Plans for a Tampa to Orlando higher-speed rail line are building momentum like a train rolling down the track.
First, Brightline, the private company looking to expand its express passenger rail system that now links Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, picked up a major partner and investor in British billionaire Richard Branson and his company Virgin Group.
In November, Brightline announced the partnership and rebranded as Virgin Trains USA.
“Our private sector-led effort to reinvent passenger rail service in America is taking another leap forward with the addition of the Virgin team,” says Wes Edens, the chairman of Brightline and co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, in a written statement. “Virgin has built a respected and trusted brand in travel and hospitality. With our shared focus on customer experience, powered by a culture of innovation and disruption, we are well positioned to build on our success.”
The Virgin Group, which has invested in high-speed rail in Europe for two decades, will be a minority investor in Virgin Trains USA. Private equity giant Fortress Investment Group LLC will retain majority ownership and Brightline’s management team will continue to oversee operations and business decisions.
In a news release, Branson says the partnership is Virgin’s latest venture to disrupt the transportation industry.
“We have had a lot of fun and success creating innovative transport businesses that shake up markets and establish loyal followings,” Branson says. “We transformed domestic air travel with Virgin America. Tens of millions of Americans travel on the railways everyday, and we have tried for over a decade to find an opportunity to provide them with that same excellent service experience. Brightline is at the forefront of innovation in this market, and the ideal partner for Virgin to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States.”
In addition to bringing a heavy-hitter investor on board, Virgin Trains USA also received a key approval from the Florida Department of Transportation for the planned Orlando to downtown Tampa expansion. In late November, FDOT gave the go ahead for the company to begin negotiating agreements to lease right-of-way with FDOT and the Central Florida Express Way Authority. The right-of-way leases are needed in order for the company to construct the train line along the Interstate 4 corridor and along State Road 528 and State Road 417 in the Orlando area.
The south Florida Brightline system went into operation earlier this year. In addition to operating the train system, the company has also built residential, retail and office developments around its stations, spurring economic development.
Tampa leaders, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn, predict a Tampa to Orlando line will contribute to the city’s ongoing redevelopment boom and boost tourism.
Virgin Trains USA’s current plan is to expand from West Palm Beach to Orlando in 2021, with Orlando to Tampa following that. A specific station location in Tampa will be developed later.