ORLANDO — When the fastest train in the country outside of the Northeast began service in Florida in September, state Rep. Karen Gonzalez Pittman was along for the ride.
A skeptic of passenger rail, the Tampa Republican hadn’t enjoyed her experiences aboard Amtrak, the national rail service. Riding Brightline between Miami and Orlando, however, changed her mind. Sleek, spacious and hassle-free, Brightline made it that day in three hours and 30 minutes.
“You could feel the connectivity,” Gonzalez Pittman said. “You could feel what this was going to do to our state, how this was going to bring people closer.”
Now, the first-term lawmaker is among those clamoring to bring privately operated high-speed rail to Tampa. She’s submitted a request for $50 million in state money to spur an extension along the Interstate 4 corridor, where Brightline aims to use the median at speeds of up to 150 mph.
Earlier this month, Sen. Nick DiCeglie, a Pinellas Republican, filed a bill that would require the Florida Department of Transportation to preserve the rail corridor during the $2 billion I-4 expansion that begins later this year.
Those legislative proposals are the first concrete steps lawmakers have taken in recent years toward adding a Tampa leg at a time when the service is gaining ridership but, like most passenger rail systems, is losing money.
Last November, Brightline carried more than 205,600 passengers, more than double its November 2022 ridership, according to company data. Now, the company is gearing for a Tampa stop.
“The start of something”
On a recent December morning, a Brightline train heading south from Orlando was busy but not cattle-car crowded. Passengers tapped away on laptops connected to the train’s complimentary WiFi, scrolled on phones and set out board games. Others stared out the window as the train glided through Central Florida farmland at up to 125 mph.
When passengers buy a Brightline ticket, they get a designated seat — avoiding the scramble inherent to some other commuter rail experiences. Travelers can opt to check large bags, without jockeying through crowded airline terminals.
Each train comprises four passenger cars and holds a total of 240 people. Two locomotives, one on each end, ensure that the train never has to turn around. The aisles are wide and the seats spacious, so passengers aren’t cheek to jowl with strangers.
The service is upscale: premium lounges, gleaming stations scented with citrus and leather train seats.
“From the same manufacturer as Lamborghini,” said Katie Mitzner, Brightline’s public affairs director.
The company, the only private intercity passenger railroad in the country, bills itself as “where hospitality and transportation meet.”
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On board was Peter Anderson, 83 and a self-described “rail fan.” He was treating himself to a Miami Heat game and a night in a hotel. He lives in Melbourne, southeast of Orlando, and pointed out the window as the train zipped by his green condo.
He’s ridden trains all over — in China, Japan and Spain — and always thought that much of the U.S., especially Florida, lagged other countries when it came to options for getting from one place to another.
“Maybe this will be the start of something,” Anderson said.
A decade in the making
Connecting the state’s growing and sprawling cities to alleviate traffic, save energy and transport residents and tourists has long captivated planners.
More than a decade ago, Florida considered high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, when the Obama administration offered $2.4 billion for the project. But then-Gov. Rick Scott rejected the funds in 2011, expressing concern about ridership projections and apprehension that Florida would be responsible for cost overruns.
Brightline launched on its own, with private backing and plans to develop commercial and residential hubs around its stations. It became the nation’s first private passenger rail to launch in a century when it started its 67-mile service between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018.
Service was extended to Orlando last fall.
The company established itself mostly on an existing freight rail corridor, the same one established by Henry Flagler that put Florida on the map more than a century ago. Using that corridor has helped minimize overall capital costs, though Brightline has still pumped $5 billion in private investment to connect South and Central Florida, a senior executive told Florida lawmakers last month.
Gonzalez Pittman has since been joined by Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, in seeking the $50 million that would allow Brightline to “attract federal and private funds to accelerate a passenger rail connection from Tampa to Orlando.”
