Virgin Cuts Ties With Brightline, Exits US Train Market

Filed Under: Travel

Virgin and Richard Branson will no longer be associated with what’s arguably the United States’ single best rail experience. First a bit of background.

What is Brightline?

The US isn’t exactly known for its great rail service, though Brightline Florida is an exception. This service currently operates between Miami and Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale. Brightline has been promising expansion to Orlando, though that’s still a few years off at best.

I reviewed the Brightline experience late last year, and it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to believe that this is in the US. The stations are gorgeous, the trains are new and well maintained, and the employees are consistently friendly.

Beautiful Brightline station in Miami

For an extra ~$15 you can typically book “Select,” which is the equivalent of business class, and that gets you access to lounges, food and alcoholic drinks onboard, and more.

Brightline Select lounge

Brightline Select cabin

Brightline Select snacks

While the passenger experience as such is great, I don’t really get the business case for Brightline. In my experience Brightline runs an extremely low load factor, and Brightline has consistently missed its ridership projections by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong, I want Brightline to succeed, but it just seems like a strange market for a concept like this.

Unfortunately Brightline operations have been suspended since March, as you might expect, in light of the pandemic.

Brightline & Virgin Trains cut ties

Brightline entered into a partnership with Virgin in 2018, and the plan was for Brightline to be fully rebranded as Virgin Trains USA by the end of 2019, making it Virgin’s only US train system.

That branding transition never fully happened, and branding prior to Brightline halting operations was inconsistent. While the exterior of the Miami station adopted “Virgin” branding, that has been the extent of it.

Brightline station in Miami

Brightline train, without the Virgin branding

Well, unfortunately it looks like Virgin’s involvement in Brightline is coming to an end. A monthly revenue report for Brightline noted the following:

“We will no longer use the Virgin brand following our parent’s termination of its licensing agreement with Virgin Enterprises Limited [together with its affiliates, “Virgin”].”

It’s not entirely clear why this came to an end, or what exactly the arrangement was between the two companies. It’s my understanding that this went beyond a simple brand licensing deal, as Richard Branson had purchased a minority stake in the company.

Most of his travel brands aren’t doing especially well right now (to put it mildly), and I guess this is no exception.

What does the future hold for Brightline?

There don’t seem to be many practical implications of the partnership with Virgin ending. Or at least that’s what’s claimed as of now. The company still hopes to expand to Orlando in the coming years, and also add stations in Aventura, Boca Raton, and the Port of Miami.

Only time will tell if that actually happens. Brightline was struggling with ridership before the pandemic, and has now had operations suspended for five months.

Bottom line

Virgin and Richard Branson are no longer involved with Brightline, which I consider to be the best train service in the US, despite its very limited footprint. While Virgin had been involved with Brightline for nearly two years, the rebranding was moving along at a glacial pace.

Brightline still has plans to expand, so we’ll have to see how that works out. I’m certainly rooting for the company…

What do you make of Virgin cutting ties with Brightline?

  1. Brightline is mainly a long-term real estate development play by FEC Industries. They own lots of the land along the ROW and that’s the hidden value of the otherwise disastrous rail numbers.

    I’ll say it for the 100th time: the fact that there isn’t a stop at FLL, where the train passes within 100 feet of Concourse A, makes no sense. A Brightline ride from Downtown Miami to FLL would be faster than MetroRail to MIA. The time savings compared to driving is at least half. They did zero market research and just chase municipal subsidies, even if it means pointless stations no one wants to go to (Aventura/West Boca)

  2. Is Brightline a replacement for Tri-Rail in S Fla or in addition to that service? Tri-Rail had been around for years but was never busy. Not sure why Virgin thought this would be better?

    Why didn’t Virgin try a more lucrative train market like DC-NYC-Boston corridor??

  3. Guess Brightlineost it’s Virgin-ity.

    Also there is no place to put a terminal at FLL. That area is a storage/side area for transitioning and restaging the freight trains. Amtrak and Metrorail.. Have died restrictions through metro areas. I find it faster and easier to drive or Uber than taking the train between the two.

