Brightline’s high-speed hype machine hits another snag, slashes ridership forecasts (again)

by | Mar 25, 2024

Wow, you really have to hand it to the public relations firm helping Brightline spin the media. Four days ago, a story appeared in an obscure South Florida blog claiming that Brightline can’t keep up with demand. As a longtime Brightline doubter, that caught my eye, so I clicked through the abbreviated headline to see what I was missing, and it jumped right off the page: Brightline can’t keep up with demand…on some routes. Imagine my surprise, then, when at nearly the same time, Bloomberg News published a seemingly opposite and, to my skeptical media eye, far more credible story about what’s really going on at Brightline: Florida High-Speed Rail Cuts 2024 Ridership Forecast Again.

That’s the Brightline I know.

Just three months after Brightline disclosed a 21% decline in projected ridership for 2024, the company had to cut its forecast again. The Fortress Investment Group-backed Brightline now anticipates carrying a seemingly respectable 4.9 million passengers this year on its new long-distance service between Miami and the Orlando airport and the five-year-old South Florida commuter line between West Palm Beach and Miami. Service to Orlando began in September, behind an initial target for a January 2023 opening.

However, that forecast was trimmed by another 600,000 from Brightline’s forecast of 5.5 million in December after an updated study of ridership and revenue. Projections for when the new rail service will be fully ramped up—2026 for trips between Miami and Orlando—were unchanged, according to bond documents amended earlier this month.

But can investors really believe those projections? Has any high-speed rail service ever actually delivered anything on time and on budget?

Despite the doubts starting to seep in, Brightline continues to announce new stations for its intercity service, with a new station in Stuart, Florida, announced on March 4, and planning for a station in Brevard County already underway. But therein lies the paradox: in order to meet ridership targets, the company is dependent on adding more stops to serve more passengers. But each new stop slows the average speed down, making Brightline even less competitive with other modes of travel.

The service isn’t even high speed to begin with. While the train’s top speed occasionally hits 125 miles per hour, its average speed along the route is a more car-like 68 mph. It takes about 3 hours and 27 minutes to run the full 235 mile trip from Orlando to Miami, and that’s without the new stop coming to Stuart. Sadly, Brightline is just not the high-tech future of travel that so many want it to be. The company utilizes the same train engine technology as Amtrak, hardly a beacon of innovation or efficiency.

Transit times aside, it’s already a tough sell against driving: costs aren’t even comparable for a single commuter. With drive times virtually the same, Brightline passengers are still left without a car upon arriving at their destination. A family of four making the drive gets three passengers for free, but if they take Brightline, their costs quadruple, and that’s before they have to worry about getting from the station to their destination, and everywhere in-between. Perhaps for a single business traveler who wants to get some work done on the trip, the extra cost of hailing an Uber is probably worthwhile. But there just aren’t going to be enough of those people who need the service to make it profitable.

Brightline’s latest ridership downgrades and financial forecasts come as no surprise to those who’ve been paying attention. Like every other so-called high-speed rail passenger service before it, Brightline has repeatedly blown its forecasts, missed deadlines, and suffered from massive cost overruns. Initially projected to begin service in 2014 at a cost of $1 billion, it didn’t get underway until 2018.

Today, Brightline is $5 billion in debt, and the cost of servicing that debt is only expected to rise. The company’s just-announced bond issue/refinance is for $770 million at 8% interest, significantly higher than its current aggregate rate. With ridership forecasts being slashed yet again, one must wonder how Brightline’s business model makes any sense to investors. Perhaps some people just like burning money.

As Brightline barrels ahead with expansion plans, it’s hard not to see the operation as a car-speed train to financial ruin. The question remains: how long can Brightline continue to operate under the guise of progress before the financial realities derail its ambitious plans? For now, it seems, the only thing high-speed about Brightline is the rate at which it burns through cash and optimism.


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