The company that will build the railway is called Brightline and is owned by Fortress Investment Group. While many observers think the concern is taking a big gamble, others, including the company itself is convinced that the rail system is an idea whose time has come.
"Everybody loves trains," said Brightline President Mike Reininger.
Reininger’s background might make him appear unsuited to be running a railroad. He worked for 12 years at Disney, where his main focus and responsibility was too develop resorts. And another Brightline executive came from MGM Resorts. How do you translate resort and hotel experience into a railway company? By putting an emphasis on providing a "hospitality experience" that will mix modernized and efficient transportation with train stations that offer retail and other amenities creating an “attraction” based system that provides warmth and appeal beyond what is currently used in the rail business.
"The train literally reaches out to greet you at the platform." -Brightline President Mike Reininger
According to the company, Brightline cars will feature amenities like oversized comfortable seats, large windows, aisles twice as wide as those on airplanes, hands-free bathrooms cleaned regularly, outlets everywhere, free Wi-Fi, and something it calls a "gap filler," which allows passengers to walk onto the train without stepping up or down.
"The train literally reaches out to greet you at the platform," said Reininger. The train will travel at speeds up to 125 mph making the trip from Miami to Orlando in three hours.
Brightline has already raised $1 billion in equity and debt to launch the first phase of the rail service, which is set to commence next year between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Using existing rail corridors, the company is currently building stations on land it bought over the past several years. There is also a second phase planned to service Orlando. It is expected to cost an additional $1.5 billion.
Reininger projects Brightline will get at least 1 percent of the estimated 500 million automobile trips taken annually between cities in South Florida and Orlando. While ticket prices have not yet been established, Reininger says they will be competitive with the cost of driving a car.
"At the end of the day, we know we've got to do one thing. We have to change your behavior a little bit. We have to convince you to get out of your car and get into what we consider a smarter way to travel, the affable CEO told reporters."
To the dedicated people working at Brightline, high-speed rail is an idea about to take off in a big way and the company is already looking conceptually at other markets in places like Texas or California.
To get the first trains built, Brightline chose Siemens USA a company based in Sacramento California, the capitol of the Golden State. Siemens is also involved in trying to build its own high speed rail, funded by taxpayers, with a total price tag that could easily top $68 billion., nearly 30 times the price of Brightline's Florida train.
Reininger wouldn’t disclose how much it is paying for its trains but it is easy to see the money needed to build a private railway here in South Florida will be much less than the public system planned for California since it is already projected to be a fraction of the costs, maybe as much as 95% less.
The Siemens USA plant is just a few miles away from the California state Capitol, and thought it has been said the political climate is hostile to manufacturing, that doesn’t seem to bother Michael Cahill, president of Siemens USA's rolling stock division. He said the company has been in the Golden State for 30 years.
“Our company has been in California over 30 years and one of the great things about California is the positive spirit," said Cahill. "In California there is an enthusiasm here that is unmatched anywhere else in the country."
Recently released data shows that Siemens USA increased its 600,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Sacramento by 20 percent to accommodate the Brightline contract. The locomotives they're building for south Florida will run on clean diesel, and the passenger cars are manufactured with stainless steel to make them resistant to rust.
Siemens is busy these days. Not only are they building for themselves and Florida there are other contracts for locomotives and rail cars being built inside the Sacramento plant for other cities and states, from San Francisco to Calgary, Washington to Illinois.
"Our production is growing," said Cahill. "We've added, compared to last year, about 150,000 man hours of work in the factory."
Making Siemens a model of ecologically sound manufacturing is the heavy use of solar power by the company. Cahill said another advantage of remaining in California is the sun.
"Up to 80 percent of the power we use is generated by solar panels," said Cahill and then added,”it gives us a big advantage when it comes to public perception and costs.”
Like a lot of the labor force today, Siemens is challenged by a lack of skilled labor. For example -Welders are in high demand, particularly those who can weld stainless steel. Rather than buck a sluggish and untrained labor force, Siemens started its own training program to develop new talent.
One lady who went through the training program, - 23-year-old Denise Robertson – is already on the job and was seen welding a new train car just this week. Robertson used to solder metal for jewelry, but she heard about the welding training program she signed up.
"It opened up a whole new world for me," she said. "I learned you could actually make a pretty good career in welding."
Caption 1 – Michael Reininger,CEO of Brighline, is seen here standing in a locomotive being built by Siemens in California. This is one of ten locomotives scheduled to be built for the privately funded high speed rail system set to begin operations in 2017 serving south Florida.
BRIGHTLINES EXPRESS TRAIN SERVICE IS CALLED All Aboard Florida on a website that lays out the details of its proposed service for intercity travel in one of the most populous and visited regions in the United States. In the website, Brightline presents “a bright and optimistic view of the future for the millions of residents and tourists who crisscross the state’s highways and skyways annually by offering an important new travel alternative in Florida, the first of its kind in the United States.”
Brightline will use the existing Florida East Coast Railway corridor between Miami and Cocoa, and is building new track along State Road 528 between Cocoa and Orlando. Once complete, it will serve residents and visitors in this area with a train that is billed as “convenient, safe, fast and environmentally friendly”
It is anticipated that over the next eight years, high speed rail will have a high direct impact on Florida’s economy. During construction, it will create nearly 10,000 jobs. It will also require zero funding from taxpayers. And it’s all moving full-speed ahead.
To proponents of passenger rail, trains have the capacity to transform the travel experience. They say not only will it reduce emissions and take cars off the road, it will allow passengers to arrive more relaxed, refreshed and comfortable decreasing road rage, accidents and lowering stress for travelers.
“From a public health standpoint, getting people out of cars and into public transportation has always been a desirable goal, people just don’t like to give up what they perceive as independence associates with private automobiles. It’s very American to cling to cars, Europe and Asia already use rail much more but it’s advent and acceptance here will be better for all Americans,” said Roger Clemens a researcher who specializes in the effects of transportation on health and well-being.
Clemens views are about to get tested since Brightline will launch service between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2017, with service from Miami to Orlando following.
In the meantime, All Aboard Florida will be improving the route between Miami and Cocoa, building out the route between Cocoa and Orlando, and constructing modern train stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
The website states that:
“Station construction projects at the four destination cities are at various stages. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) designed the three South Florida stations in association with Zyscovich Architects. Construction has begun in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, and each station will be completed in advance of the 2017 launch. Suffolk Construction is serving as general contractor in Miami, and Moss & Associates is the general contractor in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The Orlando station will be part of a larger Intermodal Transportation Center at Orlando International Airport.”
Since millions live, work and vacation in the stretch of Florida between Orlando and Miami, Brighline has strategically located its stations near local transportation options, providing passengers convenient access to each city and destinations located throughout the region.
The Orlando Station will be adjacent to Orlando International Airport, allowing visitors from around the world a new and attractive option as they explore Central and South Florida.
All together the project may finally bring a much needed alternative mode of transportation to South Florida and lessen pollution, highway congestion and bring Florida into the modern world of efficient high-speed rail travel. To stay updated on the progress and be ready to take an inaugural trip get connected with Brightline online at allaboardflorida.com to stay updated on progress and news.