By, Terry Hughes | USA TODAY
Taking shape inside a factory here are the the privately run trains that will soon carry millions of Floridans and visitors to the Sunshine State as they zip between Miami and Orlando.
The Brightline service, scheduled to begin initial service between Miami and West Palm Beach in a year, is the first privately run and operated passenger rail system launched in the United States in 100 years. Operating with no public dollars, Brightline will compete with both private cars and airlines as it races at up to 125 mph along the 235-mile route.
Brightline will expand to the Orlando airport in 2018, depending on how quickly the company can built a new station there. The ride from Miami to Orlando will take about three hours, and Brightline will offer an integrated car service to pick up and drop off passengers so they don’t have to drive to or from the stations, smoothing visits to Orlando-based Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.
Brightline officials say they’re targeting a wide variety of travelers, including Millennials who are increasingly likely to avoid driving and who grew reading about Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express and Thomas the Tank Engine.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia about trains, even from people who have never been on a train,” said Brightline CEO Michael Reininger after leading a tour of the Siemens Mobility factory where the locomotives and passenger cars are being built. “In the 1960s, your whole social structure was based around the car culture. That’s not so true today.”
The under-construction train cars aim to serve many riders: They’ve got wide aisles for wheelchairs and strollers, and power outlets at every seat. All of the passenger cars are 100% ADA accessible, meaning people who use wheelchairs and mobility aids will be able to easily traverse the entire length and not have to remain stuck in one spot. Because the passenger trains will share tracks with freight trains that have to carry wide loads, each Brightline car comes equipped with ramps that automatically bridge the gap between cars and stations, making it easier to wheel aboard bikes, strollers and wheelchairs.
The train cars themselves boast a sleek, modern look thanks to their unusual stainless-steel sides. Most train cars have corrugated sides, which are easier and cheaper to manufacture, but Brightline wanted something that set their cars apart. Brightline gave journalists a sneak peek at the under-construction cars and locomotives at the Siemens Mobility plant in Sacramento this week. The company is spending about $1 billion in the first phase of its train service, with the bulk of that money used to buy five sets of cars and locomotives.
Each Brightline train will have several passengers cars bookended by Siemens’ new diesel-electric Charger locomotives generating about 4,000 horsepower. The made-in-Indiana 16-cylinder Cummins diesels inside the locomotives generates electricity, which then drives electric motors on the wheels. The locomotives meet tough new federal clean-air standards, and all of the trains meet federal 100% Buy America standards. That’s a big source of pride for Brightline officials who watched eagerly as American welders, fitters and finishers were building their trains at Siemens, which employs nearly 1,000 people at its Sacramento facility.
The finished cars contain parts from across the country, from doors made in Colorado to luggage racks built in Connecticut and seats made in Illinois. The oversized AC units made to handle the Florida heat come from Nebraska, and the windows are made in Virginia.
Brightline officials say station development will spur housing and retail construction nearby on property their parent company owns. Brightline is run by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which is involved in a range of infrastructure, transportation and real estate businesses. The project is being funded by private investors via $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds and directly from the parent company. The company expects to become profitable in the first couple of years as it adds more trains and ridership increases.
Florida tourism officials say the trains and their stations could transform travel throughout Florida, one of the country’s most populous states. Providing trains as an alternative could ease congestion on the roads and alleviate pressure on crowded airports. About 20 million people live in Florida, many of them along the Atlantic coast, and another 110 million people visit the state annually.
“Half of our business is international,” William Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, told USA TODAY last year. “To connect Miami and those other three communities by train makes it convenient, affordable, clean and safe to travel. It gives the visitor options that we haven’t had before.”
Trains were the primary mode of transportation in the USA until after World War II, when cars and airlines took over the roads and skies. Federally funded Amtrak has remained the predominant interstate passenger train system, but it does not offer the kind of high-speed service found in Europe and Asia. Brightline officials say international tourists visiting Florida will likely be an easy sell, as they’re accustomed to convenient, efficient train service
The closest thing the USA has to high-speed trains is Amtrak’s Acela on the northeast corridor, which can go as fast as 150 mph. Brightline trains will not be high-speed, but its express service will be able to go up to 125 mph. In much of the rest of the country, Amtrak’s trains are limited to 80 mph at best, meaning cars often pass them on the interstate.
Brightline has not yet set ticket prices or disclosed anticipated ridership for its two classes, Select and Smart.
Florida had begun building a high-speed rail corridor linking Tampa to Orlando and then Miami, but the project was killed in 2011 due to potential costs to taxpayers. The private Brightline stepped into that void, and says its project will support or generate 5,000 jobs annually. Florida East Coast Industries is the successor company to the one that built the rail line down to Key West, and Brightline’s progress has depended significantly on the fact that its parent company already owned much of the railroad tracks needed to launch the service.