Brightline Brings High Speed Rail to Florida

Travel Features Brightline
Brightline Brings High Speed Rail to Florida

When Brightline opened its Orlando train station at the Orlando International Airport last week, it came one step closer to connecting Central and South Florida with high speed rail. Starting this summer trains will run daily from Orlando International Airport to 6th Street in downtown Miami, topping out at 125 miles per hour, and passing through Brightline’s other stations at West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Aventura along the way. It’ll offer a simple, stress-free way to travel between two of America’s most popular tourist destinations, and also introduce America to the kind of high speed rail found in so many other countries around the world. And if you’re surprised that the first major high speed rail project in America would happen in Florida—a state with a, let’s say, very specific reputation—you shouldn’t be. Brightline is building on a history of rail travel in Florida that dates back to the 19th century.

“This is the first privately owned intercity passenger rail in the United States since Henry Flagler did it in, like, 1895,” Patrick Goddard, the President of Brightline, points out. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway was crucial to developing the state in the 1890s and 1900s, and Brightline now owns its freight corridor from Jacksonville to Miami, using tracks from the FEC for its line from West Palm Beach to Miami. At one point used for both passenger and freight travel, this line long ago became freight only; in a sense Brightline is reclaiming it for its original purpose. “When we passed the Federal Highway Act in the 1950s I don’t think we anticipated that 70 years later all the highways would be congested,” Goddard notes. “By doing that we gave up all the railroads to the freight companies. We’ve got the best freight infrastructure in probably the whole world, but we’ve got the worst passenger infrastructure as a result. So I think this is a step in the right direction.”

By punting passenger rail in favor of highways America has basically raised a country full of people who don’t even consider rail as a viable transportation option outside of local transit systems. We love our planes and automobiles but don’t have time for trains. Anybody who’s traveled through Europe or Asia, though, has probably seen how convenient and comfortable high speed rail can be. It’s faster than driving, doesn’t have many of the hassles associated with flying, and is much better for the environment and for urban planning than cars. And yet the U.S. is still reluctant to build high speed rail. Goddard laments how “the U.S. is about 50 years behind Europe and Asia in terms of intercity passenger rail,” and changing those attitudes is a major part of Brightline’s mission. 

“It’s sort of embarrassing, to be honest,” he says. “But this is a golden opportunity. There’s never been a better moment in time to start thinking about intercity passenger rail in the United States, and what we’re doing in Florida is laying a blueprint for the rest of the country on how this can actually be done. And we’re doing it with private dollars.”


The first thing you notice when you approach a Brightline station is its signature color. Splashes of yellow can be found throughout, from the ticket kiosks, to the guest services desk, to accent lines running through the carpet. Across the board, from the trains to the stations, the Brightline design aesthetic is sleek, upscale, and bright, with big windows letting the sun in and a tasteful, minimalist color scheme punctuated by those bold bursts of yellow. The second thing you notice, if your sinuses aren’t clogged, is Brightline’s signature scent—a light citrus note that feels clean, refreshing, and very Floridian. That scent will follow you throughout your Brightline journey, from the station to the train to the cold towel the attendant gives you when you take your seat. 

Brightline offers two levels of service. The more expensive of the two is Premium, which gets you the kind of perks you’d expect from first class on an airline: free snacks, free drinks, and a larger, more comfortable seat. It also gets you access to the Premium Lounges at Brightline stations, which are private sitting areas where you can load up on free food and drinks before the ride even begins. These Premium Lounges also have beer and wine available, and the Orlando station will be the first to have a new automated system called TendedBar that can also pour cocktails. The other level, Smart Fare, gets you on the train, which is the most important thing, but its seats are a little smaller and doesn’t include any free food or drinks, either on the train or in the Smart Lounge. It is cheaper, of course, and that’s a perk in and of itself.

Stations are a little impersonal but still comfortable, like the lobby of a hotel that wants to look both stylish and professional. It all has more charm and personality than a typical airport terminal, and even the Smart Lounge feels like an airline’s private club (only, again, without the free food and drinks). If you didn’t spring for Premium, you can buy snacks at an automated convenience store found in every Brightline station. They also all have a bar called Mary Mary that serves beer, wine and craft cocktails alongside small bites. You won’t go hungry or thirsty on the Brightline, and probably won’t experience that unsettling claustrophobic feeling you might get when everybody’s all massed together at an airline gate.


If you’ve ever looked into rail travel in the U.S. before, you’ve probably noticed that prices are often not that much cheaper than airfare. That’s one of the hurdles with passenger trains, and it’s something Brightline will face when customers start to shop for travel options. They haven’t released full pricing yet, but have revealed that one-way Smart fares from Orlando to Miami will start at $79, with one-way Premium fares starting at $149. (There will also be a family plan that gets you four one-way Smart fares for under $199, but Brightline hasn’t confirmed the age limits on that deal.) There are cheaper flight options, but obviously it all depends on what airline and class you compare it to. You won’t find a flight as comfortable as the Brightline unless you spring for First Class, which will almost definitely cost more than even the Premium fare, but a flight will most likely get you from Orlando to Miami (or vice versa) faster than the Brightline. It’s a three-hour trip either way on the train; they recommend you arrive no later than a half-hour before departure, so you’re looking at three and a half hours on the Brightline. A flight takes just over an hour, plus whatever time it takes to get through TSA and board the plane. If you’re cautious and like to get to the airport two hours before takeoff, you’re looking at a minimum of three hours to get from one city to the other. You’re not necessarily going to save much money on Brightline or much time flying, so it all comes down to your preference. Given how stressful and uncomfortable the whole air travel experience is, no doubt many will prefer the relative ease of the Brightline. 

When asked about other incentives to get Americans unfamiliar with high speed rail to give the Brightline a shot, Goddard points to the comfort and luxury of rail travel. “We think the incentive is the experience,” he says. “When we set out to do this, we knew we couldn’t just offer the commodity of transportation. People were already doing that and not doing it very successfully. So you’re sitting in a station that’s really been designed through the lens of the modern traveler. We have thought carefully about what the guest experience should be. Like, I’m a hotel guy. Why is a hotel guy involved in a train company? Well, because we want to care about things like architecture, interior design, quality food and beverage, customer service, all those things are important to us. Running the trains on time, we have a 92% on time performance in South Florida, we have a Net Promoter Score that’s 80, all those things contribute to a phenomenal experience. In many cases people come for the travel time and the convenience, but they stay for the intrinsic benefits of train travel vs. driving in a car. And we’ve found that to be very effective in South Florida. It takes a minute for people to try it the first time, but once they’ve tried it, they get it. It immediately clicks for them and they don’t want to return to their cars. That is the evidence we already have that people are willing to try it, and once they try it they become regular customers.”

Brightline hasn’t announced a firm date for the launch of the Orlando to Miami line. All they’ve said is that it will start at some point this summer, with tickets going on sale in May. And the company doesn’t plan on resting once it connects those two cities. They plan on extending a line from Orlando to Tampa, and also floated the possibility of opening dedicated stations at popular attractions like Disney World and Universal’s upcoming Epic Universe theme park. They’re already looking beyond Florida, even. “We’re going to be talking about Brightline West soon, connecting L.A. and Vegas,” Goddard explains, “and I think there are probably many other opportunities. When you think about the United States it has probably a dozen corridors that fall into that category of ‘too short to fly, too long to drive,’ so we need it. I think there’s a whole industry of intercity passenger rail that this project is going to catalyze. I think it’s transformative. I think it’s going to be a game changer.” 

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.


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