History was made at dawn Friday when a Miami-bound Brightline train exited its station at Orlando’s airport as an accelerating serpent mottled in sherbert colors, slithering by jets and terminals, and getting its day finally to derail a decade of doubters, deniers and detractors.
With that first-ever departure from Orlando, Brightline now has but one matter to settle: whether enough visitors and residents will hop on board – and become fond of Italian-styled leather seats, spacious windows, interior aisles “wider than any other train,” and the eerily soothing sensation of flying on the ground – to pay off Brightline’s enormous sum of borrowed money.
Brightline’s quest to link Miami and Orlando with higher speed, three-hour-plus service has been labeled by a famous Miami columnist as the boondoggle express. Some have called it Deadline because of its crossing fatalities during initial service in South Florida. And – awkwardly and wooed by billionaire Richard Branson – it was rebranded for a hot minute as Virgin Trains USA.
The timeline of Brightline’s development spans negative opinion polls, grueling legal fights, oppositional legislation, attempted interventions by airlines and unkind prognostications about upscale, intercity rail service: too expensive, unwanted, wrong country, miscalculating, scheming for a government handout and more.
But through it all, the start-up has been the massively financed choo-choo that could.
“Alright!” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer shouted into a microphone Friday during a celebration at the Orlando station. “This is one of the days we live for.”
It’s up to Brightline, investing $6 billion in private funds on five stations, 233 miles of track and 10, built-from-scratch train sets, to avenge those criticisms as cheap blather.
If the passenger rail company thrives with the vision it has evangelized – in the presence of politicians, local governments, business types and investors – then Friday’s start of service was the arrival of a new era when swift trains are a viable alternative or complement to driving and flying.
“That’s a game changer for this region and it’s a game changer for the country to have that seamless connectivity,” said Kevin Thibault, director of Orlando’s airport, the state’s busiest. “That changes the whole dynamic.”
The 6:38 a.m. outbound train slipped north between Terminal A and the Southwest Airlines concourse, took a 90-degree, banked curve to the east for a 125-mile run across rural Orange County and a trip of 3 hours, 33 minutes to Miami’s Brightline station.
In approximately the same time slot, another Brightline train left Miami bound for Orlando. At 11:05 a.m., it arrived at Orlando’s station to the atmosphere of a rock concert, with songs blaring: Last Train to Boston, Get on the Love Train and others.
At Orlando International Airport, it is customary to celebrate service to new destinations with plumes of water pumped from fire trucks over the jetliner making the inaugural flight.
The arriving Brightline train – two locomotives, four coach cars and 240 passengers – was greeted similarly, but with a blizzard of sherbert-colored confetti.
It was a heady, gushy moment for the true believers and enthusiasts on board, who had long been lured by Brightline’s siren.
The train gave a subdued toot-toot and the passengers emerged to be welcomed as if very important people by a crowd of mayors, state and federal lawmakers, corporate senior executives and others wearing “VIP” badges.
For the near term, six trains will depart daily from Orlando and Miami. Ultimately, trains will leave every hour 16 times a day.
To sustain enthusiasm, Brightline is marketing discounts – for families, kids and frequent travelers – online everywhere.
To hear from Brightline execs, their quest is to approximate SpaceX, to be a privatizing disrupter of conventional approaches monopolized by bureaucratic government blind to low-hanging fruits of their industry.
Just as SpaceX wrested away and redefined rocket travel, Brightline, including its nonunionized train crews, reimagined passenger rail starting with its looks, feel and performance.
Nearly a decade ago, Brightline CEO Mike Reininger said his trains will burst into American awareness by shedding the traditional, stodgy silver or gray railroad decor that blends into nothingness.
Reininger was instrumental in sculpting Brightline train noses to intimate bullet-train speed.
Brightline Founder Wes Edens said he wanted his trains to have the comfort he otherwise expects in his travels, which includes in his own Gulfstream G650 jet.
“We just wanted to make it be as pleasant as it could be for everyone,” Edens said. “To make it a place that you can relax, and you can work and you can enjoy yourself. Once you get on the train, you can stop worrying about when you’re going to get there. You can stop worrying about traffic and stop worrying about the risk of it.”
Over and over, Brightline leaders in presentations have shown audiences maps of the U.S. with 20 or so corridors between cities, echoing that of the Orlando-Miami run: too far to drive, too short to fly.
It so happened that the ownership structure behind Brightline owns existing tracks that run near U.S. Highway 1, along the Atlantic coast from Miami to Cocoa.
Next up for Brightline is 186-plus mph service from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga outside of Los Angeles “in just 2 hours and 10 minutes, twice as fast as the normal drive time.”
Brightline service highlights Orlando’s legacy of struggling with mass transportation.
Miamians – as well as passengers at the Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach stations – can get from their urban-center train station to their international airport by train. They can also go to Orlando’s international airport by train.
Orlandoans cannot get to their own airport by rail, or to any other airport.
“We are going to fix that,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said of efforts to piggyback the region’s SunRail commuter train on Brightline’s airport tracks. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to utilize the Brightline infrastructure to expand for the needs of our own local residents.”
If any consolation, Orlando’s station conveys an alluring, majestic aesthetic, with its curving, overlapping roof lines. The exterior of the new and adjoining, $3 billion Terminal C takes a back seat for capturing attention.
Miami’s downtown station, by comparison, is splashy and bright, but hemmed in by buildings.
Orlando’s airport train station, containing 37,000 square feet of space and 1,000-foot boarding platforms, might be what Walt Disney would have imagined for an intercity train station at his EPCOT park.
The reference is apt.
The big prize for Brightline in Central Florida is not the residents of Orlando or its suburban cities: it’s the theme-park, tourism ecosystem.
Of the 55 million passengers at Orlando International Airport annually, about 70 percent are visiting the region.
Brightline this week announced availability of convenient rides for train riders to and from the Orlando airport station with Mears Transportation, “connecting them to resorts, parks and destinations in Central Florida and beyond.”
But as Brightline works to extend service from Orlando’s airport to the west, the next stations will be near Universal Studios, another near Walt Disney World and one in Tampa.
That would put Orlando in the center seat of the new Brightline era.
Dyer, at the airport celebration, gave Edens a key to his city.