Brightline’s inaugural West Palm-to-Miami trip draws crowd, celebration

Brightline trains transported riders from West Palm Beach to Miami on Saturday, marking the first time in 50 years that the Florida East Coast Railway has been used to bring passengers to the Magic City.

The historic trip, capped off by a celebratory grand opening of the MiamiCentral station, signaled a milestone achievement for the Florida company, which has endured a turbulent first four months of operations.

ONLINE GALLERY: Browse photos from the historic trip 

Eager riders gathered early in the morning at the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale stations to be among the first to experience the trip. Cliff Dunn, the Rail Passengers Association’s national secretary, traveled from Virginia to make the 7 a.m. train from West Palm Beach.

“You only get to be first once,” said the suit-and-tie-clad Dunn, who also rode Brightline’s inaugural train from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale in January.

Andrew Saraceno of Greenacres and three of his friends brought video cameras to document the journey. Through radio transceivers with long antennas, they listened in as the train’s crew members communicated and gave instructions.

“This is awesome,” Saraceno said.

When the train pulled into MiamiCentral, Brightline president and chief operating officer Patrick Goddard and other Brightline staffers clapped and waved to the arriving passengers. Saraceno and his friends spotted Goddard and tracked him down for a group photo.

“This is a really emotional day for us,” Goddard said. “It’s really meaningful to all of our team who have been watching this thing materialize over the last several years, so it’s a great day.”

Located downtown, MiamiCentral resembles the West Palm Beach station in its modern, Disney-esque design but is much larger. Brightline’s MiamiCentral is three stories tall and features the same café and convenience store as the West Palm Station, but it has added amenities such as a children’s play area and a four-sided video board that extends from the ground floor to the ceiling of the second.

Most of MiamiCentral, which spans six city blocks, remains under construction, with developers aiming to transform the facility into a hub of commercial, residential and office space. Tri-Rail, Metrorail and other transit agencies will also have platforms at the station. Several restaurants, including Kuenko, Parliament and Rosetta Bakery, will set up shop.

Special to the grand-opening festivities, which extend through today, were an arcade, solar-powered photo booth, meditation class and mojito bar. Local deejays blasted music while The Salty Donut, Coyo Taco and Dasher and Crank fed attendees. Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat and dancers from the team made appearances in the afternoon.

Goddard said Brightline will now study how passengers utilize the Miami service. He hopes its high-speed trains will win over commuters and become the go-to option for weekend and nightly outings.

Starting Monday, one-way tickets from West Palm Beach to Miami will cost $15 or $25 for first class, which comes with a more spacious seat and complimentary snacks and beverages. These prices are introductory and will eventually increase.

By contrast, Tri-Rail offers roundtrip tickets starting at $4.40 and weekend and monthly discounts, but its trains make numerous stops before reaching Miami. Whereas a trip from West Palm Beach to Miami Airport on Tri-Rail takes close to two hours, Brightline takes just a little more than an hour.

Patricia Ojeda of Fort Lauderdale said she thinks Brightline is worth the cost, even for daily commuters.

“Time is the only thing in your life you can’t get back,” Ojeda said.

Brightline plans to expand its operations north to Orlando, but completion of the project is still at least a few years away. The plans recently hit a roadblock, as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, followed by a Florida congressional oversight committee, questioned the company’s plan to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds to finance the construction.

The bonds kerfuffle is just the latest of Brightline’s troubles.

Residents have criticized the trains’ loud horns, which led to quiet zones in West Palm BeachThe Palm Beach Post counted passengers on board during 44 trips to and from Fort Lauderdale and found, on average, the trains were less than a quarter full.

In January, local leaders said more must be done to warn the public about the danger of ignoring railroad safety gates. Six deaths involving Brightline’s trains have occurred since they began test runs last year, but those deaths were attributed to negligence, suicide or intoxication.

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