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BusinessNewsRailroad

Virgin Trains USA expanding service in Florida, California and Nevada (with video)

FreightWaves features commentary from Market Voices – contributors with unique knowledge of numerous transportation/logistics/supply chain sectors, as well as other critical expertise.

Virgin Trains USA, the only privately owned railroad in the United States, received approval to expand in Florida. It held a groundbreaking ceremony at Orlando International Airport on June 24th to celebrate the launch of Phase 2 of its rail service.

Currently Virgin Trains USA’s train runs from West Palm Beach to Miami. Rail service started in January 2018 from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach under Virgin Trains USA predecessor Brightline. Then just last month service began connecting Fort Lauderdale to Miami. The rail expansion from West Palm Beach to Orlando is not expected to be completed until 2022. Phase 3 is already planned, which will run from Orlando to Tampa. There are two proposed routes for Phase 3. One of the proposed routes, from Orlando out to the coast at Cocoa, is expected to run trains that sustain speeds of over 125 miles per hour, which meets the definition of high-speed rail in the United States.

The West Palm Beach to Orlando route is expected to cost around $4 billion. Virgin’s diesel-electric locomotives will share tracks owned by the Florida East Coast Railway that are already in existence for most of the route.

Though the trains only began to run recently, preparation for the rail service has been underway for a while. The company (then called Brightline) began work in downtown Miami in mid-2014, laying new track and repairing existing tracks. Work began on the Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale stations in late 2014, and construction began on the Miami station in early 2015.

Brightline (the predecessor company to Virgin Trains USA) trains in their South Florida railyard.

In April the Florida Development Corporation approved a measure to allow the company to raise $915 million in new bonds to help fund the effort. These funds will make up some of the $1.9 billion left to fund the new route. The estimated economic impact over the next eight years for the new train service is estimated at around $6.4 billion. In addition, it is expected to add more than 10,000 jobs during construction and around 2,000 jobs when it is complete.

Company spokesman Ben Porritt contends that the project will be a huge boon to the economy of the state. “Virgin Trains will be a transformative project that will help Florida stay economically competitive while bringing thousands of jobs and tremendous economic impact to the state. We have seen incredible support for this project and are confident it will bring a necessary public benefit to the millions of Florida residents and visitors,” he said.

In an already cramped state that is projected to increase by six million residents in the next decade, he might just be right.

The next few phases of the Virgin Trains USA railroad should keep the company busy, but it is already casting its gaze westward. In September 2018, the company acquired XpressWest, a private railroad firm that had plans to build a line connecting Las Vegas with southern California. Virgin Trains USA then went on to purchase 38 acres of land near the Las Vegas strip to build a railroad station that allows for access to lay rail along the Interstate 15 corridor. The company has announced that rail service between these areas will commence in 2022. Presumably the next logical step would be to connect the two terminuses by a rail line running across the southern part of the U.S.

Richard Branson (white shirt) and others celebrate the expansion of Virgin Trains USA.

Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson bought a minority stake in private railroading company Brightline in November 2018 through the subsidiary Fortress Investment Group. The company was then renamed Virgin Trains USA. Virgin is not new to the railroad game as it has run intercity high-speed rail service in the United Kingdom for over 20 years.

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Ben Thrower, Contributor

Ben contributes to the FreightWaves website as one of its Market Voices. Ben was a financial analyst at Dole Fresh Vegetables in Monterey, California focusing on the company’s extensive supply chain. He holds a Master of Science in Finance from the University of Utah and a Master of Science in Logistics Management from Georgia College and State University. In addition to contributing to FreightWaves, Ben is an instructor of business statistics and computer applications at the Wright School of Business at Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia. In his spare time, Ben loves to travel and spend time with his dog, Bodhi.

4 Comments

  1. CORRECTIONS:

    1) Virgin Trains USA, the only privately owned INTERCITY PASSENGER railroad in the United States, received approval to expand in Florida.
    2) Miami service began in May 2018, not “just last month”

  2. As much as I would like to see improved mass transportation in the US I have a hard time getting very excited about this. Japan has had the high speed Shinkansen since 1964 and can reach speeds of 200mph. These rails stretch the length of the country and allow fast comfortable transit. Why are we still building an inferior product and getting excited about it?

    1. How did Japanese passenger rail get started? Did they start with the fastest passenger trains in the world? Of course not. Right now the US has the world’s best freight rail system and only a shadow of a passenger rail system in Amtrak. The best way to ramp up into a world class high speed rail passenger railway is the start with upgraded rail using existing technology and ROW. Florida East Coast did that and even that concept has grown and developed since it started a few years ago. Shooting for the moon with the best world class system from the start will get you California HSR – a mismanaged boondoggle that will end up connecting nobody. Give it time.

      1. “The best way to ramp up into a world class high speed rail passenger railway is the start with upgraded rail …”

        Texas and California beg to differ!

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