Archive for the ‘Passenger’ Category

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.


AAPRCO Visits Cincinnati

AMTK 154 at track speed just South of Camden, OH.

AMTK 154 at track speed just South of Camden, OH.

When one lives in Ohio, any Amtrak train viewable during the day time is a cause for celebration. When the train features a heritage unit and 20 cars of Private Varnish, it’s not even comparable. On Sunday, the American Association of Private Railcar Owners left Chicago for their 38th Annual Convention. Known as the “Spirit of St. Louis, the special charter is travelling on a circuitous routing to St. Louis, stopping for tours in both Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky.

Read On…

Follow Amtrak Trains Live Online

So you’ve schedule a trip on Amtrak, but the big question remains. Will my train be on-time? If your sitting at home and the anticipation is killing you, there are a couple of different ways you can track your train.

Call Julie

Amtrak automated system, commonly known as Julie, is the traditional way to determine train status. Call 1-800-USARAIL and follow the prompts. You will need to know your train number and departure station.

The Amtrak App

Many people do not realize that Amtrak maintains a mobile application on both the popular iOS and Google Play App Stores.

The Amtrak App can be used not only for train tracking, but includes a mobile interface that ties into the reservation system. You can book simple trips right from the app itself, though more complicated reservations, modifications, and cancellations will still need to be made by phone. Use the keyword “Agent” to bypass the voice prompts and get straight to a live human.

Not using an iPhone or Android? Recently Amazon and even Windows Mobile have even got in on the App Store action.

Still out in the cold? If they will only take that Blackberry from your cold dead hands, you can use Amtrak’s mobile website at

Unofficial Tracking Websites

I found a site the other day that could be useful to anyone taking the train this Holiday season. Amtrak Status Maps uses public data available on Amtrak’s site to plot the approximate locations of current trains. It also lists if the train is running on time or behind, and if it is behind it will list how many hours.

This site is only limited by the accuracy of the information they are pulling from Amtrak’s system. As an unofficial source, I wouldn’t rely on it as my sole timekeeping source. It could be useful when rail-fanning or to track station performance across the route.

Amtrak Track-A-Train

The Amtrak System January 20, 2015 at 7:30 PM

The Amtrak System January 20, 2015 at 7:30 PM

Since this article was originally written, Amtrak has added it’s own Track-A-Train System. Through a partnership with Google, this system relies on GPS devices located in each locomotive in addition to the traditional station arrival information. It will give a more current location and estimated speed rather than just the most recent departure time.

You can read more about it in the full press-release from Amtrak. As with any of these resources, the train can depart at any point after it’s scheduled time. It’s not uncommon to make up time due to schedule padding and other factors. Arrive late at your own risk.

3C at the State Fair

On Tuesday I had a chance to attend the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. In the corner of the commercial building there was a booth for the Ohio Department of Transportation. In a dark corner of this booth there was the poster (pictured above) advertising the proposed 3C Rail Corridor.

While their were plenty of display space in the booth for advertising a hybrid bus or a stop sign with flashing red LEDs (PDF link), one of the most important transportation projects in the state was banished to the side. Although in the interest of full disclosure I also need to point out that Operation Lifesaver was there with post cards available with 3C information. Overall though, I think it’s a clear indication of the hostile climate that passenger rail faces in the state.

Speaking of 3C News, there is a long-ish article on Building Cincinnati about the possible use of the Oasis Line into Cincinnati. Sadly this article features some relatively uninformed NIMBYs who really had no concept of the pros and cons of a twice daily passenger train. In fact the president of the East End Area Council, Laurie Keleher, was quoted as saying, “Diesel engines are notorious polluters, is that being taken into consideration?” when in fact a diesel locomotive is no worse a polluter than a couple of tractor-trailers passing by per day.

The article does end on a positive note. David Lyman, a citizen of the neighborhood, provides a fresh perspective with the following:

“Barges on the river already create more noise than we’re likely to have from train traffic, and besides, we’re not talking about dozens of trains a day. If a high-speed train is routed through Columbia Tusculum, it certainly won’t be traveling at those high speeds in such a densely populated area.”