    There is supposed to be a train that goes from FLL to Port Everglades, but had been talked about for years.

  4. Like every other express train service , this is a service that damages every town it passes through reducing quality of life with noise, vibration and health risks .Few towns on the route want it. The faster it goes away the better.

  5. I don’t think Richard Branson is a serious businessman, he gets in and out of business’ on a whim, really much more of a rich dillitant more than anything else, not willing to invest the effort it takes to make his ventures work.

  6. Bright line was a way for the FEC to build out an incredibly valuable chunk of real estate in Downtown Miami as well as set up property along the right of way for development.

    When they get all the way to Orlando, ridership should increase with visitors coupling Disney/Universal with a cruise out of Miami.

  7. Brightline has been winding itself down slowly for about a month, not paying vendors and now this news. They probably have to play their cards carefully and slowly due to ‘public interests’ and looking ahead at the pieces that the company may be able to salvage to keep away from creditors. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the final end is near.

  8. This is very sad news, Virgin trains were great in the U.K. and America badly needs more rail infrastructure.

  9. As Bill said, there is massive Brightline construction ongoing. There is a station and equipment maintenance facility being built at MCO. Right of way work from MCO to Cocoa for 125 mph operation and double tracking and many new bridges from Cocoa to WPB for 110 mph.

    From my perspective, I don’t know what the benefit of Virgin branding was going to be in the first place. They have a concession in the UK, but it has been fraught with problems and underinvestment. Ticket prices are way high. What’s the value of just the name?

    With the increasing population density in Florida, this is a long term plan by well financed interests and it will probably be a decade before one can assess its success or failure.

    This project can be pulled off because FEC railroad was privately held by Fortress and had loads of cash and real estate. The freight railroad was sold to Groupo Mexico. Virtually every other possible rail corridor outside of DC to Boston are owned by stodgy, conservative and disinterested freight railroads that have zero interest in innovation or passenger service. So I don’t think Brightline is a model that can be repeated elsewhere in the US.

  10. “it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to believe that this is in the US.” —

    US lags behind many places in Asia & Europe for transportation on so many levels.

  11. “Virgin trains were great in the U.K.”. Virgin West Coast were successful as a monopoly on the most profitable routes in Britain – London-Birmingham-Liverpool-Manchester-Glasgow but they were run by Stagecoach (49%) not Virgin (51%) and their service deteriorated over the last 10 years. Virgin East Coast (10% Virgin and 90% Stagecoach) failed as a franchise and were handed back to the government. Again their service deteriorated during the franchise.” Virgin’s strength is the bearded one’s publicity acumen, not6 much else.

  12. @ian Browne – Yes, because the quality of life sitting in traffic on congested highways and smog filled air is so much better.

  13. Branson ran 3 rail routes in England and Scotland, Cross Country, West coast and East coast a various times but of course when things went wrong he’d say “oh no nothing to do with me they’re just using the Virgin brand”.put your brand on it take the responsibility,it says Virgin Trains on the side not Virgin Trains 90 percent owned by Stagecoach.

  14. Agree this was a strange market for this service. Used this service once last year and it was a fabulous experience. The price point wasn’t sustainable long term and I think their goal was a much more appropriately higher price point with ridership growth, particularly Select class. You have to know when to walk away, and the pandemic likely accelerated their decision.

  15. @ian Browne:
    Not sure what you had for breakfast or lunch, but I guess it takes a special kind of intelligence [sic] to expose such level of idiocy!! Please stay wherever you are and never visit other parts of the world.

    Some Americans… *rolls eyes; face palm*

  16. It’s funny that few understand that Branson’s fortune is primarily from licensing the Virgin name. He has his money invested in only a small % of the actual businesses, and primarily in the Virgin Travel Group. Don’t call him a bad business person, cuz he’s not actually involved with most of the license branded companies. Even Virgin Atlantic has to license the name. Why does he do all the publicity stunts? Because it increases the value of the Virgin brand license.

