When Brightline, the higher-speed train service in South Florida, noticed "passengers in droves with bags" boarding its trains, the big question was "Where are they going?" said Patrick Goddard, the train company's president.
So, the train company -- which has new trains, new stations, new tracks and new parking garages -- asked passengers, and sure enough, many were headed to PortMiami to board a cruise ship.
Driving in South Florida's traffic certainly can be stressful, and cruisers just wanted to do it hassle-free, boarding the train at either West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale and taking the train to Miami, then grabbing a Lyft or taxi and heading a short distance to the port's cruise terminals.
"A lot of those people figured it out before we did," said Goddard, who spoke with Travel Agent Tuesday and was excited about a "yes" vote earlier in the day by the Miami-Dade Board of Commissioners -- approving Brightline's plan to open a new $15.4 million train station at PortMiami by the end of 2020.
Who's paying for the station? Miami-Dade County will provide $5.2 million toward the cost of building the PortMiami station, and in turn, five years after train service begins there, Brightline will repay the county $7 million.
Getting Cruisers Off I-95
More than 5.5 million passengers boarded a ship at PortMiami last year. It's estimated that one million of those travelers are driving from places north of Palm Beach County to reach their cruise ship, according to Goddard.
That's a huge amount of people adding to I-95's already crowded status, particularly in peak periods. For drivers, particularly those not accustomed to local roadways, it can be stressful. Cruisers taking Brightline to PortMiami could potentially mean the removal of tens of thousands of cars annually off I-95 or other Florida roads, according to Goddard.
Goddard (shown in the photo below) also said that initial reports indicate 750,000 cruise passenger rides will result from the new port service. It's expected that at least two train trips a day will go directly to PortMiami.
The location of the station within the port itself? Goddard said it will be in the northeast end of the port (where existing tracks are located); that's a prime area for access to several major terminals. Brightline would provide shuttle service to the various terminals, Goddard said.
"Brightline's new PortMiami station will be yet another game changer for The Palm Beaches," said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO, Discover the Palm Beaches, the official tourism marketing organization for Palm Beach County. He said that cruise passengers, "particularly those sailing on luxury lines, will have even more opportunities to begin or end their voyages here [in Palm Beach County], thanks to a faster and effortless ride."'
Brightline's West Palm Beach Station is conveniently downtown and within walking distance of several hotels, and just a short ride from such iconic properties as The Breakers, Four Seasons Resort, Chesterfield Palm Beach and the Colony Hotel, among others.
So, in the past, luxury guests sailing from PortMiami may have desired to stay in a luxury property in West Palm Beach or environs but simply didn't want to "chance" a 75-mile drive on cruise boarding day. Now, with Brightline, it's likely to be much easier.
Cruise Line Business
Currently, Brightline -- soon to be rebranded Virgin Trains USA -- has a sponsorship program with MSC Cruises, the "Official Cruise Line" of Brightline; that program includes promotion inside the stations. Guests have easy access to PortMiami via the train, their luggage is handled, and it's an easy process.
The expected rebranding to Virgin Trains also will eventually allow a smooth, and even more-encompassing Virgin Group experience. Currently, Brightline is building a new station within Orlando International Airport's new South Terminal.
That's nearly complete, but now Brightline is laying track between Orlando and South Florida, and that's expected to be completed by 2022, when the new Orlando to South Florida train service will begin.
When that occurs, guests from the UK or beyond could fly into Orlando on Virgin Airways, perhaps stay a few days and visit theme parks or coastal beaches, return to Orlando International Airport to board Virgin Trains to ride southward, then catch their cruise at PortMiami, have a pre- or post-cruise stay at a planned Virgin property (in Miami's Brickell area) and fly home from Miami International Airport on Virgin Airways.
The train system also has an agreement with the Treasure Coast (Fort Pierce, Stuart and environs) to potentially build a station there -- which could also take more traffic off I-95 further north than Palm Beach County. The parties have five years to make a final deal about that.
But it's not just MSC and Virgin Voyages that the train system hopes to cultivate. "We are cruise line agnostic," said Goddard, noting that his group will work with all cruise lines. Currently, 22 ships call PortMiami home, representing many cruise lines.
Soon, more cruise "guests will begin their cruise experience at the train station," Goddard said, noting they can avoid the stress of South Florida expressway driving, sit back and relax on the ride, sip champagne and enjoy the vacation experience a bit earlier than if driving to the port.
In an announcement about the approval for the PortMiami station yesterday, Brightline also said an additional train station in Aventura in North Miami-Dade County is approved, and that it's working with the city of Boca Raton in southern Palm Beach County to add a station. Brightline says it would like to open all three by the end of 2020.
Right now, the train only travels between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Would additional stations slow down the trains to the point of them being not as efficient?
We put that question to Goddard, who indicated that "no," it would not be onerous, as some trains would be "Express Trains" to PortMiami, plus the train system is going to take measures to improve infrastructure for the timeliness of the existing rides.
He also pledged that Brightline will not be at risk of turning into a "commuter line," with stops every few miles.
With its robust network of home-based franchise owners who are cruise and travel advisors, "we send thousands of travelers on South Florida cruises each year," said Michelle Fee, CEO, Cruise Planners. She noted that the new PortMiami station will benefit those cruisers with a car-free connection -- allowing them to avoid I-95 chaos and traffic delays, plus, for some travelers, having to rent a car.
Another plus? "Making South Florida cruise ships even more accessible to the rest of the nation will [potentially] help drive valuable tourism dollars to Miami-Dade County," Fee stressed.
The train is looking to create packages with such trade sellers as American Express Travel, Cruise Planners and World Travel Holdings' cruise selling brands (Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.) and others. Also look for Brightline/Virgin Trains to create new pre- and post-cruise programs with destinations, hotels and resorts.
Recognizing the importance of travel advisors in the process of booking the train ride as part of the client's cruise itinerary, Brightline also recently announced 20 percent commission for agents.
Moving forward, PortMiami is likely to grow, even as it's now the world's largest cruise port. That means South Florida "is facing significant growth in cars" on local roads, noted Goddard.
With the new PortMiami station and more people interested in train service to reach the port, though, benefits include new ridership opportunities for Brightline, hassle-free train rides for consumers and help for local jurisdictions in keeping additional traffic off local roads. Goddard says: "It's a great way to remove friction."