by Ron Bernthal
In late 2020 Florida’s Brightline Train rail company and Walt Disney World Resort announced they have entered into an agreement to construct a train station at Disney Springs, the popular shopping, dining and entertainment complex that is part of the Disney resort. Currently operating on a relatively small corridor connecting Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach (Covid-19 has caused the rail company to temporarily shut-down service), Brightline is determined to connect South and Central Florida with high-speed rail service, building new track that will link the Orlando area to Brightline’s established stations in West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami and newer ones as well.
The planned new route is also intended to provide a convenient travel option between Orlando International Airport’s South Terminal, and Disney Springs station, and, eventually to Tampa, on Florida’s West Coast. Additional East Coast stations are also planned for Adventura, Boca Raton and Port Miami.
Most of the expanded route system and new stations are expected to be completed in late 2022. The agreement between Brightline and local, regional and state authorities to expand rail service beyond the airport is conditioned upon the rail company’s satisfaction of certain obligations, including obtaining all necessary government approvals and permits. New station and track construction is ongoing, as all groups involved in the project seem to be in agreement that the rail expansion will be beneficial for the region.
The design concept for the proposed station at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort includes a lobby on the ground level, passenger facilities and an upper level train platform. The proposed station location is a shopping, dining and entertainment complex located in Lake Buena Vista, about 20 miles southwest of Orlando, within close proximity to Walt Disney World Resort’s four theme parks, two water parks and more than 25 hotels.
“Brightline will offer a car-free connection to the millions of visitors from around the state and the world who plan to make Walt Disney World Resort part of their vacation plans,” said Patrick Goddard, president of Brightline. “Our mission has always been to connect our guests to the people and places that matter, and Walt Disney World Resort is a tremendous example of this.”
“We’re excited to work with Brightline as they pursue the potential development of a train station at Walt Disney World Resort, a project that would support our local economy and offer a bold, forward-looking transportation solution for our community and guests,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort.
In 2018, Brightline was awarded the right to execute lease agreements with the Federal Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority to connect Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Tampa (TPA), and in February 2020 Brightline commenced engineering and design work for the proposed project.
Brightline is developing 170 miles of new track into the new South Terminal at MCO as part of the company’s Phase 2 expansion into Central Florida. The massive infrastructure project is making progress and encompasses four zones including the area of the airport and the and the Brightline Vehicle Maintenance Facility. This monumental project, which will use 225 million pounds of American steel, will include the laying of 490,000 ties and transporting 2.35 million tons of granite and limestone by 20,000 railcars. Additionally, approximately 2 million spikes and bolts will be hammered and put in place over the next two years.
Mass transit, especially by rail, has long been championed by Florida’s West Coast business and civic leaders as a missing critical piece to economic development in the Tampa Bay region. Beyond building a connection between Tampa and Orlando, the rail line would spur transit-oriented development, potentially creating thousands of construction jobs and millions of dollars in new capital investment. It would shorten the trip from Tampa to Orlando to one hour, with a round-trip Brightline train ticket costing about $70.
Brightline’s efforts to connect the two Central Florida cities by train date back many years. In 2018, the company proposed an unsolicited bid to build an intercity rail line along Interstate 4, which had been designated for federally funded high-speed rail. But the process hasn’t been without its roadblocks. The right-of-way lease that Brightline needs to be able to connect Orlando with Tampa has been on hold since March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Miami Central station serves as the southern terminus for Brightline and a central stop for Miami commuter rail service via Metromover, Metrorail and Tri-Rail. The project is also a model of transit-oriented development and includes office and residential towers.
“Brightline will offer a car-free connection to the millions of visitors from around the state and the world who plan to make Walt Disney World Resort part of their vacation,” said Patrick Goddard, President of Brightline, in an office press release. “Our mission has always been to connect our guests to the people and places that matter, and Walt Disney World Resort is a tremendous example of this.”
Brightline is also working to operate high-speed passenger train service in Nevada and California. Brightline West, which is hoping to connect Las Vegas and San Bernadino County in Southern California, was expected to launch service in 2024. The company had announced in 2018 that it acquired the rights to XpressWest’s 185-mile federally approved rail corridor along Interstate 15, but the project’s timeline has been delayed due to economic conditions during Covid-19.