The grand opening of the Brightline Orlando terminal. Brightline

The railroad world is abuzz with the opening of the new Brightline high speed rail service to Orlando, an extension of that private railroad’s existing train service down Florida’s east coast to Miami. This is really big news.

The $5 billion expansion to Orlando was privately financed but with generous tax exempt bonds the railroad will have to pay back. Still, this is the first for-profit passenger railroad in the U.S. in 40 years.

How does Brightline compare with Metro-North? Let’s look at the basics:

Distance: Brightline runs 235 miles from Miami to Orlando compared with Metro-North’s 67-mile run from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven, so they’re quite different. To be fair, let’s just compare Metro-North to Brightline’s initial I-95 corridor service from Miami to West Palm Beach (70 miles).

Frequency: Brightline trains run once or twice an hour from 7 a.m. to 12 midnight.  Metro-North operates at least hourly from 5 a.m. to about 1 a.m.

Speed: Though Brightline trains do run 125+ mph in some stretches enroute to Orlando, between West Palm and Miami the speed averages about 56 mph due to station stops and track conditions. Metro-North’s fastest run from New Haven to GCT averages 45 mph on its few super-expresses but more like 35 mph on the regular trains making local stops.

Equipment: Ah, that amazing “new train smell”! Brightline’s seven-coach trains were built (in the U.S.) by Siemens. They offer two-by-two seating for about 60 passengers per car. The leather seats recline, have power plugs and free Wi-Fi via Starlink satellite (at a smoking-fast 70 Mb/sec). All Brightline trains are powered by diesel engines.   Metro-North’s M8 all-electric cars were built by Kawaski (also in the U.S.) and started in service in 2011. They offer two-by-three seating for about 100 passengers per car with power plugs in each row but no Wi-Fi… yet.

Amenities: Brightline offers comfy lounges and waiting rooms with snacks and beverages at stations for passengers. Metro-North offers no station amenities aside from a bench on the platform and, if you’re lucky, a waiting room.

The Brightline Orlando platform. Brightline

Fares: Brightline fares between West Palm and Miami start at $41 roundtrip ($84 in first class). The new railroad also offers big discounts for families and groups. Commuters can buy discounted 12- and 40-trip tickets. On Metro-North their New Haven to GCT fares start at $47 round trip with similar discounts for seniors and multi-ride commuters. But there is no first class on Metro-North.

First mile/last mile: You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so Brightline makes that easy, offering free shuttles to and from their stations as well as car parking. Metro-North offers parking at Connecticut stations (which are owned by the Connecticut Department of Transportation) and administered by the towns and cities. Some towns have a five-year waiting list for permits.

Safety: Brightline is the deadliest railroad in the U.S. as it regularly sees collisions at its 315 grade-crossings between Miami and Orlando. Since its start in 2019, 98 people have died, most of them suicides. Metro-North also sees a large number of suicides but because there are no grade crossings on the mainline, it’s nearly impossible for its trains to crash into cars or trucks.

So yes, Brightline is a big deal in the transportation world. But it’s not true high speed rail in the global sense of the phrase.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.