Brightline passenger trains began operating between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Saturday, just one day after a VIP preview run killed a pedestrian. This was an inauspicious beginning for what is supposed to be the first new private intercity rail service in the United States in at least four decades.
The fatality took place when a woman walked around the crossing gates that had lowered in advance of the train. Hers was the third death resulting from the trains before they collected a single revenue fare. One of them was ruled a suicide, but even it might have been prevented if Brightline had fenced its right of way. Brightline says it has implemented positive train control, but positive train control cannot prevent pedestrian or grade-crossing accidents.
Brightline’s top speed in the 70-mile Miami-West Palm Beach corridor is 79 mph, while the planned 128-mile route from West Palm Beach to Cocoa is expected to be 90 mph and the unbuilt 38-mile section from Cocoa to Orlando is supposed to be 125 mph. Florida East Coast, which owns Brightline, should improve safety by fencing its entire right-of-way.
Brightline says it plans to extend service from Fort Lauderdale to Miami in six to eight weeks, but service to Orlando won’t start until at least 2020. I doubt they have the financing for this, and obtaining it will depend on the success of the Miami-West Palm Beach route.
Brightline’s schedule shows eleven trains per weekday–one per hour from 6 am to 7 pm–taking 30 minutes northbound and 40 minutes southbound. For a 42-mile trip, 30 minutes requires average speeds of more than 80 mph, which is not possible when track speeds are just 79 mph. I suspect trains will take at least 35 minutes, which is an average speed of 72, and many will take 40 minutes (63 mph) in both directions.
In addition to competing against cars, Brightline is competing against Tri-Rail commuter trains. Tri-Rail takes 60 minutes for the same trip, but also operates 25 weekday trains each way, or roughly one train every half hour during the day. So while Brightline may be 20 to 25 minutes faster, that speed won’t do much for passengers who have to wait an extra half hour for a less-frequent Brightline train to leave. Brightline fares are also twice as much as Tri-Rail fares.
Although Brightline did not receive any direct subsidies, $1.75 billion in start-up costs were funded by tax-exempt private-activity bonds. The company will need at least another $1.4 billion–and I suspect much more–to complete the line to Orlando. As a railfan, I wish them well, but the Antiplanner remains skeptical of the viability of passenger rail transportation in today’s world.