April 30, 2020
Train Wreck Times
We hope everyone is healthy …and we hope for a speedy end to this nightmare.
Just so you know we haven’t been sitting on our laurels for the last month or more, we wanted to share with you some news and thoughts on the continuing saga of the Railroad Blues.
As of our last edition, Virgin Trains was still operating despite the pandemic lockdown, claiming to be an essential service. The day after publication, March 25, this Miami Herald article announced they were stopping service and laying off 250 people. The layoffs included Vice President of Corporate Development, Bob O’Malley. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/article241513556.html
On March 31, Rusty Roberts, VP of Government Affairs, and the Brightline perennial spokesperson, announced he would be leaving as a result of the project’s financial slowdown. In his farewell letter, he wrote, It is a source of great pride to work on the most exciting transportation infrastructure project in America and to witness from our leadership team the type of American ingenuity and determination that can only be compared to the likes of Henry Flagler and his Overseas Railroad to Key West, and Alexander Cassatt’s rail tunnels to Manhattan.
It's too bad they didn’t include any of those bridges and tunnels, he so admires, in the planning of All Aboard Florida/Brightline/Virgin Trains!
And speaking of Virgin…Branson’s Virgin Voyages, (adult cruise line, we can only imagine!) has rescheduled the maiden Voyage of the “Scarlet Lady” for August 7. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the collapsing travel empire created by Richard Branson and his Virgin Group. Virgin Australia, one of his airlines, filed for bankruptcy in mid-April. He’s now looking to mortgage his private island to finance part of his debt.
As we remind everyone, he owns very little if any interest in Brightline/Virgin Trains – he just sold the railroad use of the “Virgin” name. Obviously, Fortress Investment Groups’ Virgin Train lines both here and in California/Nevada must be stretched to pay for those naming rights. In fact, we find the western arm of Virgin Trains reduced its overhead in early March with the exiting of Senior VP of Business Strategy, Tina Quigley.
Some thoughts on financing… One expert mentioned the “Virgin” name may not be as strong to bond buyers moving forward. What appeared to be a master stroke by the Brightline marketing team when they were trying to sell junk bonds, the use of the Virgin name might now be an albatross. With the negative financials for Virgin airlines in the UK and Australia, lagging ridership and losses in Florida and the growing cost per track mile out west, it should be interesting to see if Fortress can raise the capital for the LA to Vegas line trading on the “Virgin” name.
As to the bonds already sold for the Florida line, a Wall Street Journal article recently stated, “Nuveen also reports holding at least a $1 billion stake in an unrated train line known as Virgin Trains USA, or Brightline—about a third the total deal.” When many were wondering why anyone would buy Virgin Trains’ junk bonds… ”Powerful participants in municipal funds such as Nuveen LLC, helped the sector’s record run last year. Now, outflows from those same funds helped fuel a record selloff in the historically safe corner of the market.”
The article goes on to explain… “When investors rattled by the spread of the coronavirus began pulling their money from muni mutual and exchange-traded funds in mid-March…Municipal-bond funds hemorrhaged an unprecedented $28 billion through March 25…” “Nuveen had net outflows of $5.4 billion in March through the 25th, more than any other fund.” Draw your own conclusions.
In late March, we were contacted by homeowners, Tony and Amy Wood, who own property in Indian River County next door to the Virgin Trains’ construction staging area for replacement of the Sebastian River Bridge. Amy reported, despite the ‘lockdown’ which required her to homeschool her kids and seniors in the community to remain in their homes, the railroad was moving a massive crane into the area and starting the major project.
We sent a letter to the Secretary of Transportation and a number of elected officials on their behalf asking why the company couldn’t move crews to an area where people aren’t forced to stay home and are extremely stressed about the pandemic. We sent the video (attached) showing Amy concerned about the dangerous equipment and the safety of her family. Senator Mayfield made calls to Tallahassee and got in touch with the Wood’s.
Bottom line – Virgin Trains could care less about their concerns and had no intention of moving construction elsewhere. They didn’t address the stressful timing. Instead, they blamed the Wood’s for not cooperating with the inspector who is required to inspect their property to record its condition, if they later claim construction damages. As it turned out, Tony Wood had phone and email documentation indicating the inspector was a ‘no show’ when the visit was scheduled.
We were outraged by the company’s blatant disregard for the welfare of our neighbors in this unprecedented time. If you, or someone you know, lives near the tracks and has had experiences like these or has had construction workers trespass on their property, please let us know. We have heard folks in Brevard County complain work on the new segment has caused noise, dirt and major disruptions by the construction. We would like to know more about those problems as well. Please reply to this newsletter or give me a call.
As I am reminded daily by our fight to make the trains safe, it’s amazing what we can do when we all pull together. In the not too distant future, we will restart our lives and be stronger and wiser. But our lives and our livelihoods will continue to be threatened by Virgin Trains until they are made safe.
We Can Do This…We Must!
Alliance for Safe Trains