When Virgin Trains USA begins service in Central Florida in mid-2022, it will add a piece that has long been missing in the region’s transportation puzzle. Formerly known as Brightline, and backed by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, the railway will do more than create service between Orlando and its current South Florida operations: It will become one of several “firsts” in transportation in Central Florida while it attracts avid drivers to use mass transit and helps carry tourists between key destinations.
Area leaders are working on numerous fronts to develop transportation options that can serve nearly 3 million Central Florida residents and 72 million annual visitors. In a region known for technology, the options for moving people from point A to point B are expanding.
Local governments are leading the way, creating the infrastructure for people to ease into a shift of thinking that will lead to a shift in activity. They are guiding Central Florida toward a future of multimodal transportation, where passengers hop between trains, buses and other options to get where they’re going.
“The pieces are started, but we don’t know what type of technology is going to come in the future, especially in the autonomous vehicle area,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “A lot of the technology we have today we couldn’t imagine 10 or 15 years ago.”
The region is modernizing its tried-and-true transportation channels with a $2.3 billion expansion project along a 21-mile stretch of Interstate 4 and a 20-mile companion project. Expected to be completed in 2021, the improvements will bring some relief to Central Florida’s already crowded roads — but not enough.
“We’re looking at all modes of transportation,” Dyer said, “moving away from one driver in one car on I-4.”
When SunRail commuter train service started in May 2014, local leaders knew it was just the first step in getting people to embrace a sophisticated multimodal public transportation system in Central Florida. SunRail stops at 16 stations along a north-south route between Volusia and Osceola counties, but it operates only during daytime hours for commuters and on weekends and nights for special events, such as Orlando Magic games at the Amway Center.
The biggest challenge has been how to connect SunRail with Orlando International Airport. The Virgin Trains project is expected to provide that link. It will cross the SunRail line around the Meadow Wood station south of downtown Orlando, where riders can jump off one train and board another.
“That’s a critical piece for us,” Dyer said. “It changes the whole equation of SunRail when you take it to the airport because you then go seven days a week and have more frequent trains.”
At Orlando International, the Virgin Trains connection will create the nation’s first in-terminal long-distance rail connection at an airport, according to an article in FlightGlobal. The airport has already built an intermodal station that is expected to connect with a new Terminal C that will add 19 airline gates when it opens in 2020.
The rail line from Miami to West Palm Beach will make its way up the coast through Cocoa before heading west and possibly even all the way to Tampa. Virgin Trains is exploring how to connect riders with the theme parks and other tourist destinations.
Brightline began operating in South Florida in January 2018 and in downtown Miami four months later. The rebranding from Brightline to Virgin has been key as the company raises private capital for its expansion, industry watchers say. The Virgin brand is recognized worldwide and is already associated with trains in the UK as well as airlines, hotels and other ventures.
Branson, Virgin’s iconic founder, toured the Virgin Trains operation in South Florida in early April for a renaming ceremony at the Miami station, now called Virgin MiamiCentral, a hub for transportation, business, retail, restaurants and residences.
“Virgin has a long history of changing industries for the better and inspiring enduring loyalty through outstanding customer experience,” Branson said in Miami, quoted in an article in Forbes. “Today marks the first step in that journey with Virgin Trains USA as we unveiled the beautiful Virgin MiamiCentral station. I’m very excited to see the transformation of our service and the plans for the next phase of the project to Orlando.”
Elected officials, transportation experts, business leaders and residents gathered in Lake Nona in February for an announcement about Central Florida’s first autonomous shuttle bus service, named Beep after the Florida company that founded it. The introduction is seen as the first step toward integrating new mobility technology into the region.
Beep Inc. moved its headquarters from Gainesville to Lake Nona, where it set up an operations center for monitoring all of the vehicles it plans to deploy in the U.S. The company partnered with French manufacturer NAVYA to bring two shuttles to Lake Nona that can hold up to 15 people each and travel fixed routes at up to 16 mph. Trained stewards will remain onboard to greet passengers and ensure safety.
Central Florida is developing a reputation as a research and development site for autonomous vehicles, which rely on cameras, radar and other technology to constantly monitor surrounding conditions and provide instructions on speed and direction. Autonomous vehicle solutions company Luminar Technologies, which has 400 employees, purposely chose to move some of its operations to Orlando to supplement its facilities in Silicon Valley and Colorado Springs.
