Happening Now

Branson Bets On Brightline

November 16, 2018

My current and previous worlds merged this afternoon...and I couldn't be more excited about it.

As many of you probably know, I came to lead the Rail Passengers Association team after nearly three decades in aviation, mostly at Aviation Week. During my time at AvWeek, once or twice I met Sir Richard Branson -- the adventurer, serial entrepreneur and genius behind everything from Virgin records to Virgin Airlines and yes, Virgin Galactic (my personal favorite) -- and covered him for a couple of decades.

Unlike some other pie-in-the-sky venture capitalists, Sir Richard can point to real things in the real world that worked: hotels, trains, planes, and near-Earth spacecraft, just to name a few.

We learned this afternoon from our friends at Brightline that Sir Richard's Virgin Group has taken a minority stake in the Brightline rail project, and will take part in both the Florida expansion and the new project to link Las Vegas to Southern California.

Brightline will re-brand as Virgin next year.

Sir Richard says he shares a typically modest Branson-eque goal with Brightline: to transform rail transportation in the U.S.

"We believe Brightline is at the forefront of this innovation and the ideal partner to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States," Sir Richard writes in his own blog.

We at RailPassengers were excited about Brightline from the beginning. Not as some kind of anti-Amtrak -- indeed, we happen to know top Amtrak executives who are excited to see Brightline succeed -- but as an example of thought leadership and the beginnings of a change in thinking about what rail travel could be in this country. That's why we held our annual Fall meeting only a few short weeks ago in Miami, and gave our attendees the opportunity to ride a chartered Brightline train to experience it for themselves...and share that experience as advocates back home all across the country.

These are beautiful trainsets with wide ADA-compliant aisles, functioning bathrooms, enjoyable on-board service, spacious and thoughtfully appointed stations and fares which, while not cheap, are fully competitive in the markets they serve. Yes, America, trains really can be this good.

Speaking from the experience of someone who spent almost his entire career watching Sir Richard innovate, invest and take risks, I firmly believe this could be a real shot in the arm for passenger-rail in the United States. Like all entrepreneurs, Sir Richard isn't afraid to fail, and he has made a few bad bets in the past. But he's also made some very good ones, and has transformed not just travel but philosophies wherever he has gone.

I couldn't be more eager to see Sir Richard ride this train along with us.

Jim Mathews

President & CEO

Rail Passengers Association