By: Dale King Contributing Writer
It’s not difficult to figure out why the new, high-speed trains that run from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale and Miami are called, “Brightline.”
The first regularly scheduled passenger trains to chug along the Florida East Coast tracks in some 50 years; those sleek, speedy conveyances with distinctive sloped-nose locomotives have exteriors painted in vibrant hues of red, orange, green, blue and pink. They flash by like swiftly moving rainbows at speeds up to 79 mph.
But don’t call them Brightline for much longer. Last month, Britain’s Sir Richard Branson visited Miami to consummate his financial stake in the high-speed train service. The crowd in front of the MiamiCentral Station stood by as the name Virgin MiamiCentral was unveiled over the door – the first significant moment in Brightline’s phased transition to Virgin Trains USA.
The soon-to-be-revised moniker stems from Branson’s creation of Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies, including an airline, the British rail line Virgin Trains UK and ties in with Virgin-named resorts, hotels and cruise lines. The new name reflects Branson’s investment – and confidence – in the first privately owned passenger rail system that’s been launched in America in 50 years.
Operated by All Aboard Florida, a wholly owned subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, the new inter-city train service marked the first birthday of its West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale run on Jan. 13. Miami was added as a stop on the overall route in May 2018.
And what did the boss have to say at that party? “We’re beyond excited to celebrate Brightline’s birthday with our teammates and guests who have been part of this special journey,” said Patrick Goddard, Brightline (now Virgin USA’s) president. “Our first year of operations was trail-blazing, and the future only gets brighter from here.”
Since opening, Brightline has transported more than 600,000 guests in convenient, efficient and productive style. By connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the new train service enables locals and visitors to explore more culture, dining, arts and sporting events across South Florida.
“We have totally reinvented our approach to train travel,” said Ben Porritt, senior vice president for corporate affairs at the rail line. “Our approach is to have bright, luxury trains with service fully focused on the guests.”
The West Palm to Miami run is just the first phase of a two-part, multi-billion dollar project that will turn Brightline into a 235-mile train route from South Florida to Orlando International Airport where passengers can disembark at the Sunshine State’s most heavily populated theme park junction.
Operators say trains will purr like gazelles at speeds of 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and 125 mph from Cocoa to Orlando. There are no grade crossings to interrupt travel along the Cocoa-to-Orlando leg.
And as for chugging, forget it. These trains don’t chug. Every Brightline train is powered by two biodiesel locomotives, one on each end. The trains with no ends never have to “turn around;” they run “back and forth” as they move north and south.
Even before the name switch, the folks at Brightline engineered this motto: “Car-free. Carefree. Thanks for riding Brightline.”
There aren’t a lot of rules on these trains. You can bring your pet on board – in an approved carrier – or take your bicycle along for the ride. Coaches have bike storage racks along with luggage shelves. All trains and stations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
To provide refreshments, train attendants wheel food and beverage carts down the aisles as if the coaches were jet airliners. First-class passengers can enjoy free pick-me-ups – coffee, soda, wine, health bars, candy and chips, among other snacks.
If you want to know how the riders feel about the trip, just ask them – if you can tear them away from their cell phones, tablets and laptop computers.
Diovany Chirino of Boynton Beach loves to ride the trains back and forth to his job as a tugboat engineer at the Port of Miami. As he spoke during a recent trip home, he set his beverage on the table, leaned back in his cushiony seat and admired the picturesque view of sunny South Florida passing by.
Julia Hebert of Lake Worth sipped a complimentary coffee in the Select car – just for first-class passengers – as she admired the beautifully crafted rail coach interior, with its row of plush leather couch-style seats, retractable arm rests, thick, blue carpeting along the aisle, plenty of outlets and USB ports for phones, computers and other electrical devices and lots of leg room.
“It’s much better than using your automobile,” commented Richard Serafini of Fort Lauderdale, a twice-a-week rider. “And if you add in tolls and parking, it’s really cheaper.”
The train line that shuttles passengers up and down Florida’s southeast coast “is long overdue,” said Serafini, who rides once or twice a week. “I used to live in the Northeast and I was appalled when I came here and found that you could be 30 miles from your destination and have no access to public transportation.”
“The only drawback is you have to get to the station early to buy a ticket” since they are not sold on board. Otherwise, he said, the service is convenient, reliable and reasonably priced.
“I’ve never taken Brightline before, but I think it’s great,” said Heather Seltzer, a visitor from New York who sat across from a friend at a window seat on the West Palm to Miami trip for a recent vacation. “I heard of this service through word-of-mouth,” and by her trip’s end, she was a Brightline believer.
The colorful train system operates 17 round-trips on weekdays; 10 round-trips on Saturdays and nine on Sundays. Special trips are added for athletic games and “Polar Express” movie-themed journeys supplemented the schedule for Christmas.
The switch to Virgin USA has been in the cards for some time, officials say. In November 2018, Brightline and British billionaire Branson’s Virgin Group announced the formation of a strategic partnership to continue to grow America’s first new inter-city passenger train service.
Porritt said Brightline’s plan now that the name switch is official is to “leverage the Virgin brand and marketing expertise for existing and future developments, establishing ‘Virgin Trains USA.’”
Passengers looking to ride the sleek and elegant passenger carriages should note that tickets are issued in three classes: Select, which provides the passenger complimentary food and beverages, free parking and a dedicated lounge and business center in the stations; SmartPlus, one complimentary drink and a snack on the train and Smart service, offering the option to buy food and drink.
Wi-Fi is available at all stations and on all trains. “It’s a fully connected experience,” said Porritt. “You never lose access to the things you need.”
Information and tickets are available by visiting www.gobrightline.com.