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Could high-speed rail curb America’s addiction to cars?

Developers behind the private rail company Brightline hope sophisticated design helps sell the public on high-speed rail travel.

Could high-speed rail curb America’s addiction to cars?
[Photo: Brightline]

The privately funded high-speed rail company Brightline understands that it has some convincing to do. Since the automobile turned once-dominant train travel into a transportation afterthought for most Americans, the idea of moving quickly and comfortably across the United States by rail has seemed more like a dream than a potential reality. The clunky, crash-prone and underinvested in Amtrak system has not helped shift that perspective.

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To try to persuade the average Joe Gas Tank that riding a train is a viable transportation alternative, Brightline is investing big in five new sets of train cars and locomotives that put the rider experience first. “We’re trying to get people to think differently about what riding a train is like,” says Mike Reininger, CEO of Brightline, and a longtime developer who’s built projects in Florida for Disney and led the redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station. “The real object here is to change people’s behavior,” he says.

[Photo: Brightline]
Inspired by scouting rides on train systems around the world and research on design approaches used in hotels and airplanes, Brightline’s new trains offer spacious seating, easily accessible aisles, touchless bathrooms, and on-board tech for fast internet and easy device charging.

[Photo: Siemens/courtesy Brightline]
The new trains have just rolled off the assembly line of Siemens Mobility’s North American manufacturing headquarters in Sacramento. The full cost of the train set deal was not made public, but based on the cost of a similar train deal Siemens made with Amtrak, Brightline’s five new train sets likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. They’ll soon be rolling on Brightline’s growing operations in south Florida. The first route is a 65-mile connection between Miami and West Palm Beach, which the company says has served more than 2 million riders since beginning operations in January 2018. Services were halted during the pandemic, but Brightline aims to resume operations in November.

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[Photo: Brightline]
One of Fast Company’s most innovative transportation companies in 2020, Brightline is focused on reinventing high-speed rail in the U.S. by building routes between destinations that are about 300 miles apart: “too far to drive, too short to fly,” Reininger says. The company has invested more than $4 billion building out the first iteration of this system in Florida. A 170-mile service extension is now being built from West Palm Beach to the Orlando International Airport, bringing its total route up to 235 miles. Construction on the expansion is more than 60% finished, and the full route is expected to be complete by the end of 2022. The company also has plans to expand to the West Coast with a rail line linking Las Vegas with the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

[Photo: Brightline]
High-speed rail is far from a sure bet in the United States, with high-profile projects like California’s long-sought cross-state system facing years of delays, budget jumps, and lawsuits. One relative success is Amtrak’s Acela train in the dense Northeast, connecting Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Amtrak, which is a state-owned entity that receives public funding, derives a significant amount of its revenue from this corridor, but few other routes under Amtrak’s broad purview have similar ridership levels or demand. With government subsidies, Amtrak has continued to operate, and with longtime Amtrak rider Joe Biden in the White House, there are plans afoot to increase its budget.

Private rail systems, on the other hand, don’t have such a cheerleader or a source of subsidy, and few have managed to survive in the Unites States. When it launched, Brightline was the first private passenger rail system to emerge in the U.S. in a century.

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Brightline is hoping to reach profitability by placing trains in places where population density is high and there’s already a built-in pattern of intercity travel. As a privately funded company, Brightline’s future depends on getting butts in seats. That’s why the company has worked with Siemens over the past decade to fine-tune a train design that they hope will convince people to reconsider riding the rails.

[Photo: Brightline]
“We thought about every little detail of the guest experience,” Reininger says. The company had a custom app built to streamline the ticketing process, and used hospitality research to inform the design of its seats and table trays, which include built-in cup holders seen on some airplanes and larger surfaces to accommodate the laptops commonly used during travel. “We want to make sure that we are a best-in-class provider from a global perspective,” Reininger says.

One of the most immediate things riders will notice is the wide aisles, which are accessible in a wheelchair, and the seats, which are 39 inches wide, according to Michael Cahill, president of Siemens.

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[Photo: Brightline]
The focus on the rider experience led Brightline to rethink what it’s like to be a passenger from the moment they arrive at the station. One small feature is that passengers only need to sign into Brightline’s Wi-Fi connection a single time, rather than logging on to one network in the station and then a second network once on the train. Each car will have 12 antennas to help keep internet speeds high.

[Photo: Brightline]
Other details in the train cars include touchless toilets, sinks, and hand dryers in the bathrooms, and 110 volt and USB power hookups at every seat. At train doors, gap fillers close the space automatically between the edge of the train and the platform, preventing the types of injuries that inspired London’s subway system to advise riders to “mind the gap.” Reininger says, “it’s a little thing that’s almost invisible but that has a big impact of the nature of the experience of the train.”

[Photo: Brightline]
Each train set includes four passenger cars and two hybrid diesel–electric locomotives, and Cahill says their width helps make them robust in case of accidents. The locomotives and coaches have large crumple zones at their ends to reduce the risk of injury for passengers and train conductors in the event of a collision.

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Brightline is hoping these new trains will be just the start. The expansion of the Florida route to Orlando will add 11 locomotives and 20 coaches to Brightline’s fleet. Reininger hopes that the level of design they’ve brought to their new train design will help spur more innovation in the industry, and help convince more people to give train travel a try.

“In the United States we really aren’t yet benefited by an industrial base of lots of vendors and lots of experience and lots of activity around building high-speed passenger trains. We at Brightline had to come out with our effort to be the proof of concept,” Reininger says. “I hope we’re helping to realize a broader acceleration of high-speed rail in the U.S.”

With a train-supporting president in office and an infrastructure bill in the works, there may be more resources to support that acceleration. And other businesses are beginning to follow. In Texas, a private passenger rail company hopes to connect the Dallas–Fort Worth region with Houston. Construction on that project has not yet begun, and its CEO recently suggested that it wasn’t likely to begin for at least six months.

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Brightline is a few steps ahead. But with just one route only beginning to connect cities in Florida, private passenger rail is still a nascent concept with an uncertain future.

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