First Impressions of Brightline: Riding the Rails in South Florida

Simply put, Brightline—the new rail service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami—is a breath of fresh air on the transport side. This "higher-speed" rail service glides along at up to 79 mph. It's clean, it's bright, it's beautiful. The trains are totally new, as are the stations and parking garages. 

Here are our impressions about the 40-minute ride from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach and the return ride two days later. 

Light, Bright and Clean

No, this isn't a commercial for "Mr. Clean," but it might sound like one. From the garages to the check-in areas, from the security check-points to the lounges and platforms, and onto the trains themselves, it's a refreshing travel experience—everything is light, bright and clean.

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But while Brightline is new, did you know its route is historic? Currently, the tracks are owned by Florida East Coast Railway (FEC). Yes, that's the same storied railroad of Henry Flagler fame. Back in the late 1880s, he put Palm Beach, Miami and much of Florida's East Coast and the Florida Keys on the map with a railroad that brought tourists, supplies and settlers to the Sunshine State.

Today, though, there's nothing old-looking or traditional about this product. It's modern all the way. 

Smooth Boarding Process

We began our Brightline journey by parking in its dedicated, adjacent parking garage at the Fort Lauderdale Brightline Station. For now, while the train works to build ridership, parking is complimentary. Be sure to let the security guard know if you're not returning same day; your tag is then entered in a book. 

Elevators in the garage take people to the ground level. It's then just a short walk across the street into the terminal. Both outside and inside are small tables and chairs for relaxing. Inside, a spacious and bright check-in area awaits.

Smart tickets are $10 between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, or the same price between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. 

Select tickets on the same routes are $15 each and come with added perks (akin to "business class" on a plane in many ways). A special limited-time promotion offers the Select ticket for the entire route—West Palm Beach to Miami—for $25. Select ticket holders also receive entry to a Select lounge in the station, where guests can serve themselves free coffee and sodas, plus snacks like energy bars or pastries. On the train, Select ticket holders have slightly bigger seats.

An attendant in the Select train car will also serve complimentary sodas, coffee and tea, plus snacks. Select ticket holders also can ask for one complimentary alcoholic drink (if it's after 3 p.m.). Similar on-train service is provided to Smart ticket holders; they just pay for any drinks or snacks they choose.

We had our Select tickets in advance; Otherwise, we could have used the touchscreen check-in terminals, much like those at airports. Coincidentally, we were early and wanted to change our tickets to an earlier train. We were greeted promptly by an employee who actually came out from behind the counter to greet us (good training) and then led us to her counter position to work on our reservation.

Presto! She changed our tickets with ease and there was no added charge. Then we headed off toward the escalators, which transport train riders up to security. "Have a great trip," she said. 

If we'd have had large baggage, we would have had to check it downstairs, much as at an airport. People with small pets can also take them on the train in a pet carry-on if it fits under the seat in front of them. Or, Brightline will "check" larger pet crates, just as the airlines do, but without a charge.

We just had roller/spinner bags and purses, so off we went with our items in hand. 

Security and Lounges

Upstairs, three security personnel greeted us warmly. Hand luggage was scanned via an X-ray machine and we walked through an entry area with a discreet scanner. It was nice to see security at a train station. The security guards were friendly and pointed us in the right direction to the Select Lounge. We walked past the snack bar area with coffee, drinks, sundries and logo items for sale. 

Off to the left, the comfortable, bright lounge for Smart ticket holders was airy and modern. Restrooms were in this area, too.

We headed for the Select Lounge, which has a machine with a small glass gate; we scanned our ticket and the gate opened.

It was morning, so we poured ourselves complimentary coffee and tea, and enjoyed pastries and croissants. Granola, energy bars and chips were also available. 

Time to Travel 

An announcement is made 10 minutes ahead that the train is approaching. Employees direct passengers to the proper escalator or elevator to reach the train platform below. Five minutes before the train arrives another announcement is made. Signage in the stations also explains which track the train is on. Employees also will direct passengers to the proper train car (although they could improve the labeling on the outside of the cars, as it didn't seem to match with our seat number).

A flat ramp (called a gap filler) extends from the platform to the train making it easy to board. In fact, Brightline trains are fully handicapped accessible in everything involved with the trip—from the ramps going into the train to the restrooms to the extra wide aisles. 

Overhead compartments offer space for backpacks or small satchels, while a luggage area at the front of the car accommodates spinner/roller carry-on bags. 

The Journey Begins

Assigned seats are all light, bright cream-colored. One side of the train has a single seat on each row, the other two seats together. A few seating areas have four seats (two each facing each other with a table between). What's nice is that the train has good plugs and UBS outlets for charging devices or plugging into power. Brightline also offers complimentary Wi-Fi both inside the terminal and in the train cars.

After the train gets under way, an attendant comes down the aisle with a cart and serves such drinks as coffee or sodas. Passengers in Select seats are again offered free drinks and snacks, such as nut/cranberry bars. Leaving the station and within other commercial and residential areas along the route, the Brightline train sounds its horn, and slows in some areas, too.

Overall, it was a very smooth, comfortable ride. Arriving at West Palm Beach, announcements were made and we had time to get off without racing. Again, employees directed us to the proper escalator.

Exiting the terminal, we sat at tables outside and arranged for Uber to meet us. Within five minutes we were off to our destination, the Port of Palm Beach.

The Return Trip

Two days later, we returned to West Palm Beach station for our return ride trip to Fort Lauderdale. The entire process was very efficient.  

If you're seeking a clean, new train experience, Brightline delivers. We felt the appearance of both the terminals, the garage at Fort Lauderdale and the trains themselves were impeccably spotless. Without exception, employees were not only friendly but proactively helpful in serving passengers. 

As for the ride, it was smooth without the clack-ity, clack-ity of some trains traveling on older tracks.

The train is in the process of building ridership. Our train back to Fort Lauderdale had about 17 people in the Select train car, clearly not full capacity, but many of them were repeaters—a good trend for this high-speed rail service.

After our inaugural ride, would we travel on Brightline again? Given the high-quality of the experience and ease of use, you bet.

In May, Brightline extended its service to Miami (the station isn't far from Bayside). It's a good option for those headed to PortMiami for a cruise, as it would be just a short cab or Uber ride to the terminal.

In the future? Brightline hopes to also serve Orlando, but for now, it's serving locals and travelers alike who are headed to downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

While sitting in the comfortable Brightline train car during a smooth-as-silk ride last week, we checked e-mails, sipped on a cup of coffee and relaxed. Gazing out the window as the scenery drifted by, we had just one thought: "This sure beats fighting the crazy traffic on I-95." 

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