US passenger train company drops Virgin as partner

The partnership between Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and the private Florida passenger train service Brightline has ended less than two years after it started.

Brightline announced in a monthly report that it has ended its affiliation with the Virgin Group and will halt its rebranding to Virgin Trains USA.

“Virgin no longer has any affiliation with us, our parents or its affiliate,“ Brightline said in the report that does not go into details about what led to the split. The report says Virgin may have objections to the plan.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Richard Branson, of Virgin Group (AP/Lynne Sladky, File)</figcaption>
Richard Branson, of Virgin Group (AP/Lynne Sladky, File)

Virgin has had several recent setbacks. Its Virgin Atlantic airline filed for bankruptcy in the US last week after announcing a restructuring plan in the United Kingdom last month. It resumed flights last month after a three-month closure because of the coronavirus pandemic. It ended its Virgin Trains UK service in December after a 22-year run.

Because of the pandemic, Brightline suspended operations in March on its higher-speed service between Miami and West Palm Beach, but has continued laying track for its planned expansion to Orlando and its theme parks set for 2022. It is also working on a line that will connect Southern California and Las Vegas. It has no date set for resuming operations.

The companies had announced the partnership nearly two years ago and celebrated it with a rollout party in April 2019. Mr Branson received a rockstar’s welcome at Brightline’s new Miami station, which was soon rebranded with the Virgin name. He then rode with reporters and VIPs to West Palm Beach, the 70-mile trip taking just over an hour, where passengers clamoured to get selfies with him.

For Brightline, the first private passenger train service in the US to launch in a century, the partnership was seen as a way to grab an internationally recognisable name plus a small, undisclosed investment. But that money never came, Forbes reported in June.

For Virgin, the partnership would give it a toehold in the US passenger train market as it sought to expand its American holdings with a cruise line and hotels. Mr Branson said Virgin would “sprinkle some of its magic dust” on Brightline and help it deliver an experience with some panache.