Advertisement
  1. Business

Florida's Brightline rail service partners with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, will become Virgin Trains USA

A Brightline train heading from West Palm Beach to Miami pulls in Thursday afternoon at the station in Fort Lauderdale. [Emily Michot/Miami Herald]
Published Nov. 16, 2018

TAMPA — Brightline, the Miami-based train and real estate development company that wants to expand to Tampa, has a new partner: the Virgin Group, run by swashbuckling British tycoon Sir Richard Branson.

Brightline announced the partnership Friday and said it would change its name to Virgin Trains USA this month. Virgin Group will make a minority investment in Brightline, which will be managed and operated by Brightline executives and affiliates of its parent company, Fortress Investment Group.

"Virgin has built a respected and trusted brand in travel and hospitality," Brightline chairman and co-founder of Fortress Investment Group Wes Edens said in an announcement about the partnership. "With our shared focus on customer experience, powered by a culture of innovation and disruption, we are well-positioned to build on our success."

Virgin Group has more than 60 companies in travel, leisure, telecommunications, media, music, entertainment, financial services, health and wellness. In the United Kingdom, those interests include Virgin Trains, a high-speed intercity passenger rail system that it has run for 21 years. Last year, Virgin Trains carried more than 38 million passengers on the UK's West Coast Main Line.

"Given our shared values and Virgin's track record, this partnership will help amplify our efforts and growth potential as we seek to expand to new markets," Brightline president Patrick Goddard said.

In a blog post Friday, Branson said he and Brightline's Edens are "kindred spirits" on rail and described how he first saw Brightline's Miami operation a little over a year ago.

"It was clear from … our first visit" that Brightline "had an exciting vision and the skills for American rail travel that no other private American enterprise has been able to do for a century," Branson said. "We have a long history of creating innovative businesses that shake up markets and establish loyal followings. We transformed domestic air travel with Virgin America and have spent more than a decade looking for a similar opportunity to change the face of American railways. We believe Brightline is at the forefront of this innovation and the ideal partner to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States."

In Tampa, Brightline this month submitted the sole proposal to run an intercity passenger train from Orlando to Tampa in response to an open call for proposals from the Florida Department of Transportation.

That was a reversal for the state. In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal funding for high-speed rail on Interstate 4. Last year, Scott and his wife Ann invested at least $3 million in a credit fund for Fortress Investment Group, according to his latest financial disclosure. A Scott campaign spokeswoman has said "the governor's blind trust is managed by an independent third party to shield his investments from his direct control and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. As such, the governor has no control of what is bought or sold in the blind trust."

This summer, after Brightline said it wanted to create an Orlando-to-Tampa leg without using taxpayer dollars, the state issued a request for proposals from any interested company. Brightline has proposed running its trains along I-4, leasing land owned by the state and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

Brightline's business model pairs city-to-city rail service with high-end real estate development. In May, it started running a rail service with stops in downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The trains are new and quiet, with roomy seats and robust WiFi, and they move at up to 79 mph, or about double the typical speed of traffic on Interstate 95. The company says the service makes money because, unlike commuter rail, its limited number of stops helps hold down the cost of staffing and equipment. It plans to extend the line to Orlando by 2021.

In addition to running its rail line, Brightline is developing the MiamiCentral project in the Overtown area near downtown Miami. That venture includes 1.6 million square feet of development, with two office towers, two apartment towers, 130,000 square feet of stores and restaurants and a train station. Financing for the development was two-thirds private equity, one-third private activity bonds.

In Tampa, Brightline has looked at several sites between downtown and Ybor City for a terminal. They include the Tampa Park Apartments, the former N Morgan Street jail site, Tampa Union Station and the GasWorx property near the proposed location of the baseball stadium that the Tampa Bay Rays wants to build in Ybor City.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said this week he hasn't heard whether Brightline has picked a preferred site for a Tampa terminal.

"We're happy to work with them," he said. "Whatever permitting's involved, we're all in. I want this to happen. It will be a huge shot in the arm for us at the right time when a lot of other pieces are falling into place."

The Florida Department of Transportation is scheduled to consider Brightline's Orlando-to-Tampa proposal on Nov. 28.

MORE: Go here for more Business News

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Jamie Harden of Creative Sign Designs and Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place discuss priorities for the Tampa Bay Chamber for the coming year. Harden is the outgoing chairman of the chamber. Ferenc is the incoming chairwoman. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
    Leadership of the organization, formerly the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, also says it could have handled its recent name change better.
  2. The snow park in Pasco County will be known Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park and is scheduled to open in November 2020. Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park
    The park in rural east Pasco anticipates opening in November 2020.
  3. Renderings of the proposed Red Apple Group project show a 20-story hotel on the west side of the block, and a building of about six stories facing Central with parking, shops and offices. The 45-story condo tower rises at an angle on the east side of the block. Courtesy of Arquitectonica
    The $300 million project by Red Apple Group would include a hotel and badly needed parking space.
  4. A helicopter lands at Tampa General Hospital, one of 66 Florida hospitals that could benefit from a proposal contained in Gov. Ron DeSantis' new budget, a new analysis finds. JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Tampa General is among the hospitals that would receive money from a proposal seeking to hand out $10 million in new funding.
  5. This single-family home at 913 Pineview Avenue, in Clearwater (Monday, December 2, 2019), has seen foreclosures, flippers, upgrades and a big price swing. The current owners, Keith Lynch and Mallory Lynch, are the seventh owners of the house since 2006 - they moved here from San Francisco. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes
    A 1950s ranch-style house in Clearwater has had seven owners in 13 years.
  6. Amazon contract drive, Manuel Moreno of Pinellas Park delivers packages on Dec. 4 throughout the Pinellas Point neighborhood of St. Petersburg. BILL VARIAN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    We break down how to report a stolen package, when to contact police and whether a Ring camera is worth it.
  7. Work nears completion Wednesday on a common area inside the new USF Health building that will serve as a centerpiece of the Water Street Tampa development in downtown. The 13-story tower is set to open in January. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The long-anticipated building, part of Water Street Tampa, will welcome students on Jan. 13.
  8. Florida Public Service Commissioner Julie Brown was appointed to the board of directors for the national organization that oversees utility regulation. Pictured is Brown. | [Courtesy of the Florida Public Service Commission]
    Brown will serve as one of 20 board member for the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners.
  9. Concentrix has told the state of Florida that it plans to lay off as many as 245 employees from one of the programs it has at the Interstate Corporate Center east of Tampa. Google Street View
    Despite the layoffs, the California-based company says it is trying to attract other clients for its Tampa office.
  10. Dr. Akshay Desai, founder of now-defunct  Universal Health Care. .
    The health maintenance organization at one point had 140,000 members in 23 states.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement