The trains are in the barn. The downtown stations are deserted. And the management of Brightline, South Florida’s idled high-speed rail service, is still deciding when to restore service amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brightline, the regional train line that conjured up new possibilities for South Florida transportation, economic development and even entertainment, remains on the sidelines after the pandemic suppressed tourism, diminished business travel and shrank consumer pocketbooks.
“We are evaluating a number of factors but haven’t identified a specific date,” said spokesman Ben Porritt. He did not elaborate.
Brightline suspended service on March 25. With no one knowing when the pandemic might ease, management indefinitely laid off 262 Brightline employees, including train engineers, attendants, maintenance people and corporate office workers.
Brightline’s operations are not subsidized by the three counties it serves — unlike Tri-Rail, the venerable 30-year-old commuter line that carries everyday workers and other travelers at considerably lower fares,
Brightline said the company had surpassed one million passengers in 2019. But its ridership was dealt a dramatic setback when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many business travelers, tourists and other leisure riders to stay home.
“Like all businesses, we are operating in a period of uncertainty, which may last several months,” said CEO Patrick Goddard at the time. “Although a difficult decision, we have decided to temporarily suspend Brightline service in the best interest of the entire South Florida community as we all seek to flatten the [COVID-19 3/8 curve.”
Although the company did not discuss what factors it is evaluating so it can resume service under the Phase 3 reopening of the state’s economy, it doesn’t take much investigation to find that COVID-19 severely diminished Brightline’s customer base.
Like most business leaders whose companies were slammed by the pandemic, Brightline decision-makers are likely having a hard time forecasting when their devastating business losses can be reversed.
Ridership dries up
South Florida tourism — a prime source of the train line’s leisure customer base — is heavily depressed compared to last year’s levels.
The decline helped negate the gains the company made in wooing travelers who would attend sporting events such as Miami Heat games and visit urban centers for their restaurants, live entertainment and cultural activities.
Brightline’s growing marketing connections with the cruise lines also went by the boards after the entire industry stopped sailing last spring. The lines are now looking to restart in November.
Business travel, another customer segment that was important to Brightline, suffered a severe setback when companies elected to vacate their offices and order most employees to work from home.
Brightline was offering price packages for the businessmen and professional service workers such as lawyers who frequently rode the rails among its three cities — Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach.
Since Brightline opened in 2018, the train line was a key recruiting tool for economic development agencies that seek to persuade companies to relocate to South Florida or add to their operations here, said Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance.
“We talked about Brightline a lot during large project presentations,” he said. “The one everyone thinks about is the Amazon HQ2 project. You can span the three-county area.”
The Brightline station in downtown Fort Lauderdale has been regarded by city and private sector planners as a hub for future development.
But now, the coronavirus has raised questions about the viability of commuting by train if company employees are directed by their employers to work at home.
“The impact of the virus in my mind cuts two ways,” Swindell said. “We’re trying to forecast at the alliance what does it look like 6 months or 12 months from now. I learned pretty quickly people can still perform well at home.”
But Swindell, who said he rode Brightline “once or twice a week,” still believes there will be a business travel market for Brightline to exploit despite prices that are roughly double those charged by Tri-Rail.
He said he still sees business people riding the train “if they need to be physically present in their office.”
While Brightline decides when to take its trains out of storage, the company is continuing to build out its expansion to Orlando, as well as laying the groundwork for commuter stops at Boca Raton, Aventura and other points in Miami-Dade County.
“Our Boca Raton station is well advanced from a design and engineering perspective and we are in the process of reviewing the latest designs with the architects and engineers,” the company said in its most recent financial report with the state of Florida.
Last week, the city of Boca Raton received a $16.35 million federal grant to help build a parking garage that will accompany a new Brightline station near downtown that is expected to open in the first half of 2022, said Mayor Scott Singer in a statement.
“This grant and the new station will help will bring major economic benefits and jobs during a critical time of COVID-19 recovery,” he said.
On Sept,. 20, Brightline and Miami-Dade County broke ground on a planned station in Aventura adjacent to Aventura Mall.
The station is expected by county officials to serve as a starting point for a local Brightline commuter service that would include five more stations, giving people near Florida International University, Wynwood and Edgewater a way to reach downtown Miami by train.
According to its financial report, Brightline said the commuter line could serve as a model for similar projects in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
And despite the moribund state of the cruise industry, the company said it intends to proceed with plans to build a station at PortMiami.
Together, the Boca Raton, Aventura and PortMiami stations “will contribute substantial annual passengers” to the system once the stops become operational, the company said.
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