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MIAMI — Billionaire businessman Richard Branson got a rock star’s welcome recently at the public rollout of his Virgin Group’s partnership with Florida’s privately owned, higher-speed passenger rail service that backers hope will soon stretch from Miami to Orlando.
People cheered, news photographers jostled like paparazzi and passengers onboard a soon-to-be rebranded Brightline train grabbed the British magnate for selfies as they zipped between Miami and West Palm Beach in just over an hour.
A year after beginning operations, the newly christened Virgin Trains USA hopes the Branson boost rubs off on the company’s ridership and financing.
Virgin’s partnership with what was then Brightline was announced in November, but Brightline’s downtown Miami station became ‘Virgin MiamiCentral’ on Wednesday. Brightline’s trains and other stations should be rebranded by year’s end.
Branson said Virgin hopes to “sprinkle some of its magic dust” on the operation by delivering an experience with some panache.
As Brightline, the system was the first private U.S. train service founded in a century. Branson called Americans’ reputation for disdaining rail travel outside the Boston-Washington corridor unfounded. They just haven’t taken to trains because “the rail service was not great.”
“Brightline has already proven that wrong with its first offering,” said Branson, pointing to its 100,000 monthly riders. He said train travel is more convenient than in the past.
“In the old days, you didn’t have WiFi. Now you have almost seamless Wi-Fi on this train almost the whole way,” he said. “Students can work, business people can work, lawyers can work, accountants can work on the train. And it is much safer and more environmentally friendly.”
This is a crucial period for the renamed service, whose trains currently run at an average speed of about 130 kph. Its first phase was completed 11 months ago with a 115-kilometre run between Miami and West Palm Beach.
The company has overcome legal and financing challenges to sell $1.8 billion in bonds for a crucial 275-kilometre connection from West Palm Beach to Orlando and its theme parks. That is scheduled to open in 2022.
From Orlando, the company hopes to eventually expand west to Tampa and north to Jacksonville.
Patrick Goddard, the company’s president, said rebranding Brightline as Virgin gives it instant name recognition while complementing an experience he already believes was first rate.
The stations are clean and the decor is modern. The trains are quiet and smooth, with engines powered by biodiesel fuel. The economy seats are wider and have more legroom than a typical airplane coach seat. Tickets between Miami and West Palm Beach cost about US$25 each way for economy and $40 for first class. No pricing for Orlando has been announced.
“The big difference between what we are doing and traditional public transportation is this is an experience … from the moment you park your car. Because we own the stations and we own the infrastructure, we control the whole experience,” Goddard said.
For Virgin, the partnership gives it a toehold in the U.S. passenger train market – outside Florida, there are plans for a Southern California to Las Vegas line. It also gives its British customers a potentially seamless Florida holiday. They could take a Virgin train to London and fly to Orlando aboard Virgin Atlantic. From there, they could take the planned Virgin train to Miami, and stay in an eventual Virgin hotel before embarking on a Virgin cruise that starts next year.
Joseph Krist, a Court Street Group analyst who has been following Brightline, said it is “very hard to tell” whether Virgin Trains USA will thrive long-term once the glamour and novelty fades.
Krist said that while Branson has had success in widely divergent fields, from recording to transportation, his British train operation has had a mixed record over 20 years. Virgin America, his U.S. airline known for mood lighting and hip touches, struggled with profitability for a decade, before being sold to Alaska Airlines for $2.6 billion in 2017.
“Branson is a huge branding success – and that’s not to say he hasn’t been an economic success,” Krist said, calling him a “genius” when it comes to getting Virgin’s name in front of the public. “His brand as an innovative, somewhat thinking out-of-the-box kind of guy has survived regardless of the absolute level of operating success achieved by his various businesses.”