Brightline trains on fast track — 110 mph — in push to Orlando

The effect was breathtaking when a Brightline train hurtled across a highway in Port St. Lucie recently.

Its light pierced from the far distance. Its horn blared. Seemingly an instant later, the sleek-nosed train shot past at 110 mph, its loping diesel power just audible, followed by steel-wheels-on-steel-track singing with notes of sharpening a butcher’s knife.


At two football fields long, the Brightline marketing blur of bright yellow, green and red vanished in four seconds, leaving stillness.

“Awesome,” said Terence Miller of Port St.Lucie, who had the front row spot closest to the crossing, waiting in his car on Walton Road just over a rise from the Indian River and at a place that has drawn enthused spectators.


“It just went bing, beep and it was gone,” said Jim Bailey, who lives in nearby Jensen Beach.

No other trains have gone that fast in Florida, according to Brightline, and very few have in the nation. Others were impressed – but differently.

Brightline conducts speed and brake tests in the Treasure and Space coasts regions. The train seen here is crossing Walton Road in Port St. Lucie at 110 mph.

A “monster,” said Cindy, an older woman who walks her small dog every day across Brightline’s tracks, where she once had a fright from a far slower freight train, before she returns solo for the same jaunt. She gets in 3 to 4 miles that way. She did not want her last name used, expecting hate from train fans.

“This is the best little neighborhood anyone would ever want and now this,” she said of her Jensen Beach community south of Port St. Lucie. “Now, we get this monster.”

After years of anticipation, and raucous resistance from local governments and private groups, Brightline has made its debut in the Treasure and Space coasts for speed and braking tests, a key step toward opening service between South and Central Florida. Residents of communities in between are getting their first sense of trains that travel so much faster than the freight trains that have used the same corridor for decades.

Some are delighted, some, as Cindy, are unhappy and many don’t know yet.

A sheriff’s deputy summed up his quandary: he enjoys taking his family on Brightline in South Florida but as law enforcement worries about incidents for a population with a giant learning curve ahead.

Much of the Orlando region has had the luxury of remaining oblivious to the anxiety in the Treasure and Space coasts about Brightline.


The track corridor from the city of Cocoa west across Orange County is entirely separated by bridges from crossing roads, enabling the train to accelerate to 125 mph on the giddy way to a stylish Brightline station connected to a glitzy terminal at Orlando International Airport.

The passage takes in bucolic landscape, with scenes of the meandering St. Johns River and cattle herds grazing on the vast Deseret Ranches.

Sometime around the start of spring, Brightline will make test runs at 125 mph in Orange, leaving expressway traffic on the parallel State Road 528 “in the dust,” as a company executive noted a few years ago.

From Cocoa south to West Palm Beach, more or less along U.S. Highway 1, the rail corridor has a very different vibe. The tracks thread a thin hole in a complex needle of expansive neighborhoods, city centers, major intersections, business parks and busy waterways – or, in all, some of Florida’s most bunched up humanity.

Brightline conducts speed and brake tests in the Treasure and Space coasts regions.

Al Skillman lives in a trailer park in Jensen Beach. His setting evokes considering the skintight embrace between city after town after community and the first private startup of intercity passenger rail service in a long time.

The kitchen of Skillman’s trailer home is 30 feet from Brightline tracks. There is nothing between where he sleeps and where trains will pass but weeds and stray rocks from the track’s bed of granite ballast.


When speed and brake testing began, Skillman pondered the terror of a derailment, twirling coach cars like giant hammers over his thin-skinned home while he slept.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think about it much anymore,” he said, offering how he also became accustomed to sleeping through passing freight trains.

At the front of his home is a little sign in a railroad style that announces “Shih Tzu Crossing.” He has two of the dogs. He seemed deeply ambivalent about Brightline and did not sound critical when he said its trains are “so much smoother than the regular freight trains.”

The privately financed Brightline has run passenger service since 2018, with a long break for the pandemic, between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

In that time, Brightline has been tied to more than 60 fatalities in pedestrian and vehicle accidents, according to reporting by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Associated Press.

The toll has drawn attention from state and federal transportation officials.


A pair of U.S. representatives, Brian Mast of the Port St. Lucie area and Bill Posey of Brevard County, demanded an investigation. Mast accused Brightline of “a long history of straight-up lying” on safety.

The segment of corridor from Miami to West Palm Beach was built for top speeds of 79 mph. With the fatal accidents, Brightline has been beefing up safety at crossings.

The Brightline crossing at Walton Road in Port St. Lucie has 28 of these warning lights arranged in 14 pairs.

The corridor from West Palm Beach north to Cocoa was built for speeds of up to 110 mph, requiring a complete step up to a higher federal level of safety regulations.

At the Walton Road crossing in east Port St. Lucie, the array of crossing arms, lights and signs is considerable.

Drivers are greeted with two prominent signs: “Do not stop on tracks,” and, curiously for trains expected to flicker past drivers at 110 mph, “Trains may exceed 80 mph.”

The crossing has 14 pairs of red, flashing lights. When a train approaches, eight crossing arms drop: blocking all of the two-lane Walton Road on both sides of the crossing and blocking two sidewalks on each side – or, theoretical sidewalks.


The crossing at the skinny Walton Road, having no shoulders or sidewalks, is in a rural spot where it appears a pedestrian could be hit and killed by a car long before getting to the tracks.

It’s a ton of safety equipment that may seem overdone – until a train rockets by.

Brightline’s safety measures have a big job. From West Palm Beach to Cocoa, there are 156 road crossings. There will be 40 daily trains, 20 each way, in daylight and dark, and the unguarded sections of track like along Skillman’s travel trailer.

With all that exposure to high-speed trains, people who live along that corridor won’t be able to get on board unless they drive to the nearest stations at Orlando’s airport or in West Palm Beach.

“Uncertain is probably the best term to use,” said Bob Wirsz, a snowbird from Canada, living south of Walton Road, when asked how he regarded Brightline’s presence.

Bailey, the Jensen Beach man who described a Brightline train as “bing, beep and it was gone,” is entirely mystified about who will ride Brightline trains, gazing down at his community. He guessed cruise ship guests and nobody from where he lives.


Brightline conducts speed and brake tests in the Treasure and Space coasts regions. The crossing at Walton Road in Port St. Lucie is equipped extensively with signs, arms and lights.

“I’m not opposed to the train,” Bailey said.

Some days later, a Brightline marketing agent shed light on ridership.

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“South Florida comes alive with perfect weather, international art events and the start of the holiday season,” said Briana Ciraulo in a press release. “Brightline, the only provider of modern, eco-friendly, intercity rail in America, will celebrate this spirited time of the year with an endless array of events and surprises for its riders coming and going.”

Brightline response to criticism that its trains won’t stop in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties at least initially is that the company has made an unprecedented investment for all of Florida to move a mass of people with a spillover benefit for hauling freight.

Despite indifference, hot flashes of opposition and a COVID-19 dent in its business plan, Brightline has remained the costly train – spending more than $4.6 billion for Miami to Orlando service – that could.

The company steadfastly has said it will start service in 2023 but steadfastly won’t say when in 2023.


Already in some cities, anxiety is pivoting to enthusiasm, including in Cocoa, where the train will slip alongside U.S. 1 a third of a mile from its historic downtown.

“The city of Cocoa is excited at the possibilities that the Brightline train will bring,” said Mayor Michael Blake. “Cocoa hopes to serve as a future gateway to tourism, leisure and business opportunities for Brevard County with a future station right here.”