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Brightline, idled since COVID-19 forced its high-speed trains to the sidings, expects to revive its daily rail service between West Palm Beach and downtown Miami in November.
Company CEO Patrick Goddard announced Tuesday that the trains will roll again “in the first half of November.” He did not give a specific date.
When the trains ceased operating in March 2020, management laid off an estimated 250 people as it shut down the landmark regional rail line that started serving the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami in August 2018. During that time, thousands of commuters fed up with grinding, time-consuming, intercounty traffic on Interstate 95 gladly garaged their cars to board trains that took no more than 30 to 40 minutes from one city to another.
During the hiatus, the company continued to employ hundreds of construction workers who are building Brightline’s 170-mile, $2.7 billion extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando and the entertainment enclaves of Walt Disney World and Universal.
It’s a task the company now says is halfway complete.
Brightline telegraphed its eventual return to service during the spring and summer when its trains made appearances at various points along the Florida East Coast rail line to test a “positive train control” system designed to prevent derailments.
Restoring the customer base
It’s unclear what kind of reception Brightline will receive from travelers, many of whom were high salaried professionals such as attorneys, financial managers and company executives who rode the trains to visit clients and branch offices. In 2019, its only full calendar year of service, the railroad said it served a million passengers.
Although leisure travelers once homebound by the pandemic are flocking back to the airlines, business travelers are not, raising the specter that Brightline has a formidable task of rebuilding consumer confidence.
Car dealers that are posting record sales report drivers have struck up a new romance with the automobile, preferring their own personal spaces for transportation so long as COVID-19 remains a menace.
The pandemic remains so severe that many businesses that expected to recall remote workers to the office this fall are reportedly placing those plans on hold, possibly reducing the need for commuting,
Kat Evansen, the Southeast regional human resources director at Marcum, the national financial advisory firm. said many staffers were regular riders in the tri-county region before the pandemic.
“At this time, there isn’t a single sentiment around reengaging with train travel,” Evansen said in an email.
“There was a convenience to traveling between counties and having the ability to stay connected to make the most of the time,” she said. “Currently, there are varying degrees of comfort with travel related activities. We’re focused on creating a workplace environment where everyone can find their comfort zone while also taking steps to ensure the safety of our professionals and the clients we interact with.”
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, who is scheduled this week to attend a mayors’ conference in the Orlando area, said he’s eager to see a Central Florida Brightline station open, particularly after a recent spate of flight cancellations at crowded local airports.
“I feel the trains would be far more reliable,” he said.
But Trantalis, who is an attorney, said it will take time to bring back the lawyers who hopped aboard Brightline trains for speedy rides to court hearings in neighboring counties.
“A lot of hearings are taking place by Zoom,” he said. “So the need for attorneys to travel from one county to the next will not be as necessary at this point.”
Online job boards have been loaded with Brightline notices seeking dozens of workers to fill various white collar management, technician and customer service positions at company offices, aboard the trains, at passenger stations and at the railroad’s maintenance center in Palm Beach County.
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The area’s corporate recruiters are glad the trains are returning.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, the economic development arm of Broward County, has said since Brightline’s inception that the railroad frequently entered the conversation when companies came to town to consider relocating a headquarters or setting up a new office.
“The Alliance team eagerly anticipates resumption of service by Brightline, which helps connect our community with a large regional workforce, creating greater opportunity for companies considering a relocation or expansion at the center of the region in Greater Fort Lauderdale,” said David Coddington, senior vice president of business development.
“Companies interested in relocating and adding jobs in the area appreciate the ease of connection that Brightline provides,” he added. “Brightline is a strategic advantage for Greater Fort Lauderdale and the entire region.”
He said the rail system “played a large role” in helping South Florida to make a short list of regions that sought to be home to Amazon’s second headquarters.