Florida’s Brightline Boosts High-Speed Rail In U.S.

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MIAMI — Rick Rose owns the popular Grandview Gardens Bed & Breakfast and Vacation Homes in West Palm Beach, Florida.

As a German-American and small business owner, he wondered for a long time why the Sunshine State lacked sleek, high-speed train systems similar to the ones that exist in Germany, Europe and East Asian countries like Japan.

Well, not anymore.

Since Jan. 13, the first privately-operated, high-speed passenger rail service in the U.S. has been carrying hundreds to thousands of daily South Florida commuters between West Palm Beach and the city of Fort Lauderdale, its neighbor some 60–80 kilometers to the south along the Atlantic coast. And beginning May 19, Brightline will enable riders to travel further south via a new connection to Miami, the hustling and bustling metropolis and gateway to Latin America.

All Aboard Florida, the company that owns Brightline, plans to launch a second phase of the rail project later this year and extend its service to the central part of the state. Eventually, a new station will break ground in the growing hub of Orlando, which has witnessed a huge influx of American citizens from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean island last year.

Once the 240-kilometer leg of the service route from West Palm Beach to Orlando is complete, up to 20 million people a year are expected to travel between Orlando and Miami, two of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations.

Florida East Coast Railway

To be sure, All Aboard Florida has deep roots in the state that stretch as far back as the late 1800s and Henry Morrison Flagler, who established the U.S. multinational Standard Oil along with the American industrial tycoon, John D. Rockefeller.

Considered by many to be the founding father of Florida, Flagler is given credit for creating the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), 560 kilometers of railroad tracks from Jacksonville to Miami that enabled the state’s modern economy to develop and diversify. Florida is now the third most populous state in the U.S after California and Texas.

However, All Aboard Florida is a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which was spun off as a separate holding company from FEC after 2007, when Wall Street fund manager Fortress Investment Group purchased FEC and took it private. Fortress then sold the old FEC to Grupo Mexico in 2017. (Fortress is owned by Japanese conglomerate Softbank Group.)

While FEC continues to operate as a freight service on tracks that run parallel to the passenger line, Florida East Coast Industries owns all of the real estate assets of the original FEC, including future rights to develop Brightline.

“All Aboard Florida capitalized on assets they already had,” said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High-Speed Association in Washington, D.C. “They owned the tracks, unlike California and Texas that face the challenge of acquiring land that covers hundreds of miles.”

So while it will be another 15 years before California completes its high-speed rail system, Brightline in the meantime promises to improve mass transit throughout Florida, reduce passenger car traffic between Orlando and Miami as well as provide a more sustainable alternative to road travel.

And with the private sector backing it, Kunz said that Brightline shows that high-speed, passenger rail systems do not have to become a money pit for the public sector. As a backdrop, the U.S. Congress is currently debating a significant boost to infrastructure spending.

Transit-Oriented Development

With Brightline, the history of rail transportation and urban development in Florida come full circle.

The economic benefits that will flow to local municipalities and Florida East Coast Industries are an example of transit-oriented development or TOD, a set of urban planning and land-use principles embraced by a new generation of real estate developers. TOD focuses on meeting an increasing demand from both U.S. millennials and their baby-boomer parents for a high quality of life within mixed-use, urban places served by efficient transportation systems like Brightline. A well-designed TOD empowers people with a choice to walk, cycle, or use public transportation to meet their daily needs. In other words, TOD is an urban development response to the congestion, carbon emissions, and inefficiency of suburban sprawl.

“The car promise didn’t deliver,” said Kunz. “The history of urban development is compact, walkable and clustered around transit stations. Even the early suburbs were walkable. But in the 1950s, we started to orient everything around cars. Cars disperse people. Everything becomes separated. We have hit the limits of traffic congestion through commuting and highway expansion.”

As an example for Miami, Kunz pointed to the Japanese, who perfected a network of high-speed trains that drop off thousands of people at a time at local stops across the country. This has led to high-density, urban development and tremendous value creation around each station.

Partnering With Siemens

Kunz added that the heart and soul of TOD is sustainability. By combining compact, walkable communities with high quality rail systems, urban centers create low-carbon lifestyles by enabling people to live, work, and play without depending on cars for mobility.

This type of lifestyle reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions by up to 85%. Through a higher quality of life, TOD offers a triple-bottom line solution to economic, social, and environmental sustainability, he said.

Sustainability extends to the physical trains as well.

Siemens AG, the 160-year-old German engineering conglomerate, was chosen as a partner by All Aboard Florida in 2014. The two worked together on the development, design and delivery of the initial five trainsets, which consist of two diesel-electric locomotives and four passenger coaches.

“Brightline is the most modern intercity train in the U.S.,” said Raymond Ginnell, who manages the Brightline project for Siemens. “It is the first in the next generation of mainline passenger trains, which feature the most energy-efficient, lightweight, diesel-electric locomotives in North America.”

The Charger locomotives meet stringent Tier 4 emissions standards from the Federal Railroad Administration. A state-of-the-art treatment system ensures that diesel exhaust from the locomotives produce zero greenhouse gases, only nitrogen and water, said Ginnell.

The stainless steel passenger coaches are the first to be manufactured by Siemens in the United States. Designed for comfort, each coach features special ergonomic seating, advanced climate controls and broadband internet. Level boarding provides easy access for bikes, walkers, strollers and wheelchairs from the loading platform at each station.

Siemens is working with transportation agencies in multiple states and has developed an extensive U.S.-based supply chain to support Brightline and its other U.S. projects. Dozens of suppliers are scattered across more than 20 states, including California, Georgia and Ohio.

Quality Of Life

For Rose in West Palm Beach, there is an added bonus to the development and modernization of sustainable infrastructure that he claims will be a boon for his business and his quality of life.

Quiet zones, which were part of an original agreement between All Aboard Florida and the municipalities lining the train route, are finally going into effect this month, starting in West Palm Beach. The zones are welcome relief for Rose, his guests and many other residents who have prayed for silence since the beginning of the year, when the zones were supposed to coincide with the start of the Brightline service.

All Aboard Florida paid for the zone upgrades at close to 200 intersections along its route. They have extra gates, lights, bells as well as raised medians and curbs. It was then left to each individual city to cover the cost of waivers needed from the federal government. Earlier this year, Brightline sent employees to key intersections after multiple deaths were reported along its route.

“It’s a world of difference,” said Rose, joking about what locals commonly refer to as the “Palm Beach Pause”, that brief moment of silence between constant jet noise or train blast. “Fifty trains a day times 26 crossings, times four train-horn blasts per crossing… that’s more than 5,000 blasts a day of up to 100 decibels per blast. Today we had none. I can finally sleep at night.”

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