Aventura and Boca Raton — in late December. The two stations added 17,682 riders to Brightline trains in just the last 10 days of the year.

The company is also developing a new high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California, known as Brightline West, that could begin construction this year.

Brightline’s new Aventura station opened on December 24, 2022. (Brightline)


Universal Orlando Boosts Brightline Plans to Extend Passenger Rail to Tampa

1 year ago

A planned passenger rail link between Orlando and Tampa got a big boost Thursday. Universal Orlando Resort has pledged $125 million in funding towards construction of an 11-mile rail corridor that is a critical link in private passenger rail operator Brightline’s plan to extend train service to Tampa.

The funding will come from the creation of a new special development district — the Shingle Creek Transit Utility Community Development District — that will issue bonds to support construction of the rail line through Orlando and a new station at the Orange County Convention Center, Universal said Thursday. The line, dubbed the “Sunshine Corridor” locally, would carry both Brightline trains through Orlando and local SunRail commuter trains between Orlando International Airport and a new South International Drive station near Disney’s parks.

A map of Orlando’s proposed Sunshine Corridor rail project. (Universal Orlando)

The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that the entire 11 mile rail line could cost as much as $1 billion, and that project leaders intend to seek funding from the federal government under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The line could open to passengers by the end of the decade.

In addition to the construction funds, Universal and other local businesses have committed to covering the operations and maintenance expenses of the planned Orange County Convention Center station, and guarantee at least $13 million in annual ticket sales to and from the station.

Brightline aims to begin rail service to Orlando from Miami later this year. Trains will stop a station connected to the airport’s new Terminal C that opened in September.

Brightline, which operates passenger trains between Miami and West Palm Beach in South Florida, opened two new stations — Aventura and Boca Raton — in December. The company carried 18 percent more passengers in November than it did in 2019 with revenues up 39 percent year-over-three-years to $3.4 million.


Brightline to Open 2 New South Florida Train Stations Before Christmas

1 year ago

More Floridians will have access to passenger rail this Christmas with private rail operator Brightline set to open two new stations on December 21. The stations are on Brightline’s existing South Florida rail line at Aventura, which is located between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and Boca Raton.

Aventura and Boca Raton are the first new stations for Brightline since it opened its initial segment between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach in 2018.

A Brightline train at the future Orlando airport station
(Edward Russell/Skift)

The opening comes as Brightline hurries to finish work on its long-awaited extension to Orlando. The railroad had completed roughly 87 percent of work on the roughly 170-mile extension from West Palm Beach to the Orlando Airport at the end of October. Construction is due to wrap up early in the new year, after which Brightline must test and run simulated passenger service on the line before it can open to passengers.

The railroad had hoped to finish work on the Orlando line by Christmas but, in August, acknowledged that construction would drag into 2023.

The new Aventura and Boca Raton stations are expected to have a “significant accretive impact” on Brightline’s operations; in other words, they will boost both ridership and revenues. In October, the latest month available, the railroad carried 23 percent more passengers than in 2019 and brought in 72 percent more revenues. Brightline carried 102,615 passengers and generated $3 million in revenues that month.

Business Travel

Former Kayak Exec Jan Valentin Joins Rail Tech Startup Seatfrog

1 year ago

Former Kayak Europe leader and now travel investor Jan Valentin has joined Seatfrog‘s board of directors, as the rail startup looks to move on from the pandemic by tapping into the trend for more sustainable travel.

The app, which lets train travelers upgrade their ticket at a reduced rate on the original cost by bidding, was named a Skift Top Travel Startup to Watch in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, and it lost 97 percent of its revenue.

Now the company wants to put coronavirus behind it with the appointment of Valentin, who used to be Kayak’s managing director and senior vice president in Europe. Valentin also runs ennea capital partners, which in 2020 merged with Howzat Partners to create a new $100 million fund to invest in travel startups and other digital businesses.

Howzat also invested in Seatfrog’s $1.2 million seed round, but Skift understands no extra investment accompanied Valentin’s appointment to the board.

Valentin is also a backer of Comtravo, the German corporate travel agency that was recently bought by TripActions.

Seatfrog said in a statement Valentin joins at a perfect time to support the company’s mission to reimagine the rail experience in a category that has been “trundling along without meaningful innovation for decades.”

“Governments are spending $400 billion plus in Europe to drive modal shift to more sustainable train travel, but it remains a massively under-digitized category, and the customer experience is a mess,” he said.

Seatfrog said it had recorded 1,400 percent growth so far this year, and is expanding internationally.

“We’ve delighted millions of passengers, and driven large revenue uplifts for rail companies well beyond the capabilities of the category’s legacy systems,” added Iain Griffin, CEO and co-founder of Seatfrog.