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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the eve of Brightline passenger rail launching in South Florida, the railroad already is looking beyond its original goal of service between Miami and Orlando.
Brightline’s intercity system could be expanded within Florida to Jacksonville or Tampa and could be replicated in other states with similar demographics, including Georgia and Texas, railroad officials said at a media event Friday.
“Our vision doesn’t stop here,” said Wes Edens, co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, Brightline’s parent company. “Our goal is to look at other corridors with similar characteristics — too long to drive, too short to fly.”
Brightline — the country’s only privately owned and operated passenger railroad — is to officially begin passenger service Saturday morning.
For now, trains will run between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. But the railroad will expand to Miami later this year, with full service to Orlando still two years away.
Elected officials and members of the media on Friday took the 40-minute trip on BrightGreen, one of Brightline’s five colorful diesel-electric trains.
It was a chance for the $3.1 billion railroad to show off the amenities they say will set Brightline apart from other forms of public transportation, including Tri-Rail, South Florida’s existing commuter rail.
Leather seats, wide aisles, bike racks, free wireless Internet — with two power outlets and two USB ports per seat — are among the amenities Brightline says will appeal to its target customers, which include tourists, business travelers and Millennials.
Friday’s event also was a chance for Brightline to introduce the staff that it says will provide world-class hospitality.
Train attendant Whytni Walker, 23, of West Palm Beach said she applied to Brightline because she wanted “to be part of something new.”
Walker said she believes the staff, many of whom are Millennials, are helping to create a vibrant atmosphere aboard the trains and in the stations.
“There’s energy everywhere,” Walker said. “Since training began, there hasn’t been a dull day.”
But even with the launch of service just hours away, Brightline officials on Friday were focused on the future.
The project’s successful launch — and performance in the coming years — could have implications for passenger rail nationwide, Edens said in an interview with USA TODAY.
To be economically viable, the railroad must capture 2% of the approximately 100 million annual trips between Miami and Orlando, according to Edens.
The private-equity investor and co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks said he’s confident Brightline will deliver.
“The service offering and the convenience and the expense of it are so compelling that 2% seems like a good risk,” Edens said.
Brightline eventually could capture up to 20% of the travel between Miami and Orlando, the most visited city in the United States, according to Edens’ estimates. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service, by comparison, captures 12% of the travel between New York and Washington, he said.
The Brightline model could be replicated in other highly populated, highly congested city pairs, such as Atlanta-Charlotte, Houston-Dallas and Dallas-Austin, according to Edens.
The company has long said that its use of the Florida East Coast Railway — a Miami-to-Jacksonville corridor established in the late 19th century but currently used only for freight — was a key factor in making Brightline financially viable.
Similar infrastructure exists in Texas and Georgia and is, in fact, abundant in many areas of the country, according to Edens.
“The U.S. has very poor passenger rail, but the best freight system in the world,” he said. “The existing infrastructure is very usable in many of these places.”
Within Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville are among the most obvious expansion opportunities, Edens said, adding that each comes with unique benefits. Expansion from Orlando to Tampa, Florida’s second-largest city by population, would be aided by the fact that the state owns right-of-way between the cities, while an expansion to Jacksonville, the northern terminus of the Florida East Coast Railway, would have the advantage of the existing infrastructure, according to Edens.
Introductory fares between West Palm and Fort Lauderdale are $10 each way for Smart Service, Brightline’s coach class, and $15 for Select Service, its business class. Seniors, active military personnel and veterans will receive a 10% discount, and children younger than 12 will ride for half price as part of discounted introductory fares, according to Brightline.
Initial service will include 10 daily round trips on weekdays and nine on weekends between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.
Brightline ticketing and schedule information is available online and through the railroad’s new mobile app.