Before dawn on a Tuesday in late March, a four-car Brightline train — capacity 240 — pulled out of the company’s West Palm Beach station and headed south to Fort Lauderdale.
Just eight passengers were on board.
A few weeks later, an early-morning Sunday train carrying six people made the same trip.
While Brightline’s service has been touted as a model for the future of passenger rail in the United States, opponents have questioned whether the company can make money with so many empty seats, with one even derisively referring to them as “ghost trains.”
Not all the trains run near-empty. A Palm Beach Post review of ridership found at least three trains during a six-week period that carried more than 100 passengers, including a Saturday afternoon run in March with 144.
Eight trains carried 20 or fewer passengers.
Brightline doesn’t release ridership counts. To get a glimpse into the rail line’s early progress, a dozen Palm Beach Post reporters rode 44 randomly selected trains over a six-week period and counted how many people were on board.
On average, 50 riders took the trains reviewed by The Post, enough to fill about 20 percent of the seats.
Introductory fares cost $10 each way for a seat in one of Brightline’s regular coach cars. One-way tickets for a Select seat, Brightline’s version of first class, cost $15 or $20, depending on the time of day. The company has been offering a number of promotions, including “buy-one-get-one-free” discounts.
Regardless of the ridership levels, the majority of Brightline’s passengers seem impressed by the design and comfort of trains and the service offered by the company’s employees, which some say rivals Disney.
“It is a stellar experience,” said Joe Howard, a boat captain who took his second Brightline trip on Wednesday.
While Post reporters took at least one train in every time slot on the schedule, they did not travel on all the trains. Twenty-two trains ran Monday to Thursday, 24 trains ran Friday and 20 trains Saturday to Sunday.
The weekend trains were the most packed. Buoyed by community events outside the stations, including the Palm Beach International Boat Show — the day 144 passengers traveled — they drew an average of 67 riders.
The lowest ridership encountered by Post reporters occurred during the weekday rush and late-night Friday trains. With higher ridership in the middle of the day, the weekday average rose to 36.
In response to The Post’s findings, a Brightline spokeswoman on Friday pointed to the company’s soon-to-launch extension to downtown Miami, which she said will represent the largest of its three initial markets in South Florida.
“As we move beyond introductory service, more people will recognize the benefits of using Brightline, including saving time on their commute, enjoying weekend outings with their family or making it to a business meeting faster,” the company said. “Brightline is a transformative project and early indications show it will be an important component for improving mobility in South Florida.”
On average, just under half — 44 percent — rode in Brightline’s equivalent of first-class seats, which are limited to a single car on each of the company’s five trains, the Post found. The more expensive Select car features more spacious seats, as well as free snacks and beverages.
“I don’t know how they make money,” said Willis Morgan, a Hallendale Beach resident who rode Select on Wednesday.
Like many Brightline riders, who appeared to lean more toward retirees and leisure travelers, Morgan had no particular reason for traveling to West Palm Beach other than to try the train.
“We are just killing the day,” Morgan said before his return trip to Fort Lauderdale. “We did it for the train ride, but while we were here we took a walk down Clematis and we went to CityPlace to eat.”
Too early to judge?
In January, the company began running as many as 22 trains a day between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.
In announcing Wednesday that Brightline’s long-awaited extension to Miami is coming soon, the company revised its schedule. Those changes will take effect Saturday. Ultimately, Brightline plans to extend its line to the Orlando airport.
Brightline’s launch marks the first time passenger trains have run on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks since 1968, when passenger service was discontinued following a union strike.
Robert Poole, the South Florida-based transportation director for the libertarian Reason Foundation, said it is too early to judge whether Brightline’s business model will be successful. The opening of Brightline’s Miami station, along with its eventual expansion to Orlando, will only increase ridership levels, Poole added.
“Until that whole corridor is in place, it is a little early to try to make judgments,” Poole said.
Brightline’s executives have said demand for the trains is strong, and argue the service ultimately will help reduce traffic on Interstate 95 and other South Florida roadways.
“Early ridership numbers are higher than anticipated, and support for our current service and future expansion opportunities from consumers, elected officials, and the business community has been nothing short of overwhelming,” Brightline President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Goddard told members of a congressional oversight committee on April 19.
Critics doubt success
Brightline’s opponents, however, have argued the fast-moving trains benefit only a small number of passengers, while raising safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians along the FEC tracks. Since the company began testing last year, its trains have struck and killed six people in South Florida.
