As All Aboard Florida’s Brightline kicked off its inaugural weekend on Friday, transportation planners from across the country were already looking at ways to replicate the service in other large metropolitan areas where traffic is a problem.
The private train service shuttled dozens of federal, state and local officials and other dignitaries between its stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning — a trip designed to mark the start of the passenger project.
Brightline will carry its first paying customers on Saturday. The first train leaves the West Palm Beach station at 8 a.m.
Before boarding Brightline’s BrightGreen train on Thursday, Congressman Bill Shuster, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the service a “transformational project” and a “tremendous example” of how the private sector can help improve the country’s transportation system.
“You are going to find people coming from around the country to try to figure out how they can do it in their states,” said Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “This is exactly the kind of project that we need to be looking at for these urban areas that are congested around the nation.”
Brightline’s introductory service operates between just two south Florida cities — West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. But the company plans to extend its route to downtown Miami later this year.
Construction is expected to start in the coming months on Brightline’s second leg connecting its three south Florida stations to Orlando. The company plans to launch service to Orlando in 2020.
As Brightline expands its South Florida network, the multibillion-dollar hedge fund that backed the private rail project is eyeing other metropolitan areas across the country where commuting can be difficult.
“Really, what our goal is is to look at other corridors in the United States that have similar characteristics,” said Wes Edens, the co-founder, principal and co-chief executive officer of Fortess Investment Group.
Edens pointed to Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, and other metropolitan hubs that are too far apart to drive, but too close together to fly.
“There are a number of those in the United States,” he said.
Edens said projects like Brightline have the potential to “really change the fabric of transportation in the country.”
Unlike Tri-Rail, South Florida’s public commuter trains that run on the CSX Transportation tracks that parallel Interstate 95, Brightline offers express service and a much more luxurious ride.
Brightline is centered on customer service and comfort. Although its trains travel at speeds of up to 79 mph, the ride between the two stations is smooth. It took 35 minutes for Shuster’s train to travel from Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Friday morning.
The company offers two tiers of seating — Select and Smart.
Each train has three Smart coach cars and one Select coach car. The Select cars feature larger seats and complimentary food and beverage service. Smart-car travelers will be able to buy food.
There is free Wi-Fi in both the trains and the stations. There is an electrical outlet and USB port in every seat. There are also plenty of charging stations in the stations.
Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing arm, said the project will be a game changer for local tourism — particularly when it starts offering service to Miami later this year.
“It is one more way for visitors to find an easy way to arrive in the middle of West Palm Beach,” said Pesquera, who was among the first to ride Brightline on Friday. “It is like a 747 arriving every hour.”
Missing from Friday’s launch was West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio. On Thursday, Muoio said she would skip the event to show her disappointment that Brightline has not completed government-funded safety upgrades needed to establish a quiet zone to silence train horns along its route.
Despite early promises that the work would be finished when it launched service, Brightline officials said Thursday the work won’t be completed until late March. After it is finished, there is a 21-day waiting period before the zone can be implemented.
The quiet zone on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks will silence the horns of both Brightline trains and other locomotives from 15 Street in West Palm Beach south to the county line. On Friday, the sound of the signal horn was apparent on board the train.
“We recognize the residents’ concerns,” said Patrick Goddard, Brightline’s president and chief operating officer. “We hear them. We hear them loud and clear. We know that this is an issue that it is important to them. We want the community to support this effort. It is an important and game changing service for the South Florida market. We certainly don’t want this to detract from the good we are doing.”
Goddard said the company is working “as quickly and as safely as possible for this community” to get the zone established.
West Palm Beach Commissioner Paula Ryan expressed concern over the quiet zone delay, but said the service would “change the face of the city.”
“We are unhappy that we still have to deal with the fact that the quiet zones are not yet ready,” she said, “but when you do something this bold and this big, you can’t expect everything to go perfectly.”