Brightline: Railroad of the Future?

When I was growing up, Dippin’ Dots ice cream sold with the slogan, “Ice Cream of the Future”. In fact, I looked and today in 2018 they are still the Ice Cream of the Future. I guess the future had not arrived on-time.

However, the future was my take away after my first visit to ride on Brightline in Southern Florida. A few weeks ago we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale with time to kill, and I decided to see if the nation’s newest intercity train system was worth the hype.

Formerly going off the working name “All Aboard Florida”, Brightline opened their first segment in early January. The full service is planned to run from downtown Miami to Orlando. Most of the service is on the Florida East Coast Railway, with about 40 miles of new right of way being built to connect to Orlando. At this present time, they are operating a “demonstration” service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Service to downtown Miami is expected to begin sometime in the next few weeks.

We arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale station on a typical day in South Florida, with bright sun and highs in the 80s. With only limited time available, we had taken a rideshare from the airport rather than mess with Tri-Rail. The driver did not know where the station was as you can expect with new service, but we made it with no issue.

The first thing you will notice arriving at the station is just how much development was happening nearby. One of the unique advantages in their business model was the extensive downtown real estate owned by Fortress Investment Group, Brightline’s parent company. Most people believe their goal is to break-even or make a small surplus on rail operations, with the majority of their profit being driven from increased land-value and property development. In a way, it is a throw-back to Henry Flagler’s original development strategy for South Florida.

Walking into the stations themselves, you are first struck by the newness of it all. Tickets are purchased on touch-screen kiosks. The process is simple, though entering passenger information can get a bit lengthy. I was able to avail myself of a 10% NARP discount and special fares during the introductory period. The downstairs level includes a staffed desk for baggage check-in.

We proceeded up the escalator where I received my first negative surprise of the outing, a security checkpoint. We were required to put all bags into a scanner and proceed through waist-high metal detectors. The line was short and the guards were friendly, although it was clear they were inexperience as they had to send my bag through the scanner multiple times.

We also scanned our tickets going through security, similar to transit system with platform control. There were no ticket lifts done on the train.

Departures are frequent throughout the day, though there are a couple gaps around midday that near 2 hours. We arrived during one of these gaps, and I made it a point to purchase “Select” class to gain access to the lounge. The lounge area was located at the end of the main waiting area. Access was controlled via ticket scanner. An alarm would ring if you tried to “tail-gate” someone into the lounge (ask me how I know). The lounge was comfortable, with plenty of outlets and snacks. Sadly, Pepsi continues its monopoly on the US Rail market as the soda of choice for Brightline.

At boarding time, we headed back down to the platform. For equipment Brightline uses Siemens Charger locomotives and semi-permanently coupled passenger cars that are similar to what the Midwest State recently ordered to replace the stillborn bi-levels. Seats were assigned automatically at the point of purchase. Those that have a profile setup through Brightline’s website can input preferences like specific areas of the coach. This could be important as each coach is setup with half the seats facing each direction, and no effort is made to turn the train at the endpoints. I’m not sure if this is a choice solely for the startup period, but given that the trainsets are setup for “pull-pull” operation I think it is likely to continue.

The service was good. An attendant assigned to “Select” did a quick drink service. Everything is done from carts, though I have heard cafe cars may be delivered after the expansion to Orlando. Passenger loads were light as one would expect on a mid-day train during the intro period. I did a few businessmen which surprised me, and a few other joy riders checking the service.

This part of the route was very straight, and we quickly reached the max speed of 79 mph. Freight traffic was limited so the dispatching was superb. I only saw one other train during our round-trip. There was a shocking amount of grade crossings, perhaps more than I have ever experience on such a short route. I’m not surprised that issues with trespassers and grade crossing collisions have been in the news.

Overall, I think Brightline is doing a lot of things right. There are plenty of things that Amtrak could learn from and there are plenty of things they are doing that would not work with Amtrak’s system. My biggest concern is that those differences will cause Amtrak’s management to ignore the whole thing.

I definitely got the feeling during my trip that I was experiencing the future of passenger rail outside of the Northeast Corridor. If the business model could somehow be replicated elsewhere, it could truly usher in a golden age of corridor service in places where there is currently none.

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