There is plenty of action on the passenger rail scene in Florida these days. Brightline started service on its northward and westward expansion to Orlando Airport on Sept. 22, 2023, and more trains have been added to the schedule since then.
At the other end of Brightline, that railroad’s Miami Central station is now hosting trains on Tri-Rail, presently as shuttles running to the transfer station for local Metrorail service. They connect with trains that run northward to Mangonia Park, about a mile past West Palm Beach on the old Seaboard line, inland from the Florida East Coast main, where Brightline runs (Tri-Rail Expands to Downtown Miami).
Another connection to Brightline is moving forward through the planning stage, going roughly westward and then southwest through the Orlando area. It’s the Sunshine Corridor, publicly sponsored but also benefiting Brightline, which is the only private-sector railroad operating regularly scheduled passenger trains in the U.S. at this time. The players include Brightline, SunRail and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). Local business groups are involved, too. Perhaps what makes this combination of players unique is that Brightline’s objective is to extend its service to Tampa, with a means for transporting its riders to the Disney properties nearby.
There have been other P3 (public-private partnership) deals before, but most have been concerned with developing an asset that would benefit both the private-sector company and the public-sector railroad, like a city rail terminal with an office building on top, and where the private entity and the public entity both would contribute toward the cost of construction. This project involves a private-sector railroad and a public-sector railroad, along with the state agency that sponsors it, with the objective of improving connectivity between the two.
A website with detailed information about the project summarizes the project this way: “The Sunshine Corridor is a multimodal passenger rail program. It proposes expanding premium passenger rail transportation to improve mobility, connectivity and accessibility to major employment centers while stimulating economic development opportunities to support the rapidly growing Central Florida region.”
The website provides an interactive Overview Map and describes its characteristics: “The Sunshine Corridor Program includes expanding the existing SunRail commuter rail service to connect to Orlando International Airport (MCO), then west to the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), then southwest to South International Drive, and potentially the Disney Springs areas. Ultimately, it would provide direct transfers to the privately operated Brightline intercity passenger rail system connecting Miami and Orlando, with a proposed connection to Tampa in the future.” According to FDOT, the corridor on the agency’s map is shown as wider than a rail line is customarily depicted, because the final alignment has not yet been confirmed.
As the alignment appears at this writing, Brightline approaches the airport from the north side. The Sunshine Corridor would leave the airport going toward its south side and run along the OUC Spur (a rail line owned by the Orlando Utilities Commission and currently used for coal trains to serve the utility) as far as the existing SunRail tracks, which are also used by Amtrak trains. It would then run north on SunRail for a short distance, including a new station, the SunRail Transfer Station. It would then turn left and run along State Route 528, also known as Taft-Vineland Road, to Interstate 4, with a station at the Orange County Convention Center. Then it would make a half-left turn onto I-4, proceeding southwesterly to the final station at South International Drive (I-Drive).
The website includes a more-detailed “Tour of the Corridor.” According to FDOT spokesperson Cindi Lane, “FDOT is nearing completion of a Transit Concept and Alternatives Review (TCAR) study to define the purpose and need for the project and recommend alternatives. FDOT District Five, which covers the nine counties of Central Florida, held a public meeting in December, to receive public input on the TCAR Study, which is evaluating options for expanding the SunRail commuter rail service to connect to Orlando International Airport (OIA), then west to the Orange County Convention Center, then southwest to South International Drive and Disney Springs areas. Ultimately, it would provide direct transfers to the privately operated Brightline intercity passenger rail system connecting Miami and Orlando, with a proposed connection to Tampa in the future. The proposed corridor is located within Orange County.”
The website for the TCAR study includes the FDOT map of the corridor mentioned above, the Project Information Handout, exhibits about project alternatives and a survey, and a link to a presentation on YouTube from a public meeting held on Dec. 6, 2023. In that presentation, the Sunshine Corridor was described as a “publicly-owned, joint-use passenger rail corridor with proposed stops at Orlando International Airport (MCO), the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), South International Drive, and Disney Springs” without mentioning a precise location for a Disney Springs station. The five “commuter rail alternatives” under study are SunRail expansion to Orlando International Airport (MCO), MCO to OCCC Connector (two alternatives, with or without a Transfer Station along SunRail’s north-south alignment), an OCCC to South International Drive Connector, and a South International Drive to Disney Springs Connector. There was no explanation about why a segment between the airport and OCCC without a transfer station for SunRail and Brightline was proposed as an alternative. The public comment period for the project record was short; it ended on Dec. 22, 2023.
Brightline and SunRail would both benefit from the project, especially if it includes a transfer station for connecting between the two. Brightline would benefit from having a route going westward through the Orlando area on the way to Tampa, even though it apparently would not use the alignment along Route 417 that Brightline had previously proposed. SunRail would get a connection to the airport, which is 5.5 miles east of its north-south alignment. The schematic map on the website shows this.
SunRail, which FDOT helped develop, opened for service in 2014. It runs as far north as DeBary, a station south of Deland in Volusia County (which extends as far east as Daytona Beach). From DeBary, it runs south through Winter Park and other towns, with several stations in Orlando. They include a station adjacent to Amtrak’s (now called Orlando Health), historic Church St. Station in downtown Orlando, and Lynx Central Station, at the terminal for local buses. Until 2018 the line terminated at Sand Lake Road, south of Orlando, where shuttle buses were provided for Kissimmee riders during peak commuting hours. Today the line continues to Kissimmee and further south to three more park-and-ride stations, ending at Poinciana. FDOT owns the tracks used by SunRail and, according to the agency, “The Department plans to continue to own them into the future.”
