A lawyer needs to get from Orlando to Miami for two days of client meetings. A family wants to spend a long weekend at Disney World. A group of basketball fans from Fort Lauderdale want to cheer on the Miami Heat.
These are just some of the potential passengers that Brightline – South Florida’s privately-run passenger train system – is planning to serve in the coming years. Brightline just opened two new stations in Boca Raton and Aventura and plans to open another one in mid-2023 at the Orlando International Airport. It already has stations in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami.
“Our top priority is to finish our expansion and to connect the South Florida region to Orlando,” Brightline spokesperson Ben Porritt said. “We are working to create a more reliable way to get between major metro areas of Florida. Our business mission is to have a better way to travel that is faster and greener. The public is looking for this and we are seeing a demand.”
The challenge for Brightline – and really any mode of public transportation – is overcoming America’s love affair with cars. A 2022 Global Traffic Scorecard released in January by INRIX Transportation shows that Miami-Dade motorists lost an average of 105 hours last year stuck in traffic delays, with Miami No. 7 on the list of top 10 cities in the country ranked by longest delays. And delays are on the rise now that more people are on the road with the coronavirus pandemic on the wane.
The good news for Brightline: Its ridership increased by 87% from December 2021 to last month, according to a recent report. Its most recent monthly revenue and ridership report logged just shy of 184,000 riders in December alone, with the new Aventura and Boca Raton stations accounting for almost 18,000 of those rides.
To borrow from the classic Oldsmobile ad, these aren’t your father’s commuter trains. They’re bright and stylish. Stations are new and offer lounge areas, some with food service. Nearby parking is available, though for a fee.
South Florida leaders are happy with Brightline so far. Oscar Braynon II, a Democratic former state senator and chair of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, said his group “worked closely with Miami-Dade County and Brightline to bring commuter rail transit to an area that otherwise lacked public rail service. Now Miami-Dade residents can easily … avoid much of the congestion that often saturates our local roads.”
Added Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, “As a critical part of Florida’s transportation network, I look forward to Brightline’s continued expansion.” And Palm Beach County Commissioner Marci Woodward said that having “a Brightline station in Boca Raton is a game changer.”
A future station at Orlando International Airport is slated to be three stories and feature groundbreaking design and luxury amenities, with the main entrance off the airport’s two-story glass atrium. Passengers will be able to purchase tickets from guest services or self-service kiosks, and check luggage before proceeding through the touchless turnstiles into the security screening area.
The 37,350-square-foot station will be located in the heart of the new Terminal C and will connect to an airport parking deck that will have more than 350 parking spaces reserved for Brightline riders. An automated “people mover” will connect the terminal to the rest of the airport, including Terminals A and B, in under five minutes.
Beyond the glamour, however, the press coverage hasn’t always been positive. In South Florida, Brightline has been known as much for its death toll as for its speedy service. Since its launch in 2017, Brightline trains have killed more than 50 people, according to a tally by Miami New Times. (Service stopped for 20 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, then resumed in late 2021.)
Faster trains mean longer stopping times. Speeds reach 79 mph from Miami to West Palm and 110 mph from West Palm Beach to Cocoa Beach, where they’ll make a turn to the new tracks to Orlando – fast enough to call them "higher speed" rail, but not true "high speed rail," which averages 200 mph. From Cocoa to Orlando, trains will run about 125 mph.
According to a 2019 Associated Press report, “None of Brightline’s deaths were caused by crew error or faulty equipment. … The majority have been suicides, while most others involved impatient motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists who misjudged the trains’ speed and ignored bells, gates or other warnings.” Moreover, “drugs, alcohol or both have been found in many victims’ systems.”
“We’re relentless about safety and are constantly seeking new ways to mitigate the behaviors we are seeing along the corridor,” Brightline president Patrick Goddard said in a statement. Last year, the service announced it had received an award of $25 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) discretionary grant program. The Florida Department of Transportation, in partnership with Brightline, was awarded the grant to beef up safety all along the corridor between Miami-Dade and an eventual extension up to Brevard County.
The money, combined with up to $20 million in matching funds from FDOT and Brightline itself, will add up to a $45 million investment. The project includes the construction of about 33 miles of pedestrian protection features and supplemental safety measures at 328 grade crossings. The work will include raised pavement markers, edge striping, fencing and additional safety signage in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties.
Meantime, riders now can choose between the “premium” level, offering wider seats, complimentary beverages and food, and access to a business lounge at stations. The “smart” level is also comfortable but offers fewer amenities. It appears you get what you pay for. Pricing is “dynamic”: A recent fare on Brightline’s website for a round trip for one adult between Miami and West Palm Beach, or the current length of the system, was $24 for a smart rider but $52 for a premium ride – more than double.
Brightline is selling “all graphite and glitter,” as the 1980s song by Donald Fagen goes, and now it remains to be seen whether more of the traveling public wants to buy. The train service says it wants to duplicate itself elsewhere, hoping to develop a line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, for instance. “I think people in the younger generation … are looking for new ways to travel,” Porritt said. “They are looking for a better experience.”
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers local government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.