Brightline, South Florida’s private-sector passenger railroad, is adding service, both in terms of frequencies and a new station. On Dec. 4, the number of trains between its southern terminal in downtown Miami and its new station at Orlando Airport was expanded to 16 in each direction. Another change will be coming, but it will take time. That will be an additional station north of West Palm Beach, and Brightline is already soliciting proposals to build it.
The private-sector passenger railroad recently expanded its line beyond South Florida’s local territory and into Central Florida, as it opened its new station at Orlando Airport on Sept. 22. Until then, Brightline only ran between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach, and it does not stop between “WPB” and the new airport station at the end of the expanded route. All Brightline trains proceed northbound through the Treasure Coast region and as far as Cocoa, and then westbound onto a new high-performance right-of-way to the airport station. Brightline has announced plans to build a new station along the Treasure Coast, and the process of choosing a location is now under way.
On Oct. 26, Brightline announced a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new station along the Treasure Coast, a region consisting of Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River Counties. The region is named after a 1715 storm that sank Spanish ships carrying gold and other treasure from the “New World” to Spain, after which some of the treasure washed up on local beaches (and occasionally still does). The Gold Coast (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, where Brightline started and Tri-Rail trains run) lies to the south. The Space Coast, which includes Cape Canaveral and Cocoa, where the new railroad branches off from the historic Florida East Coast (FEC) main, lies to the north. Until scheduled passenger service on the FEC was discontinued in 1968, trains stopped at Stuart in Martin County, Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County, and Vero Beach in Indian River County.
Developments So Far
Brightline appears in a hurry to choose a site for the new station. The railroad announced the new RFP on its website in a release headlined Brightline Announces Process to Select a Treasure Coast Station. “Proposals under this RFP may come from private or public land owners that control property along the Brightline/FEC Railway corridor in St. Lucie or Martin counties and meet the qualifications,” Brightline said. CEO Michael Reininger was quoted as saying, “Expanding Brightline into the Treasure Coast region will make Brightline one of the most accessible forms of transportation in Florida, giving access to nearly half of the state’s residents.”
Brightline imposed a deadline of Dec. 22, which at the time gave proposers less than 60 days to prepare and submit their plans. There were meetings held in St. Lucie County on Nov. 28 and Martin County on Nov. 29, which the release describes as “not a public meeting.” Brightline’s announcement also said: “Brightline will host one-on-one meetings for eligible proposal applicants in each respective county. After receiving submissions, Brightline will begin evaluations with a goal of entering negotiations with the property owners in the first quarter of 2024.”
Ben Porritt, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs told Railway Age: “We’ve been encouraged by the responses to our RFPs and even more by the continued strong response from the local community eager to see Brightline in the Treasure Coast.”
Brightline’s original notice also has a link to the RFP, a 12-page document containing the details and a drawing that depicts how Brightline wants the station track and platform built. Proposers are required to own the property that would be used for a station and associated parking facility, or have it under contract, with final site selection to occur by the end of first-quarter 2024. Brightline anticipates starting service at the new station during first-quarter 2028 (at 3, which also includes a timeline for the project).
Division 2 of the document (at 6-12) requires proposers to submit a letter of Iintent, site criteria (map and site characteristics, including at least two acres with 200 parking spaces), financial terms, and the Process to Transact. In the Financial Terms section, Brightline mentioned that the newly constructed stations in Aventura and Boca Raton were financed by public entities that own the land and leased the completed stations to Brightline for $1.00 per month or per year. The document also specified detailed rules for content of proposals and how they can be submitted.
Stormy Relationship with the Treasure Coast
At this time, Brightline is looking to add only one additional station in the region. Porritt told Railway Age, “Our priority is on identifying the best location for one station. As we look ahead, there may be other stations to consider in Brevard County, but you have to take one step at a time and sequence those projects.” He aded, “We have a five-year commitment to the counties that we solicited and are excited to be gearing up to find the right home for the next Brightline station.”
Brevard County is on the Space Coast, north of the Treasure Coast. It includes Cocoa, where the new Brightline-built railroad branches westward from the FEC main. Until it discontinued passenger trains in 1968, the FEC made three stops in the county: Cocoa, Melbourne to the south, and Titusville to the north. Nowhere has Brightline mentioned any prospective station in Indian River County.
Relations between Brightline and counties along the Treasure Coast, especially Indian River County and Martin County to a lesser extent, have not always been harmonious. For much of Brightline’s history and before, there was litigation. C.A. Bridges presented a timeline of events concerning the railroad (including descriptions of fatal accidents) during the 11 years and 8 months from March 22, 2012, through the start of service to Orlando Airport, in the Sept. 21, 2023 edition of the Treasure Coast Newspapers. According to that timeline, litigation concerning the project was ongoing for about half of that time span.