  17. @Ben
    It was the other way around, Brightline cut ties with Virgin not Virgin cut ties with Brightline. It gives the whole thing a different context.

  18. Hope they can stick in there, Brightline is a fantastic experience and unlike any other rail experience in the US. Beautiful facilities, friendly staff, the first class option is a great value.

  19. They were also going to expand to a LA to Vegas route. From what I could tell their service feels very much like a European rail service vs the garbage we currently have with amtrak. But train service is a hard sell for Americans who gets in their car to go a quarter of a mile to the supermarket even if walking is viable.

  20. Yeah, Ben, you should consider the language you use in your article. You make it seem like you’re not sure whether Brightline will expand to Orlando. The station at MCO airport is 100% done and has been for a couple years (including peoplemover already built and operating from the station to the terminal). The track from Cocoa to MCO is completely under construction, installing rails, ties, everything. The maintenance shop just south of MCO is under construction. Bridges along the Central Florida Expressway have been built. The pandemic has allowed them to accelerate work, not slow it down. They are on track for 2022 opening to MCO. Tampa is coming hot on the heels. Virgin leaving Brightline will do nothing to slow progress.

  21. I have to question the entire concept of Brightline. I love high speed trains and use them regularly when available in other countries. But Brightline is trying to operate high speed trains at grade level through very densely populated urban areas. Deaths are a regular occurrence. I’ve heard it referred to as Flatline.

  22. “It’s funny that few understand that Branson’s fortune is primarily from licensing…”

    Right. Branson’s business model is very similar to Trump’s (after he got well known). He receives equity AND ongoing license fees just for lending out the name.

    Likely, brightline just decided to no longer pay the license fee.

  23. Good that they got out. Virgin adds no value to a business. It got out of Virgin Express in the early 2000s and recently Virgin America. Branson licences the brand to everyone who wants to pay for it. It is also inconsistent: when I see Virgin Atlantic, America, and Australia, I would expect a unified loyalty program or service but none of that. Brightline does not need them. In the UK Virgin Trains is crap, overcrowded, old trains, delays, and so on. Brightline looks luxurious.
    Indeed, they are going for the real estate market but I don’t think that that is bad. On useless stations: in many places, building a station has increased property value and attracts people so I think it is a way to earn money from cheaper places to be able to invest in more expensive and important places.

  24. It’s not clear if all ties have been cut between Virgin and Brightline.

    There is the branding / licensing agreement which does seem to have been terminated.

    But what of the shares Virgin Group had in the company (I think 10%)? Have they sold those? If not then the two haven’t really cut all ties have they (even if they aren’t activly involved in management or the board)?

  25. I think that the author thinks that it matters that Brightline has low ridership. The current line is just proof of concept and to work out bugs that may occur once the full line is built. The Virgin association was just branding. I still believe this is a serious company and that Virgin might come back at one time. Everything I’ve read says that this company is serious with serious ideas.

  26. Virgin was there for the name. Like a company wanting to break into the hotel market, you use a name everyone is familiar with, like Holiday Inn. Then push it to the limits.

    Here in Las Vegas, it helped push the bonding thru to get out high-speed line back into the business. Brightstar has the money, the technology, and the ability to get it done. But nobody here ever heard of them. Virgin fixed that. Brightstar now has enough clout that they don’t need the marketing expense of the Virgin name..

  27. This train service is a joke. No stops now or planned for all the people who the train will pass by. They claim this is because they want the high speed service between Orlando and Miami but in every other country high speed rail runs different trains at different times of the day a high speed service and one that stops. Zero reason why this should not stop in the counties it passes through. I believe treasure coast told the train if it comes through they want a stop (why inconvenience citizens and environment for zero benefit?) Brevard county dropped the ball and will get no benefit from this train except more congested traffic at crossings. Residents from both coastal areas would absolutely ride the train if it had a central and convenient stop to MCO, DIsney, FLL, and MIA. Not sure who this train is for but if they want ridership they have to offer stops that make sense.

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