In all of those cases, officials said those killed ignored railroad warning devices, including the blasts of Brightline's horn.
Attorney Stephen Ryan, who has spent years working with Martin County and the Treasure Coast-based group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida or CARE FL to stop Brightline from running its trains north through the Treasure Coast, said The Post’s passenger counts raise questions about the success of the project.
“My own view is that the data that you are reporting speaks for itself and calls into question the accuracy of the representations that were made in the congressional hearing and to the public about the success of the project to date,” Ryan said Tuesday. “Simple math indicates that it is not the success that they are portraying.”
Howard, the boat captain, is based in Miami, but he travels to Palm Beach County several times a year to work on charter boats. He said Brightline’s passenger cars are “like an airplane, but better.”
“I am interested to see where the prices go,” Howard said. “My biggest concern is how much they are going to increase the fares.”
By 2020, Brightline expects to shuttle 2.9 million passengers a year between its three South Florida stations, generating $96 million in ticket revenue, according to a ridership and revenue study completed in October 2017 and made public as part of the company’s application to sell tax-exempt bonds to finance its expansion.
The study found that the company’s trains would appeal to both business and leisure travelers, reducing travel times by as much as 50 percent between the three South Florida cities its serves when compared with car or bus travel.
“Today, 400 million trips are taken annually in this market, relaying on roads and airways that are among the most congested in the nation,” Goddard told the congressional committee. “Driving speeds on the Interstate 95 highway in South Florida currently average 34 miles per hour with no capacity for improvement.”
Employer pays for pass
Architect Krishna Royer lives in Broward County but works with a firm near downtown West Palm Beach. He spent two months commuting to work by car before his employer gave him an annual pass to ride Brightline’s trains.
The service has cut his travel time and made the commute between the two cities more enjoyable, he said.
“For me, it is marvelous,” Royer said. “Honestly, I feel like I am in Europe or Asia when I am in there. It is real posh and nice. I don’t have to deal with traffic.”
Royer said the service is reliable, and even when trains are running late, he can still get work done on board. Brightline’s trains offer free Wi-Fi and have charging stations at every seat for laptops and mobile devices.
The majority of the trains tallied by The Post arrive either early or on time. Brightline trains occasionally slowed to a crawl or a came to a complete stop because of speed restrictions along the tracks. Those restrictions were caused either by other rail traffic along the FEC line or workers near the train tracks.
Dennis Grady, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, pointed to Brightline passengers like Royer, saying the service will help bring new groups of employees to downtown West Palm Beach.
“Someone will take a job and say, ‘oh yeah, the commute doesn’t bother me.’” Grady said. “But when you are four months in, it can be a strain. But if you are taking that train, and doing all of your email up and back, you can live and work in the region and not be in the same county.”
Grady said it is too early to judge Brightline’s ridership numbers.
“In my humble opinion, Miami will be on board in the month of May, and that will then begin to show the magnitude of the ridership, Grady said. “I think like any new opportunity for getting from point A to point B, once you get a chance to use it, you will make it whenever possible more of your travel plan.”
How The Post got the story
Twelve Palm Beach Post reporters over six weeks took a ride on the Brightline to count the number of passengers who got on at one stop and off at the only other stop.
In its first three month of operation, the company ran 22 trains a day Monday to Thursday, 24 trains on Friday and 20 trains Saturday and Sunday.
In all, Brightline’s schedule offered 44 different trips a week between its two stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The company will revise its train schedule on Saturday in preparation for its Miami extension.
The Post reporters rode at least one train in each time slot, or about 5 percent of Brightline trains over the six-week period. The trains were selected at random.
For example, a Brightline train departed the West Palm Beach station at 6 a.m. every weekday. Post reporters rode one 6 a.m. train on a single day. The reporters did not count passengers on every 6 a.m. train on all the other days of the week.
The Post used this same method – counting passengers on a single train in a given time slot – for all 44 trains.
Post reporters traveled as passengers, paying for tickets in Select class, and walked through every car to count passengers. They did not disclose their purpose.
The reporters riding the rails were Brightline beat writer Jennifer Sorentrue, data reporter Mahima Singh and staff writers Carol Rose, Carolyn DiPaolo, Kenny Jacoby, Leslie Gray Streeter, Mark Bradley, Olivia Hitchcock, Sonja Isger, Susan Salisbury, Tom Peeling and Greg Lovett.