Indian River County filed its first action on March 31, 2015 against the U.S. Department of Transportation over the use $1.75 billion worth of tax-exempt bonds to finance the project, which was undertaken at the time by Brightline predecessor All Aboard Florida. Martin County filed on similar grounds on April 27, less than one month later. Brightline later changed its financing plan, and the case was dismissed in 2017. After an unsuccessful appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case on Oct. 5, 2020. In response, Porritt was quoted by the Treasure Coast papers as saying, “The Supreme Court’s decision to deny Indian River’s petition closes out the county’s repeated and baseless attempt to disrupt our efforts of connecting Florida by passenger rail.”
The two counties and another group filed suit against USDOT and the FRA over environmental and safety issues on Feb. 12, 2018. Martin County settled for safety improvements and the promise of a future Treasure Coast station in November of that year. Indian River County fought on, over issues of improving and maintaining 32 grade crossings along the route. That matter was settled on June 8, 2021, when Brightline agreed to pay $31.6 million for safety improvements at the grade crossings. Colleen Wixon reported the proposed settlement for the Treasure Coast Newspapers, saying that county officials praised the deal. Wixon also reported that some residents were unhappy and quoted one, Ted Robinson, as saying: “The more trains you have, the more traffic around the trains that you have, you’re going to have an explosive situation all over the place.” Scott Sutton and John Shainman reported on the settlement for WPTV-5, noting mixed feelings among residents). They quoted Chris Baker saying, “I think it’ll be good for public transportation. It’ll be interesting to see the speed of it.” They also reported: “Trish Tomsic and Muriel Holdsworth can only wonder what’s next for their Roseland neighborhood as Brightline trains are on the horizon, adding to the existing freight train traffic. ‘There’s a lot of little streets, a lot of communities with houses right on the rails, and they’re flying by,’ Tomsic said.”
The controversy was not only about safety at grade crossings and whatever inconvenience comes with having trains speed through the county at 110 mph. While safety was a big concern for some residents, it was also an issue that the trains would not stop, which means that local residents would not have easy access to them. On June 21, 2022, after visiting the affected areas on the Treasure and Space Coasts, I reported on recent developments at Brightline and suggested that the railroad serve the areas where it planned to run through without stopping (Brightline: Progress, Potential, and a Whole New Market? Reporting on the controversy that had been settled the year before, I wrote, “According to Ruth Stanbridge, Indian River County Historian and former County Commissioner, the objection that local residents had was not to the train itself, but to having to live with the hassles of construction and operation, when the trains would not stop in their local area. In other words, the ‘locals’ would be stuck with the drawbacks of having a high-performance train zoom past them, and would not get the benefit of the access and mobility that the train could deliver. She said that while safety was an issue, local residents could not even ride the trains.”
At the time the deal was reached, Brightline had suspended service because of the COVID-19 virus.
George Andreassi reported the settlement on June 10, 2021 for the community news site VeroNews.com. In addition to his comprehensive summary of the actual terms of the deal, he concluded his report by saying, “So far, no train station is planned for Indian River County.” According to Brightline’s RFP, that situation is not about to change.
Andreassi reported the latest development in the Nov. 11 edition, a story headlined To no one’s surprise, Vero out of mix for a Brightline station. He began his report by saying, “While Brightline has stirred up some excitement in St. Lucie and Martin Counties to pick one as the site for a new Treasure Coast rail station, exclusion of Vero Beach from the RFP process for the new high-speed train stop comes as little surprise here.” The report mentioned the litigation and quoted Vero Beach Public Works Director Matt Mitts as saying, “We inquired with Brightline two or so years ago and they were unresponsive to a discussion. The biggest impact we’ve noticed is calls and complaints regarding train horns.”
Looking Ahead with Brightline
Recent reports indicate that ridership between Orlando Airport and the original Brightline service area in South Florida remains strong, and Brightline has increased its level of service essentially to hourly. In the meantime, Brightline still plans to expand westward toward Disney World if possible, and to Tampa. There are also plans to connect Brightline’s station at the airport with Sun Rail, the local commuter-oriented service elsewhere in the Orlando area that goes to such places as Winter Park, Kissimmiee and downtown Orlando. That initiative is the Sunshine Corridor, a public-private partnership (P-3) between Brightline and Sun Rail under the auspices of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). We will have more to report on these developments as they happen.
Brightline could eventually expand all the way to Jacksonville on the historic FEC main, as well. In a statement for Railway Age, Porritt did not rule out that possibility: “It’s absolutely feasible and we do own the passenger rights to Jacksonville. Jacksonville like the rest of the state is experiencing significant growth. It’s not something we’re focused on today but certainly is a possibility in the future.”
Until a long strike terminated the operation in 1963, the FEC offered such service as a part of through-running trains between the North and Miami. That route was faster than the ones that Amtrak uses today. Slightly more than 20 years ago, John Robert Smith, Chair of the Amtrak Board at the time, proposed running an Amtrak train over the FEC, in addition to the currently used routes through Orlando and Tampa (there were three daily trains in each direction between New York and Miami at the time). That proposal was never implemented, but time will tell if Brightline eventually restores service along the length of the state.
In the meantime, I plan to return to Florida next spring, after the service to and from Orlando Airport will have been running for a while. By the time I take that ride and file a trip report, we should know where the new Treasure Coast station will be located.