Brightline’s $5B Orlando high-speed rail extension complete

Dive Brief:

  • Private passenger railroad company Brightline celebrated the completion of its $5 billion, 170-mile Orlando-to-South Florida high-speed rail extension on Wednesday, built by five different contractors. Brightline is the first private entity to deliver an intercity rail system in the U.S. in more than a century, the company claims.
  • The new line runs from the recently-built South Terminal at the Orlando International Airport to West Palm Beach, Florida, according to a Palo Alto, California-based Brightline press release. It will connect to its existing line between Miami and West Palm Beach, which has carried passengers since 2018.
  • Brightlight divided work on the Orlando extension into four zones, and the project included constructing a $100 million vehicle maintenance facility, tenant buildout of the Orlando station at Orlando Airport, 56 bridges, three new underpasses and upgrades to 156 railroad crossings.

Dive Insight:

Brightline’s Orlando expansion broke ground in June 2019, one year after operations began in South Florida between its Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages, the opening was only slightly delayed from its original 2022 date, according to the release. 

The contractors for the extension are:

  • Winter Park, Florida-based Hubbard Construction Company, Zone 1. 
  • Sanford, Florida-based Wharton-Smith, Zone 1.
  • Littleton, Massachusetts-based The Middlesex Corporation, Zone 2.
  • Watsonville, California-based Granite, Zone 3.
  • Melbourne, Florida-based HSR Constructors, a joint venture composed of Herzog, Stacy and Witbeck and Railworks, Zone 4.

Lessons for other rail projects

In general, U.S. rail projects take longer and cost more than their European counterparts, thanks to high labor costs largely due to healthcare expenses, change orders and public transit agencies’ lack of experience in building new infrastructure. There are potential lessons to take from Brightline’s Orlando expansion, however.

Contractors completed the Orlando expansion quickly and relatively inexpensively, in stark contrast to California’s high-speed rail effort, which was originally supposed to span 500 miles and carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That project has seen massive cost increases — with a price tag of $128 billion at the most recent estimate, up from the $33 billion cost voters approved in 2008 — as well as delays and cuts to its network.

Unlike California’s high-speed rail, Brightline mostly uses existing routes, which eliminates the need to acquire large swathes of land. Instead of building the whole line before beginning passenger services, Brightline first opened a 70-mile, revenue-generating segment between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018.

Brightline is conducting high-speed train testing in the new corridor and will test up to 110 mph through Brevard County in July. Passengers can now buy tickets for service starting Sept. 1.

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