Sampling Brightline: a trip report

Posted by David Lassen
on Sunday, January 13, 2019

A northbound Brightline train negotiates an S-curve in Lantana, Fla. — one of the few curves on the line between Miami and West Palm Beach (Trains: David Lassen)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As I begin writing this, I am sitting in an airport terminal notably lacking in sufficient seating for passengers waiting for flights. Before having the good fortune to find this seat — nowhere near my gate, but you can’t have everything — I was herded through slower-than-usual security (truthfully, I don’t really blame the TSA people who aren’t being paid if they’re calling in sick), and had a mediocre, overpriced breakfast. Luckily, I had time for the snail’s-pace restaurant service since my flight will be at least 40 minutes late.

The contrast with Friday’s experience riding Brightline could not be more stark.

This was my first ride on the privately funded intercity passenger service, and it basically lived up to all positive notices. The stations are beautiful, spacious, airy, and have ample seating; parking is convenient — immediately adjacent in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and just a block away in Miami — and the staff is friendly and polite. The company has clearly put a lot of time and thought into its visual identity; I hope that look doesn't suffer from the forthcoming rebranding as Virgin Trains USA.

As for the trains themselves: the interiors are attractive and comfortable, the ride is smooth, and — probably most significant — the trains are almost always on time, if not early. (I saw one train arrive 11 minutes early; the only train I saw running behind schedule was stuck by an open drawbridge in Fort Lauderdale; it was about 12 minutes late at the intermediate stop. I suspect it made up most of that by the time it reached West Palm Beach.

Boarding the 'Bright Green' trainset in West Palm Beach. (Trains: David Lassen)
I took a Friday mid-day round trip, riding Smart (regular) class from West Palm Beach to Miami and returning in Select (first-class). The trip south could not have been better: uncrowded — not surprising for a 10:30 a.m. weekday departure — punctual, smooth-riding, and in all ways pleasant. There were a couple of loud cellphone conversations in nearby seats, but that was the closest thing to a negative in the 70-minute trip. (This made me wonder if there’s been any thought of designating one of the three Smart coaches as a quiet car. Little did I know how much I would soon truly be longing for one …)

Having spent the previous day photographing Brightline trains between West Palm and Fort Lauderdale, I was struck by how the Brightline-enhanced version of the Florida East Coast Railway mainline was nearly perfect for passenger service. It’s well-manicured double-track, mostly flat and arrow-straight. The only flaw, from the operation standpoint, is that this is a densely populated route, which means a.) lots of grade crossings, and b.) lots of pedestrian taking short cuts across the tracks. To the first point, my initial estimate was that there were approximately 1.74 trillion grade crossings in the 65 miles between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, but Passenger correspondent Bob Johnston tells me the number is somewhere north of 160. Even so, that’s roughly a crossing every four-tenths of a mile, which means a lot of equipment and maintenance. You want job security? Become a signal maintainer for Florida East Coast.

The Select class lounge at MiamiCentral station: a nice place to kill some time. (Trains: David Lassen)
As to the second point, the risk of pedestrian strikes have been one of the continuing weapons used against Brightline by its opponents, particularly those in the Treasure Coast counties north of West Palm Beach. I get it, to a degree; I’m not sure there are that many urban areas with as much sustained 79-mph operation as Brightline has, and I did see a couple of people sauntering across the tracks with trains approaching. But the railroad has blanketed the route with no trespassing signs and engaged in a lot of neighborhood education, and ultimately, I think people adjust to the reality of fast, frequent trains. I had dinner on two nights in Delray Beach, where the tracks cut through the middle of a bustling nightlife area, and saw 100 percent pedestrian compliance with the crossing gates.

About my return trip from Miami to West Palm Beach — well, the less said the better, though I don’t blame Brightline.

I enjoyed my access to the Select lounge at MiamiCentral (it offers free beverages and snacks, and has newspapers, magazines and a couple of TVs), and the early boarding was a nice perk. And onboard, there are wider seats and yet more free beverages and snacks. In an unfortunate bit of luck, though, my train also had a group of 14 to 16 people making a round trip to Palm Beach for a birthday celebration — and from the moment they boarded the train, they were playing loud music, talking to (and over) each other across several rows of seats, and generally behaving with complete disregard for everyone else onboard. (They would have been a perfect group to rent a limo or party bus, where there would have been no one else to disturb.) Since my experience is that people don’t suddenly develop a regard for others when asked to do so, I just gritted my teeth. (The car attendant asked me at one point if the music bothered me. Since we more than halfway through the trip by then, and saying yes would have made one or both of us the bad guy, I told him I wasn’t going to worry about it at that point.) But after about 5 minutes, I couldn’t wait for the trip to be over.

But I just put that down to bad luck. I suspect I could ride another 50 times and not have a similar experience. Far more significant is that, if I lived in that area, I suspect I would ride another 50 times.

A northbound train makes the fairly dramatic plunge from MiamiCentral's platform level to street level. (Trains: David Lassen)
If you’re planning to visit and try Brightline, here are a few tips:

— Be prepared for the fact that stations and trains are a completely cash-free environment. You’ll pay to park using a phone app, and use a credit card for any food, beverages or souvenirs. Personally, I don’t care for this — not just here, but anywhere — although it’s pretty clear this is the direction a lot of businesses are heading, whether I like it or not. I’d much rather use cash for a $2 purchase, and I’d much rather the decision to use a card was my choice, rather than the company’s.

— If, like me, you want to try both regular (Smart) and first-class (Select) service, ride Select on the first leg. It includes parking; since I did it the other way around, I paid to park in West Palm Beach (admittedly a very reasonable $6 for the day), while the free parking I received in Miami went unused.

— When you book your tickets, use the Brightline website, not the app. On the website, you can select your seat; on the app, they are assigned. Luckily, the website works quite well even on a phone. In fact, you might as well just stay away from the app altogether; it still needs a lot of work. (That’s not just my opinion; on Apple’s App Store, it gets 2.3 out of five stars and negative reviews abound, most along the lines of “Brightline is terrific, but this app is awful.”)

— I tried the app because, when I went to double-check the departure time on my West Palm-to-Miami trip, I found I had only received email confirmation for the return leg from Miami in Select Class. Since I bought the ticket without setting up a profile [don’t do this, as you’ll see], I could find no record of the transaction, and honestly, I just figured I botched it in some way. So I ended up buying another ticket (thankfully just $17 for an off-peak train; the Select Class ticket was $40). I later discovered that, while the Miami ticket had gone into my primary folder in Gmail, the West Palm ticket had gone into the “promotions” folder, where it was buried among the flood of ads I hadn’t sorted through while traveling. I’m not sure exactly why this happened, but regardless of the reason, I should have done a more complete check of the mail. And with a profile, there probably would have been a transaction record. Lessons here: Set up the profile, and if you’ve bought a ticket and don’t see the email confirmation, search your emails thoroughly.

If you get a chance to ride, do it. I hope these tips help.

And I hope that there’s not a group like those partiers riding with you.





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