Tri-Rail, Virgin Trains USA Vying for Miami Access

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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A railroad battle is shaping up in Miami. Two competitors want to serve potential commuters into Brightline’s new Miami Central downtown hub. It may not be as dramatic as the Chile War, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande Western literally fought armed skirmishes to determine who could build new rail lines in the New Mexico Territory in the early 1880s, but it nevertheless is a battle.

One of the contestants is Brightline, soon to become Virgin Trains USA (VTUSA), the private-sector railroad descended from the Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) and developer Henry M. Flagler’s real-estate empire. Until COVID-19 struck in late March, Brightline ran what can best be described as a “luxury commuter train” linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Currently there is no service.

The other contestant is Tri-Rail, the public-sector railroad that operates commuter trains on a 71-mile, 18-station corridor between Miami Airport and Mangonia Park, just north of West Palm Beach. Tri-Rail, managed by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) and operated by Herzog Transit Services, runs on a former Seaboard Air Line route owned by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) several miles inland from the FECR. FDOT purchased the line from CSX in 1989.

At this writing, Brightline/VTUSA is getting first crack at a new service, but Tri-Rail is fighting back, and not everybody is rushing to support Brightline. There have never been commuter trains (also known as “regional rail”) to downtown Miami before, but there is now competition to run them. More precisely, there is competition for the county funding that would go to the railroad that operates those trains.

Commuter rail has not been operated directly by a private-sector railroad since at least the 1980s. That may be about to change.

The railroad that might make that change is still known as Brightline for now, but according to its own pronouncement, is “on track to become Virgin Trains USA,” so we will use the names interchangeably. When we last reported on Brightline late in 2018, the transition was just beginning, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group was acquiring the branding rights, and the railroad was running express service between its new Miami Central Station in downtown Miami and West Palm Beach. There was also a single intermediate stop in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Those trains ran on the FECR main line, which is east of Tri-Rail’s FDOT-owned right-of-way.

Tri-Rail is a true “commuter railroad,” run by SFRTA with representation from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties. Tri-Rail offers a standard commuter rail experience with hourly service, somewhat more during peak-commuting hours, and no frills. It does not go to downtown Miami, but to Hialeah, and riders must change there for Miami-Dade Transit’s elevated Metrorail line to go downtown.  Due to COVID-19 transit cutbacks, Tri-Rail now operates only every two hours on weekdays and every three hours on weekends.

Brightline operated on the FECR, taking less time on its express run than Tri-Rail takes, while offering drinks and snacks on board, as well as airport-style stations with amenities for customers. The fares were higher than on Tri-Rail, but the experience was different. Brightline shut down completely “until further notice” on March 25, and it is unclear when service will come back. Ben Porritt, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Brightline, told Railway Age that management is monitoring the situation and “evaluating scenarios” toward announcing a decision in the near future. In the meantime, Brightline is going forward with construction of its new line to Orlando International Airport, which management now hopes will open for service in 2022. At present, anyone who wants to go from Miami to West Palm Beach or an intermediate stop by rail has to use Tri-Rail.

A NEW DEAL?

That may change within the next two years or so. On June 2, the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the County and Virgin Trains USA Florida, LLC (the new corporate name), for “providing the framework for negotiations for agreements for the implementation of Commuter Rail Service for the northeast corridor of the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan; directing the County Mayor to negotiate agreements with (1) Virgin Trains in accordance with the MOU and (2) public and private interested parties along the northeast corridor for contributions of land and funding toward capital, operating and maintenance expenses of the train stations and parking facilities.”

In other words, the County would negotiate with VTUSA to operate commuter trains within its borders under a public-private partnership (P3). The resolution did not specify that VTUSA would run the service, but called only for negotiations toward that result. There will be an initial 90-day negotiating period. It also required a final agreement to be brought before the Board for approval within 180 days, or a report to be made at that time, if a final agreement cannot be reached.

Miami Central Station under construction.

The MOU distinguished the future “Commuter Rail Service” from the original Brightline service to West Palm Beach with its planned extension to Orlando, which was designated the “Express Rail System.” In addition to the existing stations and the planned one at Orlando Airport, VTUSA is planning two infill stations, at Boca Raton and Aventura. The former is a historic town at the south end of Palm Beach County that features the Spanish Revival style championed by local architect Addison Mizner in the 1920s. The planned station will be located across from Mizner Park, a major shopping mall. The latter is located in the northeast cornier of Miami-Dade County, and is slated to be the northern terminus for the Commuter Rail Service.