“Orlando is one of the hottest places in the world for cutting-edge tech development like this,” Scott Faris, chief business officer at Luminar Technologies, said in a recent Forbes article.
The movement to establish Orlando as a top-tier innovation hub in this arena has been growing since 2011, when the Florida Department of Transportation launched a program to dedicate the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Daytona Beach as a test bed for advanced autonomous vehicle technology, the article said.
Area leaders established the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership (CFAVP), an alliance of federal, state and local government organizations and universities. One of its signature projects is SunTrax, a test facility set to open in 2020 in Auburndale, halfway between Orlando and Tampa. The first of its kind in the Southeast, it will include a test track with regular driving lanes and tolled express lanes.
A second phase of the project will test vehicles in complicated situations: an urban environment that is tricky to navigate because of signage, on-street parking, and vehicle and pedestrian traffic; an environment chamber that simulates fog, smoke and rain; and a pick-up and drop-off area that tests operability in airports and multimodal hubs.
By Air and Sea
The region’s growth shows no signs of slowing down, which makes new transportation options increasingly important. Area roads are already congested with residents, visitors and freight — and there is more to come.
A new study released in April by the Florida Department of Transportation says Orlando International Airport is the busiest commercial service airport in the state, generating more than $41 billion of direct and indirect economic activity annually. Miami International comes in a distant second at $33 billion.
The new figure represents a 31 percent increase since 2014, when the last study showed Orlando International’s economic impact was about $31 billion. With nearly 48 million passengers a year, the airport is the 10th busiest in the nation.
To the east, Port Canaveral is also growing, with 4.5 million cruise ship passengers and more than 6 million tons of cargo moving through annually as of 2018. The port has added a new Terminal 3 that in 2020 will begin hosting the first cruise vessel in the Western Hemisphere powered by liquefied natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel, said Capt. John Murray, who is port director and CEO of the Canaveral Port Authority. The largest ship in Carnival Cruise Line’s fleet, the Mardi Gras will carry 6,500 passengers.
Royal Caribbean recently moved the world’s second-largest cruise ship, Harmony of the Seas, to its new base in Port Canaveral from Fort Lauderdale. The cruise line is also replacing Enchantment of the Seas at Port Canaveral with Mariner of the Seas, which can hold about 1,000 more passengers.
All of these changes and others will add to the traffic the port sees from Orlando International as well as drive-in arrivals, Murray said. He has noticed a big difference in recent years in the way people get to the port.
“From a cruise perspective, we’re seeing a lot more ride sharing,” he said. “More and more people are jumping into an Uber at Orlando International Airport as opposed to the taxis and even the small limos or the shuttles. We’re paying attention to the changes in people’s habits and the dynamics of transportation because of the changes that could impact our revenue stream if people aren’t parking in our parking garages anymore.”
A U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain and a 40-year maritime industry veteran, Murray is keeping an eye on other developments in transportation that could affect port activities, such as the use of electric vehicles. The largest portion of cargo that moves through the port is petroleum for the region’s gas stations.
However, cruise passengers generate the largest transportation challenges for the port, he said. They arrive from all over the world to board seven ships homeported there year-round and two based there seasonally. Port Canaveral also hosts visiting ships from other locations, such as Baltimore and New York, which stop to allow tourists to visit Cocoa Beach, Kennedy Space Center or the theme parks.
“Our cruise ships drive the demand,” Murray said. “We figure our drive-in factor is about 60 percent. Every cruise line is different in how many people drive or take shuttle buses or Ubers. It’s the size of the ship that dictates the traffic flow.”
Putting the Pieces Together
No one is certain exactly how multimodal transportation will pan out in Central Florida and when Orlando’s mass transit options might look more like Miami’s, New York’s or London’s. But one thing is certain: People are talking about it. There has been an increase in educational events and community meetings as local leaders engage in conversations about how each will affect the other — and the impact they will have on the quality of life in Central Florida, Orlando’s mayor said.
“As a region, we work together collaboratively across jurisdictional boundaries better than any region in the country,” Dyer said. “When we put together a coalition or partnership, like the autonomous vehicle partnership, it’s pretty easy because we’re used to doing that type of thing — whether it’s been the medical school, SunRail or the community venues, we know how to work together.”