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Miami Gets A New, Privately Owned Passenger Train

Miami Gets A New, Privately Owned Passenger Train
Brightline President Patrick Goddard waves to riders May 19, 2018.

Years ago, when plans started to coalesce for a new, privately run passenger train service running between Miami and Orlando (with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach), there were plenty of skeptics.

South Florida is car-centric, people warned. There is already a commuter line, Tri-Rail, between Miami and West Palm. Amtrak already goes to Orlando. And who would pay for this thing? 

All of those questions have been answered.

Brightline's shiny new trains began running between shiny new stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in January, and this past weekend expanded to another new station, MiamiCentral, in Miami's suddenly booming downtown. Service to Orlando is expected to begin in 2020. 

So far, many passengers have been delighted with smooth rides, food and beverages (alcoholic ones on select service), and onboard WiFi. With traffic already horrible in South Florida and population only rising, planners and residents agree mass transit must be improved. Brightline executives have said they are looking into establishing similar service in other corridors around the country like Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas. 

Still, there are some business challenges. At $10 to $15 each way between Miami and Fort Lauderdale (and that is the special introductory fare), tickets are expensive for workaday commuters. Brightline has not announced ridership figures, but a Palm Beach Post analysis suggested the trains have only been about 20% full. And six people on or crossing the tracks have been killed by Brightline trains in just five months, prompting the company to station workers at crossings.

And about that financing: Last year, Grupo Mexico bought the FEC Railway, which owns the tracks, and Japanese conglomerate SoftBank bought Fortress Investment Group, which owns Florida East Coast Industries and its subsidiary All Aboard Florida — the operator of the Brightline trains.

The project is being financed in part with $1.7B in private activity bonds, $600M of which have been sold already but were rated as non-investment-grade. Congress is scrutinizing whether the bonds were issued properly, and a federal lawsuit, filed by two Florida counties and a citizens group, alleges various environmental, safety and financing problems with the train. 

But Brightline and the bond-rating company Fitch's have countered that it will take three or four years for ridership to stabilize. Brightline has prevailed on a number of legal challenges so far and projected that there will eventually be 5.3 million riders per year. 

In the meantime, here are some highlights from the weekend festivities, which went down in pure Miami style — with mojitos, b-boys, yoga, the Miami Heat's Udonis Haslem and ubiquitous local celebrity DJ Irie: