ORLANDO, Fla. — Monday marked a new phase in the effort to build near-high-speed rail service in Orlando, providing riders a rapid rail route to South Florida. 

Virgin Trains USA (formerly known as Brightline) held a ceremony Monday to highlight construction on a new $2 billion expansion project that will ultimately introduce Central Florida’s first near-high-speed rail service.

The Orlando hub will be based at the new intermodal station at Orlando International Airport, where passengers will be able to take Virgin Trains’ near-high-speed rail trains to South Florida.

It's called "near high speed," because the trains will hit 135 mph for certain stretches, a little slower than the 155 mph sustained speed generally considered "high speed."

The Orlando expansion project will link Central Florida to existing service in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.

Patrick Goddard, CEO of Virgin Trains USA, told Spectrum News Monday that the project will also include building a vehicle maintenance facility near the OIA station as well as upgrading existing rail lines and adding 170 miles of new track.

The new route is not expected to be in service at least until 2022. It is a project that company leaders say will benefit locals and tourists alike.

“Driving to Miami is uncomfortable, it’s tiring, it’s not an exciting drive, it’s not fun,” Goddard said. “Virgin Trains is going to be faster, value-driven, comfortable, more eco-friendly, safer by a long shot.”

Data by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation statistics shows travel by airlines and trains are safer than roadway travel.

The "Orlando experience"

Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Chairman Domingo Sanchez said to him it makes sense to base the new rail service at MCO.

“It’s all about moving people,” Sanchez said. “It’s all about the experience of moving people, and trains are a critical part of getting folks around.”

More than 48 million people traveled through OIA in 2018, a number that is expected to reach 50 million in the coming years. Sanchez said the new Virgin Trains route will improve customer satisfaction and quality of services at OIA.

“The ‘Orlando experience’ is really what we want to focus on, not only moving people around from different parts of the world and different parts of the country — it’s really about how do they feel when they come here,” Sanchez said.

An obvious question for Virgin Trains is how much tickets on the Orlando to South Florida route will cost.

“That’s to be determined. I know everyone is waiting for that answer,” Goddard said. “It’ll be less than flying, that’s for sure, it’ll be more convenient than flying and for sure closer to the cost of driving.”

Goddard said his research shows the average person spends approximately 80 cents per mile driving from Orlando to Miami, and suggests it’ll cost Virgin Trains riders about 34 cents per mile.

Could it then just be cheaper for a family to still drive to Miami instead?

“Beyond that, we’ll be doing packages for families to make it more affordable to make it down together. We recognize people don’t travel in one’s and two’s,” Goddard said.

Rail service beyond Orlando

Virgin Trains CEO Patrick Goddard confirmed again Monday that the company remains in talks with various state entities to eventually build stations in downtown Tampa and Walt Disney World after the Orlando service is launched.

“We continue to negotiate with Central Florida Expressway and with FDOT on our lease agreement to get out to Tampa and certainly stops in the theme parks is something we’d strongly have to consider if we’re doing that. We’re continuing to have (discussions), but there’s nothing definitive at this time,” Goddard said.

An expansion of Virgin Trains near-high-speed rail service will also mean an expansion for SunRail. There are efforts to link Virgin Trains and SunRail at multiple points including OIA and SunRail’s new Meadow Woods station.