Tickets for Brightline, the new high-speed train between Miami and West Palm Beach, would have been a cool stocking-stuffer for the holidays this year.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy tickets yet, even though service is supposed to begin soon. The company still hasn’t announced the price of the ride, or even the schedule of departures and arrivals.
Festively painted trains have been seen zipping up and down the tracks in what is touted as a “simulated” service, meant to spark public excitement for the first short leg of the project, which is basically just Tri-Rail on steroids.
The price of the tickets is important because that will determine how much money the Boondoggle Express will lose, and how fast it will lose it.
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Every passenger rail in this country spews red ink, and Brightline has zero chance of being the lone exception. Its exorbitant Phase 2 is a nonstop run from West Palm to Orlando, via Cocoa.
Eventually, we’ll all be paying for this doomed folly, falsely promoted as privately funded.
The meat of its financing is government-backed bonds.
Originally the high-speed train project was called All Aboard Florida, which as a brand name was more marketable though less honest than, say, Bend Over Florida.
Despite the support of Gov. Rick Scott, the rechristened Brightline has failed to attract a stampede of eager investors. In 2015 a state agency, the Florida Development Finance Corp., issued the company $1.75 billion of private-activity bonds, which almost nobody wanted to buy.
That’s because running even super-fast trains from Miami to Orlando using an East Coast route is an indefensibly cockeyed plan. If you pitched the idea on “Shark Tank,” you’d get whisked off the show.
The sales premise is that thousands of South Florida tourists would love to take a train ride to visit Disney World and the other theme parks.
Fine, but Brightline isn’t going to Disney or Universal. It’s going to Orlando International Airport, a place most sane people try to avoid unless they’re catching a plane.
Brightline’s parent firm, still called All Aboard Florida, has said the rail trip from downtown Miami will take about three hours.
That’s two hours longer than a nonstop flight, of which there are many daily offering seats as cheap as $81 — a price Brightline can’t sustainably match.
If you’re someone who likes to drive, you can rent a car in Miami and take your family directly to the Magic Kingdom.
Or you can buy them all train tickets to the Orlando airport and rent a car there, spending a lot more money to arrive at the theme park in roughly the same time.
The train ride would be shorter if it were a straight shot, but Brightline’s bent coat-hanger route will use the Florida East Coast Railway to Cocoa, where it will then hook up with an as-yet-unbuilt east-west connection to Orlando.
That would be a marvelous plan if you happened to own some of that future Brightline property between Cocoa and the airport, but otherwise the detour seems puzzling and expensive.
Track upgrades along the Treasure Coast segment are under way despite heated opposition. Residents worry about noise, traffic jams and delays for first responders stuck at rail crossings that Brightline trains will pass 32 times a day.
Another big issue is safety, since the locomotives will be slowing from speeds of 100-plus miles per hour as they approach many towns. Last week’s deadly high-speed Amtrak derailment near Seattle has only heightened local concerns.
By opening the Miami-to-West Palm link first, Brightline is at least assured of having commuter passengers on the inaugural trips.
Its ridership surveys predict great success and long-term profitability — a wizardly feat of accounting, in the absence of a fixed ticket price.
All Aboard Florida’s latest strategy is to split up the finance package, and the state has approved a $600 million bond sale for the Miami-West Palm leg.
Now all they need is somebody to buy all those bonds, along with the remaining $1.15 billion worth to complete the Orlando connection.
Paying back the investors would require filling the trains every day with real, nonsimulated customers. That’s never going to happen.
If Brightline still exists in five years, it will be taxpayer-subsidized like all U.S. passenger rails — even the ones that send their trains in a straight, sensible line.