Once billed as an entirely privately financed train, Brightline is now benefiting from major government investment. The company recently won a $3 billion federal grant to build a $12 billion high-speed railway between Las Vegas and Southern California in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Brightline makes the trip between Orlando and Miami about 30 minutes faster than the average car ride, not accounting for time getting to and from the stations. Ticket prices vary depending on demand and time of day, with standard class starting at around $79 and first class at $149 one way. There are discounts for families, students and larger groups, and 16 round trips per day.
In first class, tickets include food and drinks and a complimentary Uber trip within 5 miles of a Brightline station. These tickets also include access to pre-departure lounges, with free nibbles, beer and wine.
For everyone else, food and drinks can be purchased.
Both classes of seats offer designated rows where groups of four can sit facing each other with a table in between.
The company’s glowing reviews from passengers has been tainted by a high number of fatalities on its tracks compared to other trains. At least 99 people have died since it began operations six years ago, according to an ongoing Associated Press analysis. Most of the deaths have been suicides, motorists going through crossing gates or pedestrians running across the tracks.
None of Brightline’s deaths were caused by crew error or faulty equipment, according to The Associated Press. Brightline has taken steps its leaders believe enhance safety, including adding closed-circuit cameras near tracks, installing better crossing gates and pedestrian barriers, and posting signage that includes the suicide prevention hotline.
Next stop, Tampa?
In November, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor rode the connection from Miami to Orlando alongside dozens of other public and private sector leaders from the city and Hillsborough County. As she looked out the window, she wasn’t jealous, she said. But the experience did affirm that “Tampa needed this yesterday.”
She expects the city to accommodate Brightline by the end of the decade, with the train arriving in Ybor City.
In 2022, Brightline received a $15.9 million federal grant toward the preliminary engineering for the 67-mile Tampa-Orlando connection.
And in December 2023, the Florida Department of Transportation got $500,000 from the federal government to study the rail corridor from Orlando to Tampa.
Tampa also recently obtained a federal grant to launch an office dedicated to accelerating big transit projects. Among the priorities is transforming the area around what would be Brightline’s Tampa station “into an urban, walkable neighborhood,” according to the city’s grant application. The $25 million project is estimated to take three years.
Amid this wave of federal dollars, and requests to state lawmakers, Brightline is stepping up its push for Tampa.
The company posted a net loss of $192.2 million in the first nine months of last year, according to a quarterly statement released in late December. Brightline intends to refinance all the debt it incurred while building its route between Miami and Orlando. It also may seek to sell or spin off all or part of the development rights for the Orlando-Tampa leg, according to the financial statement.
The Tampa extension is expected to include stops at the Orange County Convention Center and South International Drive.
“It is complex to get to Tampa,” Christine Kefauver, Brightline’s senior vice president of corporate development, told Florida lawmakers. “But we’re up to the challenge.”
“On everyone’s mind”
Meanwhile, the drive between Orlando and Tampa remains a slog on a good day, despite billions in continual widening work, such as the $2.3 billion project in Orange and Seminole counties completed in 2022.
The state has long anticipated a future need for intercity passenger rail, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue told a House panel last year, “regardless of how that is provided or who’s providing that service.”
In Florida, he added, passenger rail is “a topic on everyone’s mind.”
Brightline’s Florida service has welcomed visitors from 92 countries, according to company data.
To help passengers get from train stations to where they need to go, including theme parks and sporting events, in a state with barebones public transportation, the company has coordinated with rideshare and shuttle services.
Meanwhile, on a recent Thursday, passenger David Lucoff, 58, was looking out the window as the train plowed north under a cloudy sky.
He boarded at the Boca Raton Station, half an hour from his house. His legs cramp on long car rides and he doesn’t like the frenzy of planes. In 2018, he rode Brightline’s debut trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. He wasn’t sure why it had taken him five years to ride again.
“I’ve already texted my wife, saying, ‘We’ve gotta use this more,’” he said.
Soon after, the train rumbled into Orlando.
“Have a bright day,” staff said with a smile as passengers disembarked, many wheeling suitcases and headed to Orlando International Airport.
Those traveling on to Tampa had bumper-to-bumper interstate traffic awaiting.