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Brightline expects trains to roll into Orlando as soon as 2021

Brightline expects to start construction this winter on its planned, privately owned, higher-speed passenger railroad connecting South Florida to Orlando and envisions the first trains to start rolling into Orlando International Airport as soon as late 2021.

Patrick Goddard, president and chief executive officer of Virgin Trains USA, also known as Brightline and formerly known as All Aboard Florida, told the Central Florida Expressway Authority Thursday that train service connecting the company’s existing Brightline passenger train railroad in South Florida with Orlando should begin by late 2021 or early 2022, depending on how long construction takes.

He said the company hopes to give its contractors notice to proceed with construction in March 2019.

“We’ve initiated early works and have selected our contractors,” Goddard said. “We are essentially looking at a 30-36 month construction period. We expect the first train to roll into the new intermodal terminal facility at the Orlando International Airport in the fourth quarter of 2021 or the first quarter of 2022.”

Goddard noted that the company has overcome several hurdles recently, including agreements with Martin County and Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida earlier this month. Those agreements remove some of their sternest opposition to the West Palm Beach-to-Orlando phase of the company’s planned expansions.

However, not all its opposition is gone. And during the past several years opposition has slowed All Aboard Florida’s plans since it first began talks to bring higher-speed train service to Orlando in 2012.

Goddard also discussed another proposed high-speed railroad the company is pursuing, an Orlando-to-Tampa route. However, he noted that meetings have only just begun for negotiations with CFX and the Florida Department of Transportation to allow Virgin Trains USA to acquire rights-of-way along those highway agencies’ roads to build a new railroad. There were no timetables cited Thursday.

Goddard emphasized prospects that the Orlando-to-Tampa plan could include a stop that would connect with Central Florida’s SunRail commuter train, linking that line to the airport. The prospect elicited both hope and concerns from some CFX board members, notably Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer raising concerns about ticket prices, and Goddard replying “that is a solvable problem.”

Goddard also generally acknowledged discussions the company is having for possible stops in between West Palm Beach and Orlando. He said proposals have been received for stations in Fort Pierce and Stuart, and the company also is open to a possible stop in Brevard County.

Brightline’s railroad building task along Florida’s East Coast is much simpler than its planned extension across Central Florida. The company’s sister company East Coast Florida Railway already owns a railroad corridor along the coast and Virgin Trains USA merely has to double-track and upgrade that railroad. Heading west toward Orlando will require all-new railroad infrastructure along a corridor following State Road 528.

And the inland railroad would be built to allow the trains to reach speeds of 120 mph, according to Brightline’s government filings. The maximum speed between West Palm Beach and Cocoa would be 110 mph. The current service connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach has a maximum speed of 79 mph.

CFX and All Aboard Florida signed a deal granting easements along SR 528 in 2015. Brightline also has deals in place with FDOT and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to complete that link from Cocoa to the airport.

The $211 million Orlando intermodal terminal facility — a big train station — at Orlando International Airport already is built and waiting for trains.

“When complete, obviously, our system will allow Central Florida residents and visits to enjoy relaxing and productive travel to Miami in approximately three hours,” Goddard said.

CFX and Brightline now are negotiating for rights-of-way for the possible Orlando-to-Tampa train. The current guidelines with FDOT call for those negotiations to be completed by the end of February, though CFX Executive Director Laura Kelley said it is likely an extension will be needed.

The link to SunRail, proposed to happen with a station at Meadow Woods, drew both praise and concerns.

“I love the alignment at Meadow Woods. I think that’s really going to help things and move people. I wish it were here now,” said CFX Board Chair Fred Hawkins Jr., an Osceola County Commissioner.

Dyer tempered his enthusiasm, calling it “a wonderful opportunity,” but noting it only as a way to get SunRail linked to the airport, not the way. He expressed concerns over fares, speculating that Brightline’s fare structure might not be on the same low scale as SunRail’s, or what local planners might envision for a SunRail connection to Orlando International Airport.

“We’ve been thinking about, for the last number of years, how to get to the airport. And this certainly is a way to do that,” Dyer said.

Goddard also gave a glimpse of Brightline’s broader, national vision.

In a promotional video he provided, the company hinted at future projects around the country. One, connecting Las Vegas to Southern California, already is in the company’s portfolio of planned projects. Others cited included trains connecting the Texas cities of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio; Chicago and St. Louis; and Atlanta and Charlotte.

“No other private company has stepped up in the U.S. to create a statewide intercity network that’s accessible to millions of residents and visitors that can be built within a three- to four-year horizon without burdening the taxpayer,” Goddard said. “And we believe this is the model of intercity travel in the United States in the future.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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