SunRail runs through several jurisdictions. Lane told Railway Age, “SunRail’s partners make up the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, which is guiding development of the Sunshine Corridor. Those partner agencies are Orange County, Osceola County, Seminole County, Volusia County and the City of Orlando.” The line also hosts Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star, which stop at Winter Park, Orlando and Kissimmee. SunRail trains are slated to begin serving the Amtrak station at Deland (historically Deland Junction, located about an hour’s walk from downtown), with bus service to town.
Currently, FDOT operates SunRail with the Board’s guidance, but plans to turn the operation over to the local authority, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, when the line reaches Deland. That is expected to happen this May.
Service on SunRail is limited, concentrating on half-hourly service during peak commuting periods, and including hourly (or slightly less frequent) midday service. The service day ends in mid-evening, and it runs only on weekdays. The service plan for the Sunshine Corridor would add the airport station, but not all the existing SunRail line would have direct airport service. One such service would run between the airport and the southern portion of SunRail, as far as Kissimmee, where Amtrak trains also stop. The other would run on the northern part of SunRail to Church Street Station and Lynx Central.
The above-mentioned site listed three project “needs”: access to entertainment and activity centers, “multimodal mobility options” to relieve stress on existing facilities and infrastructure to prepare for anticipated growth, and leveraging investment in existing facilities and infrastructure. Project goals were listed as Connectivity to Activity Centers, Safety, Mobility, Economic Development, Environmental Benefits and supporting Regional Travel (“a cost-effective regional transportation solution that reduces the need for roadway capacity or expansion projects”).
The project is now in the TCAR stage, and it is expected that the results of the study will be released this spring. The Project Development & Environment, Design, Right of Way and Construction phases will come later, if the project is built. The transit alternatives currently under study are enhanced local bus service, express bus service on a busway, a “trackless tram” also known as “Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit” (ART, a long, optically guided bus that does not run on rails), and SunRail as previously described. The website said this about the SunRail alternative: “This mode is benefited by promised investment from private partners. While it requires significant infrastructure improvements, it does not include utilization or road lanes or rights-of-way.” FDOT’s previous TCAR from 2018 included light rail as an alternative, but not ART, which began to appear as a new transit mode in China after that time.
Brightline’s original plan for an extension to Tampa did not include the now-proposed route partly along I-4, but instead proceeded further west on Route 528. A local business-oriented group pushed for the alignment now under consideration. Brightline went along, as the High-Speed Rail Alliance reported in its newsletter on July 1, 2022: “This alignment will connect three of the biggest economic centers in Central Florida with frequent train service. The previous route went south of Orlando, avoiding the crowded tourism area for a more direct route to Disney Springs. The new alignment will likely run either in the middle of I-4 or east of the expressway, meaning the Disney station must be moved. But the plan is to have the new station as close as possible to Walt Disney Resort. The Sunshine Corridor option has been discussed for several years, at the request of a coalition of local businesses and individuals. Universal, which has played a large role in facilitating the change, is donating 13 acres of land for the OCCC station and said it would support up to $125 million in private activity bonds towards the project. Universal and other partners will also contribute to, and collectively guarantee, $13 million in annual ticket sales for the Sunshine Corridor. That’s the estimated operating cost for year-round operation of the corridor.”
Scott Powers reported on the new alignment in the Sept. 1, 2022 edition of Florida Politics: “Orlando’s RightRail Coalition, spearheaded by the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce, is circulating a four-minute promotional video, ‘The Right Vision For Our Community,’ that features Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and others touting the Sunshine Corridor and its prospects to attract big federal grants from the recently approved $1 trillion infrastructure bill if the Orlando community is fully behind it.” Chamber President Maria Triscari was quoted as saying, “We’re really getting the word out that this is a historic moment in time where we have this amazing opportunity through the public-private partnership with the government entities and private companies coming together to pursue the infrastructure dollars, for a connection for SunRail, an east-west connection to run from the airport to the I-Drive corridor.”
For its own part, Orlando’s RightRail sports slogans like “This is our moment in time” and promotes the proposed transfer station between SunRail and Brightline, which it calls “Sunshine Station,” as providing “one transfer to the world.” The site includes a link to the organization’s promotional video and states: “We are now poised to address the transportation needs in our region for generations to come and may never have a chance like this again. We want to link the existing SunRail line to a new east-west Sunshine Corridor through the Sunshine Station, a central transfer hub. This will give the almost 100,000 workers along I-Drive and 20,000 workers at the airport unprecedented options for their commute.”
What about Disney? Powers reported that, beyond I-Drive, the route would eventually run “along a southwestern Orange County route that would go past Walt Disney World on toward Tampa,” an alignment that would not necessarily add a stop on Disney property, although it would go near the Disney resort’s boundary. At this writing, it is too soon to tell whether the Disney property will host a station, and if not, how visitors would get there.
This is a preliminary report. At this writing, Brightline did not return our request for comment. According to FDOT, “It’s too early to set a timeline for the Sunshine Corridor. The TCAR will wrap up in February , and then the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission will decide whether to begin a Project Development and Environment (PD&E) Study. From the standpoint of the FTA, it’s the PD&E that serves as the formal start of the process.”
There will be other opportunities to report further on the proposed Sunshine Corridor. It is too soon to speculate on service, or even when it will begin. We will know more when FDOT’s TCAR study is released and when the PD&E study is released, assuming that SunRail’s commission decides to take that step. We will report to you further as developments occur.