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Bright Tracks Ahead


 

Meeting Details: In person, Tuesday Feb 20th, 7pm


Next Meeting will be Online, Monday Feb 27th
 

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What Brightline can teach us about the need for dedicated high-speed tracks


Last week was the latest report of someone being killed by a Brightline train in Florida when an SUV crossed in front of the train, killing the 2 occupants. This time it was on the new tracks being tested on the route to Orlando. This brings the deaths to at least 88 individuals since Brightline began operations in 2017.


These crashes are giving high-speed rail a negative image as the images of a train collision make for great news stories that are carried across the nation. 31,850 people died in car crashes in the US last year. To put that in perspective, that is filling up the Kohl Center in Madison (UW-Madison Basketball Stadium) – twice. The problem is car crashes are so every day that we don’t pay attention to them, but a train running into a pickup truck makes news across the US.


Worse, there is the fear of being trapped on the tracks as the train approaches. According to Railway Age’s article from Mar ’22, they believe that 70% of car/train collisions are the result of being trapped on the crossing, and not barrier evasion. This strikes fear in the American public and is the reason the news unfairly covers train crashes which then leave a negative image in the public eyes about the safety of high-speed rail. Especially considering Amtrak trains have frequently derailed.


This is where high-speed rail, and especially the Shinkansen, can be positioned as a solution over the long term. If Texas Central comes back, perhaps we can finally teach Americans how safe trains really can be…on dedicated tracks.

 

Brightline and the Milwaukee Bucks:

What does Milwaukee’s World Champion Basketball team and a railroad have to do with each other? No, its not a specially painted train (or plane), like the airlines did with sports teams in the 90s. It's more related to the money and ownership. First a bit about Brightline:

Brightline describes itself as the first (of hopefully many) private passenger rail operator in the United States. Originally it started out as Florida East Coast Railways back to 1881, but the combination of transportation and real estate turned the company into one of the oldest and largest real estate companies in Florida. Then in 2006, the company was renamed Florida East Coast Industries, and Florida East Coast Railways was sold off in 2017 to Grupo Mexico. However, in 2012 came All Aboard Florida company which was to be a 125 mph passenger rail from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, then up to Orlando and Tampa. All Aboard Florida was later named Brightline, then Virgin Rail USA, and then back to Brightline. That's a long story... To find out the relationship with the Milwaukee Bucks we must go back to the ownership of the organizations, starting with Brightline…. Brightline is owned by East Coast Industries. East Coast Industries is owned by Fortress Investments. Fortress Investments was owned by Wes Edens until it was bought by Softbank. Yea, it's super confusing. We created a graphic below to simplify it... Wes Edens purchased the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014 from Senator Herb Kohl (for who the UW-Madison Kohl Center is named). So in a way the Brightline and the Milwaukee Bucks are 3rd cousins.

The ownership of the Bucks is a good story, but not the main point of this article. That is about how Brightline is really a real estate company, rather than a railroad. You heard that right, they care more about the real estate than the transportation. Back in 2012, Brightline, Wes Edens, and Fortress applied for a loan from the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing from the Federal Railway Administration. This funding was actually a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in response to the Great Recession. Florida East Coast Industries then received a loan for $1.6 billion to build what would become Brightline. This is where it gets exciting. With financing now secured to build Brighline (and the Milwaukee Bucks purchased), this meant that all of the real estate around the stations could be leased or sold at much much higher rates than before. This meant that the Florida East Coast Industries was now a gold mine. This is when Softbank stepped in and bought Fortress Investments for $3.3 billion, leaving Wes to spend a lot of time at Fiserv Forum. Wes Edens has remained the Chairmen of Fortress Investments and led the acquisition of XpressWest, which is now known as Brightline West....and we're sure he is also very happy about the 2022 Buck's season so far.

 

Brightline and the Last Train to Paradise

It is rumored that Wes Edens & Fortress Investment was inspired by the book: Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean (2003). This book is the story of how Henry Flagler partnered with John D Rockefeller to create a railroad over the ocean through the Florida Keys to Key West. The railroad stood for 22 years, until it was destroyed in a storm in 1935. The Overseas Highway, that goes through the Florida Keys to Key West; was built on the former right of way of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway.


 


The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.











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