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Richard Branson, Virgin to partner with Brightline high-speed rail

Updated November 16, 2018 - 9:01 am

Brightline, the company that in September announced plans to acquire the rights to develop the XpressWest high-speed rail route, will partner with Richard Branson and the Virgin Group on the project.

Brightline officials said Friday the company would leverage the Virgin brand and marketing expertise for existing and future developments, establishing “Virgin Trains USA.” Brightline will rename itself Virgin Trains USA this month and transition to Virgin Trains USA branding in 2019.

The company operates an intercity train line between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida, and is in the process of expanding it to Orlando and Tampa.

In September, the company said it acquired XpressWest and would work to begin building a rail line between Las Vegas and Victorville, California. Financial terms of that deal were not announced, but XpressWest, which has been working on the 185-mile project since 2005, expected it to cost around $7 billion.

Supersizing the profile

Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada and a member of the Nevada High-Speed Rail Authority, said the addition of the Virgin brand to the customer experience that Brightline had already defined “will supersize the profile of this very important transportation link” between Las Vegas and Southern California.

“It is a brand that people identify with innovation, fun and adventure, which are standard words for tourism, but very, very new words for rail transportation,” Quigley said. “But what is most exciting for us is the capacity enhancement and congestion reduction we will see as a result of this project.”

As part of the strategic partnership, an affiliate of Virgin Group has agreed to make a minority investment in Brightline. Funds managed by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC will retain majority ownership of Brightline and the company’s current management team will oversee daily operations, engineering, business development and strategy.

Branson, a frequent visitor to Las Vegas and the founder of the Virgin Group, announced in March that his company had acquired the Hard Rock Hotel and that it would be transitioned to Virgin Hotels Las Vegas by next year. Branson also announced in October that he was stepping down from the board of Virgin Hyperloop One, which has a test track in North Las Vegas.

His Virgin Atlantic international airline has two flights a week between McCarran International Airport and Manchester, England, and six to and from London’s Gatwick International Airport.

Shaking up markets

“We have had a lot of fun and success creating innovative transport businesses that shake up markets and establish loyal followings,” Branson said in a release announcing the Brightline partnership.

“We transformed domestic air travel with Virgin America. Tens of millions of Americans travel on the railways every day, and we have tried for over a decade to find an opportunity to provide them with that same excellent service experience,” said Branson, founder of Virgin. “Brightline is at the forefront of innovation in this market, and the ideal partner for Virgin to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States.”

Virgin Group has experience operating in the United Kingdom rail sector, including an ongoing investment in Virgin Trains, a high-speed intercity passenger rail system that has run for 21 years. Last year, passengers took more than 38 million trips on the UK’s West Coast Main Line.

The partnership could help to provide access to millions of customers with the potential for increased ridership from other Virgin-branded travel and hospitality businesses, including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Hotels and Virgin Voyages, a cruise-ship line founded in 2014 with headquarters in Plantation, Florida.

Virgin Group has more than 60 companies focused on travel and leisure, telecommunications and media, music and entertainment, financial services and health and wellness.

XpressWest plan

Under the original XpressWest rail plan for Southern California and Southern Nevada, a dual-track line free of grade crossings would be built between Las Vegas and Victorville. Eventually, the plan is to build a 60-mile link west between Victorville and Palmdale, California, where the line would meet with Southern California’s Metrolink commuter rail lines and the California High Speed Rail line that is under construction. Eventually, the plan is to provide nonstop rail service between Las Vegas and downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station.

XpressWest secured several federal and local government approvals needed to build the project.

Quigley and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Steve Hill recently traveled to South Florida to experience the Brightline product and came away impressed.

“The stations feel like a nice shopping mall that happens to be where a train goes through,” Hill said. “There are food courts, places to shop, and transportation options once you’re there. And the trains themselves are really nice. The seats are comfortable and it’s easy to have conversations with people, or get up and move around, and there’s food and drink service on board.”

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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