Private, high-speed trains are now a reality in the United States: I recently rode Brightline between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. While I loved my travel experience, as a planner, I'm keenly aware that Brightline’s service model cannot be easily copied by public transportation agencies.
Brightline is the name of a privately-owned train that currently operates between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Service will extend to downtown Miami in a few months and eventually, all the way to the Orlando International Airport. All Aboard Florida, a passenger rail project connecting Miami to Orlando, operates Brightline. Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) is the parent company for All Aboard Florida, as well as other real estate and logistics companies.
Here's my travel experience in Florida
Brightline runs approximately every hour during the week and every 90 minutes on the weekend. I rode roundtrip from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale on a Saturday afternoon. For me, Brightline combined the perks of airline travel with the convenience of high speed rail. Here are some key highlights:
Station Locations: The three stations in Southeast Florida are all in downtown areas, surrounded by high-density development, grocery stores, and businesses. In West Palm Beach, I felt like I could reach everything I would need daily within a comfortable 15 minute walk.
Fares: Brightline is offering introductory fares, so I expect the low prices I received to go up eventually. My Select (Business Class) ticket one way was $15, and the Smart (Coach) ticket is $10. If I drove between the two stations it would cost $51.23, using GSA’s mileage reimbursement rates. The distance between the two Florida stations is slightly longer than DC to Baltimore. For an upcoming Saturday afternoon, Northeast Regional Service between DC and Baltimore has fares as low as $18, while Acela service is currently $46 (for Feb 3, looked up on January 29).
Travel Times: It took 39 minutes from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale and 38 minutes on the return; the schedule time was 40 minutes. To drive between the two stations would have been 57 minutes outbound and 46 minutes coming back.
On Board: I went through security in a process smoother than my best TSA Pre-Check experience (and with a lot fewer people). The waiting area, especially the Select Lounge, felt like I was in an airline’s lounge. On board, the Select car felt similar to Amtrak’s quiet car, while the Smart seat was louder. Attendants walk down the aisle with refreshments, much like on an airplane.
Here's why others can't be just like Brightline
Brightline cost billions to build, and it was built without direct public funding. That being said, several things give it an advantage that public transportation agencies do not have.
1. FECI has owned or had exclusive access to right-of-way for the railroad tracks for more than a century. Brightline’s tracks are adjacent to the existing freight rail tracks, which are owned by the Florida East Coast Railway. That's not an advantage every agency has, including sprawling networks like WMATA.
2. All Aboard Florida’s business model includes revenues from nearby real estate developments. It owns several acres of developable land around the Brightline stations, and it has several projects under construction. In West Palm Beach, All Aboard Florida is building Park-Line, a new 24-story residential tower, right next to the Brightline station.
These Transit-Oriented Developments could repay the capital costs of the Brightline (to what extent is not publicly known). The company is clear that it is a real estate company that considers high-speed train service to be a valuable amenity for its properties.
When a public agency uses revenue from real estate development to fund transportation operations, this is called "Value Capture." Some transit agencies – like WMATA – engage in Joint Development projects, but value capture mechanisms are rarely used in the United States. They often require state or local enabling legislation.
3. During my ride, I noticed several “official partners” of Brightline. There is an Official Energy Partner, an Official Tourism Partner, a Rideshare Partner, a Drink Partner, etc. These corporate sponsorships are not something public agencies can easily have. While some larger transit agencies such a RTD in Denver and CTA in Chicago have corporate partnerships, the procurement rules or politics within most local governments would prohibit this revenue source.
Brightline is not without its own controversies
Like every transportation project, Brightline also has its controversial aspects. Two counties along the West Palm Beach to Orlando route have used the legal system to challenge nearly every aspect of Brightline, from its use of Private Activity Bonds to its environmental review process. This is not unlike controversies associated with the Purple Line in Maryland.
Sadly, two people died during Brightline's first week of service. In separate incidents, a pedestrian and someone on a bicyclist went around the crossing gates while the train was moving and were killed. This is part of a larger train safety conversation that is happening across the country.
Brightline isn't for everyone
Brightline is designed to serve specific traveler markets and because it is owned by a privately held company, that's okay. The introductory fares – and especially, the eventual market-rate fares that will be charged – are unlikely to be affordable for low-income riders. Currently, Brightline does not offer discounted fares for students or low-income riders and it has no legal obligation to do so, unlike public transportation providers.
Riding local buses between the two cities requires transfers and two different transit agencies. Tri-Rail, the regional commuter rail service, takes at least an hour. The key is whether or not the Brightline service complements local bus service, commuter rail service, and driving. What that balance is and how to achieve it is something to watch over the coming years.
It is a false assumption that public transit agencies can use Brightline’s entire playbook, but they can use some of its plays. There aren’t many locations where right-of-way is readily-available and cheap. Brightline also had access to developable land for transit-oriented development in already booming neighborhoods – an expensive and infrequent possibility in most cities. Generating revenue, such as with corporate sponsorships, is more realistic.
I’m already looking forward to my next ride, hopefully to the new Miami station. However, I do so with the understanding that Brightline’s story is its own and cannot necessarily be broadly applied to public transportation in the United States.