Last year, billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group took a minority stake in a train service in Florida. It might seem super random, but there’s more here than meets the eye.
The company that Virgin invested in has now announced it is negotiating airline partnership agreements for airline-rail connections at Florida airports.
Wait, Virgin Does Trains In The US?
Sort of. The minority investment by the Virgin Group is more of a brand licensing play than anything else. Before this past November, the private train company was called Brightline. It is the first privately funded passenger rail system in the US in over a century.
Brightline (now Virgin Trains USA) has a network of high-speed-ish (maxing out at 79 MPH) rail service in South Florida that started in early 2018. Branson’s Brightline investment elevates the company’s profile as it attempts to expand and disrupt the nation’s aging transportation system.
Beyond Florida, Brightline officials also announced plans to construct a similar intercity passenger rail system to connect Las Vegas and Southern California.
Virgin Trains In Florida
Now rebranded as Virgin Trains, this Florida service runs between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. By 2022, Virgin Trains will have expanded to Orlando, including a stop at the airport’s yet to be opened South Terminal.
Virgin Trains also has a proposal to connect the west coast of Florida with a stop in Tampa. That plan won key state approval, also back in November.
Linking Up With Airlines
Connecting from a flight to a train? Well, it will be easier in a few years time if Virgin has its way. Virgin Trains’ stop at Orlando’s airport will be the first intra-terminal connection between air and rail in the US.
It’s not unheard of outside the US, especially in Europe. Airlines like KLM and Lufthansa sell tickets on its website with a train connection. And even United has a codeshare agreement with Amtrak at its Newark hub.
Virgin Trains will be the first US airline-rail connection opportunity without a need for a transfer.
Instead of just having airline passengers purchase separate rail tickets and risk misconnecting their flight, the company is in active talks with airlines like JetBlue, United, and American to create interline agreements.
For the time being, only Orlando will have a train station directly at the airport. However, Virgin Trains is on a roadshow of sorts with the idea to provide easy connections in places like Miami, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. Virgin’s tracks run through Fort Lauderdale Airport’s property so creating a station there is under consideration — or implementing some kind of “last-mile” transit.
All of this comes after a reported IPO was shelved as the train company looks to secure additional funding.
While some savvy travelers already use alternate transportation methods to connect to a lower cost flight elsewhere, it comes with huge risk in the case of delays. Customers have to weigh this risk with the cost savings.
In the particular case of South Florida, there’s an existing bus service, OurBus, that already links the west coast of Florida with Fort Lauderdale Airport and Miami.
An interline agreement between airline and rail company would no longer be a huge money saver for travelers as opposed to booking separately, but it would provide peace of mind — protection by both parties in the case of a travel disruption.
Virgin Trains USA will need to have the frequency and reliability to make these rail connections a reality. For the time being, things look to be going on track for an all aboard in 2022.