For five years, every financial and business plan from All Aboard Florida (Virgin Trains) has centered on their higher speed rail service taking only 3.15 hours from Miami to Orlando to compete with cars and planes. That time frame allowed for only four stops: in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and the Orlando airport, requiring speeds of 110 mph and 125 mph on Phase 2.
Now, it seems, Virgin Trains is prepared to throw that business model and the Tri Rail commuter service under the proverbial bus. With their passenger numbers trending to miss 2019 projections by over 50 percent, revenue falling monthly and losses piling up, it appears Virgin management is pivoting to an upscale commuter service and a larger real estate play.
In June, they announced more stops are being considered in Boca Raton, Aventura and PortMiami on the Phase One route from Miami to West Palm. The company announced it’s in talks with Hollywood, and Palm Beach Gardens recently raised its hand. Virgin Trains has “promised” Martin County the system will open one stop on the Treasure Coast, most likely in Fort Pierce or Stuart.
As we noted back in 2014, All Aboard Florida failed even to mention Tri Rail as a competitor for their short distance trips in the federally required environmental impact statement. We also pointed out Amtrak’s Acela, with twice the track miles and four times the stops, only garnered 3.4 million riders between Boston and Washington, DC in 2017.
So, now it appears Virgin Trains management, in an effort to placate bond buyers, are looking for two new funding streams -- more riders and flipping real estate. In exchange for “better connectivity”, Virgin Trains wants Boca’s free property, a change in zoning regulations and tax dollars to help build and maintain the station. On the property they plan a station and a parking garage and on additional space, they will throw up "stack and pack" Transit Oriented Development. They will quickly flip the residential and commercial space and move on.
And where is Tri Rail in all of this? It is impossible to believe more Virgin stops in Tri Rail’s markets won’t impact that system’s ticket sales and income. Last year, Tri Rail required $4.7 million from local taxpayers, $55-plus million from the state and $31-plus million in federal funding. One might wager a bet taxpayers will have to pay more to subsidize Tri Rail as they lose real estate tax revenue.
While every Florida taxpayer supports Tri Rail, the Treasure and Space Coast taxpayers will also see their taxes rise as Virgin Trains requires they pay double and triple the costs for maintaining the new safety upgrades at 150 crossings on Phase 2. With 22 deaths in 18 months involving Virgin’s trains, their only gain is the fear of exponentially more deaths when the trains go 30 mph faster.
Who’s kidding whom here? The All Aboard Florida business model has been unsustainable from the start and the only people profiting are the land developers and corporate executives. When it all goes under, will it be “too big to fail” and subsidized by all Floridians? How much do Florida voters want to pay for trains carrying nonresidents to the airports?
One thing is for certain: Grupo Mexico, owner of the Florida East Coast freight system, increases capacity with every mile of track laid for Virgin Trains. Now does it make sense?
Susan Mehiel is the coordinator and communications director for Florida Alliance for Safe Trains.