Over, almost before it began.
That’s how it felt as Brightline’s first train pulled into Fort Lauderdale, a quick 35 minutes after rolling out of downtown West Palm Beach. Barely had the seat-back trays come down, laptops opened, Wifi connected and snack-and-beverage cart made the rounds, then the destination city skyline came into sight and it was time to de-train.
“It’s a historic occasion, not only for South Florida but for open corridors throughout the country,” said passenger Ronald Drucker, who drove from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale to check out the round-trip experience. “It’s the first time for a private initiative with private capital, investing in a transportation that has the potential in a dense corridor to provide adequate mobility, relatively inexpensively and environmentally friendly. It’ll be interesting to see how the people of South Florida respond.”
Among the others along for the ride: retiree Gene Skoropowski, 73, who was Brightline’s first employee six years ago and used his “experience at being an angry rider” of trains in the Northeast to draw up specifications for Brightline train design. Among the features built into the experience: “retractable tongues,” metal ramps that reach from train to platform, so wheelchair users and everyone else can board without having to go up or step over a gap; aisles wide enough for wheelchairs to navigate throughout the trains; and equally accessible bathrooms.
The trains feature armchair-like seats, arranged as singles, or in facing pairs or fours with a table in-between in the “select” car. It was a smooth ride, and quiet, except for those who live near the tracks, as the conductor blasted the horn many times, for miles, particularly as the train accelerated southward out of West Beach.
Many county residents, even supporters of the service, were angered to learn just days ago that Brightline wouldn’t complete work to make the tracks horn-free until at least March. It was supposed to be done in time for the opening, which itself was delayed by several months.
Mayor Jeri Muoio was so annoyed at the missed “Quiet Zone” deadline, she boycotted the inaugural ceremony Friday. Brightline officials responded that they would try to accelerate the work.
Another misfortune, just hours before opening day:
Boynton Beach Police said Melissa Lavell, 32, was fatally struck by a northbound Brightline train Friday night near Northeast Sixth Avenue. Witnesses told police that Lavell appeared to be crossing the tracks after the guard rails were in the down position in an attempt to make it across before the train came. Family members declined to speak about her on Saturday.
The fatality was the second for a Brightline train in Palm Beach County since July 24, when an 18-year-old woman was killed in Boca Raton. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Brightline also was dealing with glitches on its ticket purchase website, which cropped up late in the week. Most of the problems appeared to be resolved by Saturday morning and staffers were helping customers at the station and online to resolve remaining complications.
Seats to Fort Lauderdale cost $10 one-way in the “smart” cars and $15 in “select,” which offers free beverages and a snack. Those are introductory rates, likely to rise in six to eight weeks, when service connects to the Miami station, which is still under construction. No word on what the permanent rates will be, but a spokeswoman said they likely will vary by time of day.
The 8 a.m. run drew passengers from near and far.
Antoine Zammit, from Lake Worth but a native of Malta, said he took the train for curiosity’s sake but that he looked forward to the Orlando station opening in the next couple of years. International flights are cheaper out of Orlando than South Florida, he said.
Avni and Emmi Rexhaj, from Lake Worth but originally from Kosovo, said they’ve been waiting for years for Brightline to open and bought tickets on his phone app as soon as they became available. “This is the closest thing to what we have in Europe; it’s like European style,” he said. “It’s not about getting from A to B. It’s a lifestyle, the joy of life.”
Friends Mark Pickering and Noel Ruiz sometimes work in Fort Lauderdale and would much prefer the train to a rush hour drive that takes much longer, they said as the Brightline whisked southward. “We’ve been waiting. We’re very excited,” Pickering said.
“It was smooth, it was fast. Thirty-five minutes for 41 miles — that was amazing,” Cliff Dunn, national secretary of the 30,000-member Rail Passengers Association, said of the trip to Fort Lauderdale. He also lauded the staff. “I’ve only experienced service like this in Europe.”
Brightline is the first privately run passenger train to start in the United States since the 1970s, Dunn noted. Texas is considering high-speed rail and other states also might see it as a solution, he said.
Elena Postal, a self-proclaimed “train enthusiast,” bought a Brightline ticket but had no plans to ride on Saturday. “Just to have as a souvenir of this inaugural ride,” said Postal, 48. The Lantana resident snapped photos and enjoyed walking around the station while marveling at the bright colors and “slick” feel.
Delray Beach friends Mark Denkler and Harvey Brown, “a train nut and a member of the FEC Railway Society,” rode the 8 a.m. train, too.
“I love trains and I wanted to be a part of the first trip,” Denkler said. “This is first class.”
Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer and Sarah Elsesser contributed to this story.
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-820-4703.