According to Brightline plans, the station will be located across the street from the Aventura Mall, also a major shopping destination. It would become a major transit hub, too, since it currently serves as a transfer point between buses on Miami-Dade Transit and Broward County Transit. There is also a station planned for Port Miami, where the cruise ships dock. According to Porritt, there is existing track between the Miami Central Station and Port Miami, but it must be improved. The MOU is non-binding for now; it and the Resolution can be downloaded here:

Under the MOU, Phase I calls for up to five additional intermediate stops, along with of parking area construction and of rolling stock acquisition, and service that would run half-hourly during peak commuting hours and hourly at other times. Locations under consideration for new stations include Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus, North Miami, El Portal, Wynwood and the city’s Design District. At this writing, the locations for those stations have not been determined, except for Aventura.

Phase II calls for infrastructure upgrades and a maintenance facility, and should be completed by October 2022. Further infrastructure improvements for Phase III would allow 20-minute headways.

VTUSA would agree to spend $75 million on developing the proposed Aventura station (which was already n the plans), $100 million on Phase II infrastructure and $350 million on Phase III infrastructure. VTUSA proposed that the County pay it a “development fee” of 4% of the capital costs of the infrastructure and rolling stock, specified in Section 4(ii). After service begins, the County would pay $29 million per year “rent” to Virgin Trains, and the rent would increase up to 2% per year, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Until Jan. 1, 2023, VTUSA would assume the cost of operating the service and keep the revenue. After that, the County would pay the operating costs and retain the revenue, but would also pay an allocation toward track maintenance and dispatching costs. In addition, the County would pay a “management fee” equal to 10% of all costs of operating the Commuter Rail Service and the Express Rail System, including overhead. VTUSA estimated the annual operating cost at $30 to $50 million, in addition to costs for rolling stock, parking areas and the maintenance facility.

The suggested term for the agreement was 90 years: a base agreement of 30 years, plus three 20-year renewal periods. The County agreed to pay $76 million to build the Aventura Station, which Brightline trains to West Palm Beach and Orlando would also use.

At this time, VTUSA’s proposed operation consists of two passenger services: the Commuter Rail Service within Miami-Dade County, and the Express Rail System between downtown Miami and Orlando International Airport, as well as freight. The Commuter trains would make five intermediate stops, terminating at Aventura, on the border between Miami and Broward County. Beyond Aventura, Express trains would run further north, to Fort Lauderdale, a new station at Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. There is no provision for running Commuter trains on the FECR to Broward or Palm Beach Counties, although Porritt said that VTUSA could negotiate with those counties to provide service. Eventually the Express Rail System line would go to Orlando International Airport, and perhaps further some day.

Porritt told Railway Age that a unique feature of Brightline’s plan is that it would “leverage a private asset for the public benefit.” In that sense, it would be unique in the U.S., since all other regional/commuter railroads are publicly owned, as is Amtrak. In many cases, trains are operated by a local or regional authority that leases trackage rights from privately owned freight railroad companies. Metra in Chicago is an example. “We can optimize the way people move around South Florida,” Porritt said.

The potential deal with Brightline/VTUSA is controversial, according to a report by Douglas Hanks in the Miami Herald, “Brightline Commuter Plan Panned by Mayor and Tri-Rail, But Advances Into County Talks.”

Hanks reported: “Tri-Rail and Miami-Dade’s mayor said it would cost the public too much to accept Brightline’s proposal to collect about $60 million a year to operate a county commuter line between Miami and Aventura … But county commissioners still endorsed asking the administration [of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giminez] to negotiate a better deal with the for-profit rail company to create the line once planned as a coastal Tri-Rail route.”

The current scenario may play out as a battle to capture the commuting market within Miami that seemed to be burgeoning, at least until the COVID-19 virus hit. Hanks reported: “The decision keeps alive Brightline’s strategy to secure a relatively quick agreement with the Gimenez Administration for a project that would end Tri-Rail’s plans to use the private tracks to launch its own commuter rail along the urban corridor to Palm Beach. Brightline submitted a framework for negotiations that includes subsidies from Miami-Dade that even supporters called too expensive to consider.”

(Editor’s Note: The corporate relationships get a bit complicated. Brightline’s parent company is Fortress Investment Group; Virgin Group has a minority interest and provides branding rights. Fortress also owns Florida East Coast Industries, whose holdings once included Florida East Coast Railway (FECR). In 2017, Fortress sold FECR to Grupo México, Mexico’s largest mining company. Grupo México also owns 74% of Ferromex, Mexico’s largest freight railroad (Union Pacific owns 26%) as well as the Ferrosur railway. – William C. Vantuono.)

