By Otto M. Vondrak/photos by the author
Florida’s Brightline service made its debut between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale on January 13, 2018, with an extension to Miami following on May 19. Breaking ground in 2014, the project included the construction of new stations, transit-oriented development, and the re-installation of a second main line track on the Florida East Coast Railway. It has also introduced one of the first privately funded, higher-speed intercity passenger services in America. While visiting family in Florida this past September, I decided to take a round-trip on Brightline to see what all the hype was about.
When you visit their web site, it’s obvious Brightline is selling you an experience, and one that is aimed toward people who may have never ridden a train before. I purchased a ticket for the 1:15PM departure from West Palm Beach, arriving in Miami by 2:30. Not really having a reason to hang around Miami, I booked a return trip for 3:15PM, arriving West Palm Beach at 4:27.
The station in West Palm Beach is a modern design that shares little in common with hip-roof sub-urban stations of the 20th Century. The station at Fort Lauderdale is of similar design and construction.
“Smart” is the basic service level, where refreshments are available for purchase onboard. “SmartPlus” includes one complimentary snack and beverage. “Select” includes access to the Select Lounge with business services and complimentary snacks and beverages, priority boarding, wider seats, complimentary onboard snacks and beverages, and complimentary parking. Wanting to sample the full range of amenities, I booked my south-bound trip in Smart service ($20), and my return trip in Select Service ($40). I made my reservation, and soon received a confirmation email with a link to my tickets (not unlike having airline board-ing passes sent to your smart phone).
I parked my rental car in the new Brightline garage adjacent to the station in West Palm Beach. Finding a spot was easy enough, but I did waste a few minutes downloading a third-party app to my smartphone and entering my information to pay for parking.
The Brightline station in West Palm Beach is an ode to modern transportation facilities. Stark white, featuring dramatic angles and lots of glass, the station is like nothing I’ve experienced before. In fact, there’s little to suggest it’s a train station at all. Entering the spotless lobby, you are greeted by a series of self-serve kiosks to purchase tickets or print boarding passes. Two helpful customer service reps were stationed nearby for those who required additional assistance or preferred traditional human interaction.
Brightline trains layover at West Palm Beach station on February 14, 2018. The track in the foreground allows Florida East Coast freight trains to bypass the station facility.
To enter the station, escalators take you up to the mezzanine where you scan your boarding pass to open the gates al-lowing you to pass. Upon entry, you are greeted by a light security screening. Bags get X-rayed and everyone passes through a metal detector. While everyone was very courteous and no one is required to re-move any articles of clothing, I was surprised by the voluntary application of “security theatre” to domestic rail travel.
The waiting area included a stand offering coffee, tea, soft drinks, and cock-tails for sale (no doubt a welcome oasis for regular commuters). A nearby kiosk sold comfort items like travel mugs and souvenirs (including some adorable Brightline wooden trains). The waiting lounge features seating with low backs that include power ports for mobile devices and laptop computers. Everything is finished in white, with dark gray and dark blue upholstery. The far end of the lounge included a small children’s play area to allow young riders to burn off some energy before boarding. Large video screens project train status information as well as advertising messages.
Soon, a boarding announcement was made and an attendant appeared to lead us down to the platform…