TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - After years of starts and stops, Central Florida is finally getting a high-speed train. Sir Richard Branson -- founder of Virgin Records, books, hotels, cruises, air travel and space travel -- is now staking his name and fortune on Virgin Trains.
The express rail service is already in operation through South Florida, linking Miami to Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Virgin Trains secured funding last month to construct a connection to Orlando, with plans to extend to Tampa in the works.
“I’m a hundred percent confident,” Branson told FOX 13. “Obviously reassured we just raised $1.8 billion to do the first major leg of that. I’m absolutely certain that Tampa will be getting Virgin Trains in the very near future.”
The government planned a statewide high-speed rail system for decades. Former Governor Crist accepted federal money to build the line from Tampa to Orlando eight years ago. His successor, former Governor Scott, claimed it would lose money and killed it.
But Scott’s own administration commissioned a study that projected the government’s vision for high-speed rail would have turned profits. Virgin Trains' leadership now sees an opportunity to cash in, particularly given their progress in connecting the population centers of South Florida.
“Tampa is a meaningful connection,” said Virgin Trains president Patrick Goddard. “Growth in the city of Tampa over the past decade has been incredibly impressive. We see a massive opportunity.”
Virgin Trains -- formerly known as Brightline -- filed financial records that shed light on its plans and vision for connecting to Tampa. A company map shows the train will stop at Orlando International Airport, stop at Disney, then it will track west along Interstate 4 to a stop in Tampa. It will offer snacks, drinks and wi-fi.
Virgin says its trains will not interfere with primary transportation needs. The company has not yet decided the height or elevation of its plan. It expects to spend $1.7-billion in private money versus the government plan that had estimates up to $3.5 billion.
The previous government plan for high-speed rail called for train speeds up to 168 miles per hour. Virgin's trains top out at 120 miles per hour. That still qualifies as 'high speed' by the state's definition, and can deliver passengers from Tampa to Orlando in one hour.
Fares from Miami to West Palm Beach start around $15 one way, with discounted rates for frequent riders. Trains run on the hour through most of the day and every 30 minutes during rush hour.
Commuters told us it costs about the same as driving when they factor in the costs of fuel and tolls.
"I live in West Palm Beach and I like to come down to Miami but I don’t like driving because it’s really congested,” said Tiana Gaines. "I think the pricing is good because it’s a good experience. Everyone is really nice."
“If I was taking Uber, which is really my only other option, it would cost me about a hundred dollars and I would have to deal with traffic,” said Joseph Lesko, a Virgin Trains passenger from New York.
Company filings put the cost of a one-way ticket form Tampa to Orlando at $35 -- or around $70 round-trip.
That could reduce traffic on I-4, while offering a faster, more productive alternative, and delivering on the state's vision of high-speed rail for its taxpayers without spending the taxpayers' money.