Until the recent Brightline/VTUSA proposal, there was a serious effort to implement an alternate Tri-Rail service on the FECR under the Tri-Rail Coastal Link Study. The object was to bring passenger rail to the corridor, which is wealthier and more densely populated than Tri-Rail’s present catchment area. The study, conducted under an FTA grant, looked at bus and rail alternatives and issued its “Phase 2 Final Alternatives Analysis Report” in October 2011:

The highly detailed, 168-page FDOT report compared four alternatives: two BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) plans and two rail plans along the FECR, which was chosen as the preferred alignment. The “Low Cost/Transportation System Management (TSM) Alternative” called for three “Rapid Bus” lines on streets parallel to the FECR, which would run only during peak-commuting hours. The BRT alternative specified four bus routes running through the day, with two express routes during peak commuting hours. There were also two “Integrated Rail” alternatives, which would provide service on the FECR corridor, while preserving it on the current Tri-Rail line. There would be two connections between the two: at West Palm Beach and at Pompono Beach, slated to be a major transfer point in northern Broward County. Service patterns would be similar under both rail alternatives, but one would use DMU (diesel multiple-unit-) equipment on the FECR corridor, while the other would use locomotive-hauled push-pull trainsets. The existing push-pull sets would remain on Tri-Rail under both alternatives.

By 2014, the bus alternatives were jettisoned and the rail proposal was refined:

This plan “Offers one-seat rides between key markets, but also allows for timed rail transfers at attractive locations” according to a promotional presentation. The plan called for three lines. The Red Line would proceed from downtown Miami to downtown Pompano Beach on the FEC, west on a new “Pompano Beach Connector” and onto the Tri-Rail line at the current Pompano Beach station, and then north to the end of the line at Mangonia Park. The Blue Line would run on the current Tri-Rail route from Miami Airport Station to Boca Raton. The Green Line would use the FECR, originating in downtown Fort Lauderdale and running north to Jupiter, at the northern boundary of Palm Beach County.

At that time, FDOT had requested entry into the Project Development (PD) phase for FTA funding. However, a note on a Dec. 5, 2016 presentation said: “Due to potential confusion with AAF service [All Aboard Florida, an earlier name for Brightline], the Project Partners and FTA agree to put the request to enter PD on hold.” There was no further explanation for that action, although the same presentation continued to extol the virtues of the project. They included a new 85-mile corridor (the FECR corridor) and 25 new stations serving the region. Porritt acknowledged that the Coastal Link studies had been in process for many years, and said that his company would go along with what the counties want, whether his railroad would operate commuter trains directly, or under an access-fee and lease agreement. He added that everybody envisions a “full-scale system” to run there eventually, but he also said that new infrastructure would be required to support such a commuter rail system.

Whether or not Tri-Rail eventually operates on the FECR all the way to Jupiter, it will probably get as far as downtown Miami. Diedre Funcheon reported this on Sept. 19, 2018 in Bisnow Florida Newsletter: “The Downtown Link will allow people from northern areas to get into downtown Miami without transferring. When it starts, every other southbound train will go downtown instead of to the current terminus at Miami International Airport. South of 79th Street, trains will switch from a set of western tracks (built by CSX and now owned by the state) to the eastern tracks (owned by Florida East Coast Railway) and go for 9 miles, with no stops in between, into the new Miami Central station.”

According to the Tri-Rail website, www.tri-rail.com, the Tri-Rail Downtown Miami Link Project is on target to begin service soon, maybe even later this year. “We are now ready to roll into downtown Miami,” Tri-Rail spokesperson Victor García told Railway Age on June 4. In essence, the new route would turn east near 79th Street after leaving the Metrorail Transfer station in Hialeah. It would later turn south onto the FECR tracks and proceed to Miami Central Station. Every other train would go to downtown Miami, while the rest would terminate at Miami International Airport, as they do now. When this writer took a tour of the Miami Central Station in late 2018, there was a platform reserved for Tri-Rail. Apparently, there still is, but will Tri-Rail get to use it as planned?

Steven L. Abrams

The proposed MOU between Miami-Dade County and VTUSA seemed to take everybody by surprise, including Tri-Rail management. On June 1, SFRTA Executive Director Steven L. Abrams wrote to the Board of County Commissioners, expressing Tri-Rail’s concerns, now that the proposed agreement between the County and VTUSA had been made public. Abrams attacked the cost to the County for VTUSA to run the service, saying: “It has always been SFRTA’s position that if it operated the service, it would have minimal additional administrative costs in line with our existing structure as a public agency. Any operating costs in excess of the access fee will only increase the amount the County will pay per passenger for this service.”

