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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.
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.
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.