By Curtis Tate for USA TODAY
What do Miami’s cruise ship port, Disney World and Las Vegas have in common?
Within a few years, they could be stops for America’s newest passenger trains.
Other than Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the United States has nothing that comes even close to what’s considered high-speed rail in Europe, Japan and China. But it may be moving closer to what other countries have been doing for decades.
“When people see what it’s all about,” said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, “you’ll see people clamoring for this.”
Virgin Trains USA is currently building a 170-mile extension of its Brightline train from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Orlando International Airport. It is scheduled to open in 2022, with trains that can travel up to 125 mph.
Brightline has been operating from Miami to West Palm Beach, Florida, since 2018, although service was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. There isn’t a timetable for restarting it.
“For us, it gives us an opportunity to continue to invest in our construction,” which hasn’t shut down, said Ben Porritt, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Brightline.
Porritt said the pandemic has allowed Brightline to move quickly toward its ultimate goal of linking Orlando and Miami.
Discussions are underway to extend the line further from Orlando to Tampa, with a stop at Disney World. Brightline trains will serve the country’s busiest cruise ship port, PortMiami.The company reached an agreement with local officials last year to build a station by the end of 2020.
High-speed rail moves forward in the West, too
Across the country, Virgin Trains is moving closer to building the XpressWest train from southern California to Las Vegas.
The trains are scheduled to begin running in 2023 and will operate at 200 mph, making the 170-mile trip from Victorville, California, to Las Vegas in 85 minutes. The trip takes about three hours by car under ideal traffic conditions. The train trip will cost $60 each way, Porritt said.
Porritt added the company is on a path to break ground this year.
The Virgin Trains projects — the first privately operated U.S. passenger trains in more than a century — come at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has put Americans’ travel plans on hold and caused the airline industry to scale back flights dramatically.
Porritt said rail projects are ready to fill the void.
“Every trend points to high-speed rail,” he said.
Other passenger rail improvements have been underway for more than a decade. President Barack Obama’s American Recovery Act — the economic stimulus bill enacted in response to the Great Recession — pumped billions of dollars into improvements to Amtrak service nationwide.
Some of the stimulus money helped kick off California’s high-speed rail project, which is currently under construction in the Central Valley. It’s intended to eventually link San Francisco to Los Angeles with 220 mph trains, and it will also connect to the XpressWest train to Las Vegas.
Other high-speed trains on the way
A private consortium is planning a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston, with an opening date in 2026. Called Texas Central, it is modeled on the Japanese bullet train, which has been operating since 1964.It would cover the 240-mile distance in 90 minutes.
Not to be outdone, Amtrak is replacing its flagship Acela trains, which have been running from Washington to New York and Boston since 2000, at a maximum speed of 150 mph. The new trains will be able to go slightly faster — 160 mph — but are limited by curves and aging bridges and tunnels in the Northeast.
But how (and where) will new rail projects be built?
Though the acquisition of land is required for any new rail project, they can make use of existing corridors that are already engineered for high speeds: interstate highways. This avoids costly legal battles with landowners and cuts down on the cost of constructing an entirely new path.
“The Vegas project is a fairly easy one to build,” Kunz said. “They can build it in a couple of years.”
Virgin’s Tampa extension would use the median of Interstate 4, while the Las Vegas line would use the median of Interstate 15.
They’re also aiming to connect with existing commuter rail. XpressWest expects to connect with southern California’s Metrolink system at Palmdale and Rancho Cucamonga. Both cities have commuter lines that reach downtown Los Angeles.
In Orlando, Brightline would connect to central Florida’s SunRail commuter line.
Amtrak, meanwhile, is upgrading track, bridges and stations in the Northeast Corridor in preparation for its new Acela trains, which will debut next year. But its long-term goals of more frequent and faster trains in the region are costly ones: In 2012, the railroad estimated all the necessary improvements would cost $151 billion by 2040. Amtrak receives about $1 billion a year in federal funding.
Porritt said when the project is complete, Brightline would operate 18 trains each way daily, with service every hour, plus every half hour during peak times.
The company already has five trains for its Miami to West Palm Beach route, and five more are being built by Siemens in South Sacramento, California.
Orlando and Miami are 235 miles apart, a distance Porritt describes as the “sweet spot” for passenger rail: too long to drive, but too short to fly. The trip will take three hours, about a half hour faster than driving under ideal conditions, and cost $75 each way.
Porritt sees potential in other corridors with the right mix of business and leisure travelers, some of which already have Amtrak service. Add highway congestion and reduced air service, and you have the right mix of factors to make it work, Kunz said.
“That’s the perfect scenario where high-speed rail fits in,” he said.
Potential future corridors under review for high-speed trains include Chicago-St. Louis; Atlanta-Charlotte, North Carolina; Seattle-Portland, Oregon and the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas-Houston.
Kunz compared the long-range goal of high-speed rail in America to the Interstate Highway System, which took about 30 years to complete. While that was built with public money, Kunz said both private and public funds can build a new rail system.
“We can build this in 30 years,” Kunz said. “That’s not too crazy for us.”
He added, “This is going to accelerate pretty quickly, I think.”
Editor’s Note: Virgin Trains USA is a subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group LLC. New York-based Fortress has a management contract with Gannett Co., the publisher of USA TODAY.