Abrams then compared the numbers. He said that, using 2016 estimates, it would cost $66 per year for each passenger for VTUSA to run the service, while for Tri-Rail, “the estimated cost per passenger would be approximately $12 per year, far less than $66. Even if [VTUSA’s] proposed figures are negotiated downward, the cost differential will still be substantial.” He then expressed SFRTA’s concern that fares on a service operated by VTUSA would be so high that some potential riders could not afford them, stating: “The focus must be on essential workers who need to get to their jobs and, as we reopen the economy, those seeking employment who must rely on affordable public transportation to gain access to regional job opportunities and then get to work.”

Abrams also expressed concern that Tri-Rail would not be able to use the Miami Central Station (MCS) as planned, because of potential issues with Positive Train Control (PTC): “Now that [VTUSA] has suspended operations, SFRTA has no assurances when it will be able to access the FECR Corridor and the MCS. [VTUSA] is no longer subject to the deadline of Dec. 31, 2020 to implement the federally mandated  PTC system because it is not operating its service. Further, it is our understanding that [VTUSA] has recently elected to change the type of PTC system it was originally installing.”

Abrams added: “If [VTUSA] would now begin a competitive commuter passenger rail service on the FECR Corridor, SFRTA has concerns that PTC on the east/west portion of the FECR Corridor will not be completed in a timely manner.” In other words, [VTUSA] could refuse to install PTC on the segment between the Tri-Rail corridor and the FECR corridor. That would mean Tri-Rail could not get into the downtown station, even though such use had been planned for several years.

Abrams concluded by requesting that his agency be permitted to present its own service proposal as an alternative to Virgin’s, and that PTC be installed on the connecting track between the two corridors, with interoperability features that would allow Tri-Rail to use it. Porritt attempted to allay the concerns that Abrams raised about PTC, saying that all infrastructure for the Downtown Link will be working when it is needed.

Abrams and his colleagues at Tri-Rail are not the only persons concerned about this surprise development. In his Miami Herald story, Hanks reported that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez questioned Brightline’s financial fitness and its motives, quoting the Mayor: “‘Virgin is in trouble. Miami-Dade is not going to be bailing out a private company because they’re in trouble,’ he said. Referring to the company’s overall strategy to make a for-profit rail line work, he added: ‘I wish them luck. I thought it was a very risky venture to begin with, the whole thing.’”

One question that seems pertinent is whether or not it would have been worthwhile for Brightline to run a few trains every day, to demonstrate that it could operate reliably under adverse conditions and was willing to do so. Railway Age has chronicled the service reductions on Amtrak and on rail transit over the past few months, and we found that most providers are continuing to run service, but at reduced levels on most lines. Despite serving a similar catchment area to Brightline (geographically, at least, if not comparable in income) Tri-Rail is operating. Will that difference matter to Miami-Dade County’s political leaders? Time will tell, as a modern railroad battle is now heating up.

Miami International Airport rail station.

Rail transit is not as strong in South Florida as might be expected for such a densely populated and commercially active area. Metrorail, Miami’s elevated rapid transit line, was planned as a system of seven lines, but has ended up as only one, plus a short spur to Miami International Airport. Tri-Rail provides service north of Miami, but it bypasses downtown and the coast. A plan to build The Wave, a proposed streetcar circulator in downtown Fort Lauderdale, had progressed most of the way through the processes, but was eventually scuttled by city officials.

There is transit in the region; mostly buses. Many of the riders on those buses are immigrants, some are seniors, and the buses generally serve a lower-income clientele. Many of the riders today are considered “essential” workers, but not sufficiently “essential” that local officials have been willing to provide a strong rail-transit network for them and the area’s other residents.

There are now two competing visions for offering commuter trains into downtown Miami. One is an extension of Tri-Rail, a public-sector railroad that has been operating since 1989. Tri-Rail will probably reach downtown Miami, but the future of the long-studied Coastal Link going north to Palm Beach County still appears highly questionable. The other is the new Brightline/VTUSA proposal, which would break new ground as the only privately operated commuter-oriented rail service in the nation, even though it would not serve commuters north of Miami-Dade County, at least not at the outset. Potential commuters and other riders in Broward and Palm Beach Counties would still need to head inland and catch Tri-Rail, or they would be out of luck. Which one will win? The private operator has the upper hand at the moment, but time will tell. How well would either serve the riders? Time will tell about that, too.

For additional insight, listen to this Rail Group on Air Podcast with SFRTA Executive Director and Commuter Rail Coalition Secretary-Treasurer Steven Abrams:

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