During this past spring break, I, being an avid railfan and train enthusiast, was euphoric when offered the opportunity to travel on the United States’ newest passenger railroad service - Virgin Trains USA’s Brightline.
As the only privately owned and operating passenger railroad in the U.S. (All other passenger train services, such as our local Metro-North Railroad here in Connecticut, are owned by the government), Brightline represents a positive step forward for the profitable existence of rail travel - in the manner of Europe and Japan - in America.
Operating in Florida, Brightline runs from West Palm Beach to Miami, with one intermediate stop in Fort Lauderdale. It officially opened on January 13, 2018, and has planned an extension to Orlando International Airport in 2022 - with future plans indicating further expansions to Walt Disney World and Tampa Bay. Furthermore, in September 2018, Brightline announced their purchase of XpressWest, a private company that planned on establishing a higher-speed rail line between Las Vegas, Nevada and Victorville, California.
In an intriguing turn of events, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, a multinational conglomerate, purchased a small minority stake in Brightline in November 2018. The company announced that Brightline would be rebranded into Virgin Trains USA, which, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, is due to Virgin’s greater brand recognition.
Through the purchase, Brightline was able to raise $1.8 billion, which is almost enough capital to complete the Orlando extension. An official rebranding of Brightline into Virgin Trains USA occurred on April 4, 2019, with the MiamiCentral station being redecorated in an extensive red color scheme to match Virgin’s palette. However, by the time I rode Brightline, on April 17, the rolling stock, merchandise and West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale stations had yet to be rebranded.
My journey on Brightline consisted of a round trip between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, where my family planned on taking a day trip to visit some of the latter city’s shops and restaurants. When searching schedules, I was surprised to notice that Brightline trains operated with great frequency, with only a 1 or 2 hour gap between most departing trains at the West Palm Beach station. Another pleasant surprise was the relative inexpensiveness of tickets, with the cheapest “Smart” class averaging at about $17 one way per seat - less than a round-trip Metro-North ticket from Rowayton (the closest station to Brien McMahon High School) to Grand Central Terminal.
Brightline’s stations are all very modern, having opened within the last year. The structures are large and (aptly) bright, highlighted by a white and gray color scheme, with accents of yellow (soon to be replaced by Virgin’s red tone). The interior was minimalist, with an open space in the ticket hall and massive windows looking out on the tracks and streets of West Palm Beach. The building was very clean and clearly well maintained. I could not help but notice the stark contrast between Brightline’s bright, clean and comfortable trains and buildings, and the rigid, bare and (typically) dingy interiors of Metro-North rolling stock and stations.
When purchasing tickets on the touch-screen kiosks, we were assisted by friendly staff members. This was of great help due to the our relatively late arrival to the station, with our 11:30 a.m. train to Fort Lauderdale departing in only a few minutes. We were also confused with Brightline’s requirement to input all the names and birthdates of all travelers into the ticketing system (although inputting your email or other personal details were not required), but were nonetheless able to print our tickets successfully.
We then proceeded up an escalator and through a security checkpoint, where guards ran our bags through an airport-esque conveyor belt scanner (but without the extensive lines that characterize airport security). With only a few minutes to board, we did not have a great deal of time to enjoy the lounge/waiting area open to all customers, which also features a cafe.
The platforms, like the station interior, were clean and open. Announcements alerted us to board the already-arrived southbound train, which we proceeded to board. The rolling stock - SCB-40 Siemens Chargers locomotives, with custom multiple unit (MU) coaches - were colored black and yellow, and were seemingly free of the dirt and grime that seem to cling to trains in the northeast.
The train interiors featured relaxed environment, with a blue carpet and light gray seats (in effect, the exact opposite of the claustrophobic pressurized tube known as an airplane). Digital displays advertising Branson’s Virgin brands and providing information about the train were located sparingly throughout the cabin.
My family found seats at a table in the middle of the cabin (despite our tickets assinging us to different seats, a conductor gave us permission to move). The train was nearly empty, allowing us to relax in our comfortable seats as the train sped away. A server with a cart provided alcohol, snacks and drinks for purchase (although “Select” passengers can get unlimited snacks for free). The train itself was somewhat rocky, although not enough to spill any drinks. A security officer swept the train multiple times. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Fort Lauderdale in 37 minutes (faster than the 50+ minutes that we would have had to endure in a sweaty car on the highway).
After spending the day in Fort Lauderdale, we arrived back at the downtown station early, where we purchased our return tickets. We also spent a great deal of time in the station lounge, which was characterized by a plethora of modern seating overlooking the city area. An announcement alerted us to our return train, which we promptly boarded.
To our dismay, we found the West Palm Beach-bound train packed with people. Furthermore, our default tickets had separated us across the coach. While I believe this was just an oversight we made when purchasing tickets, it was still inconvenient to be split up, and this could certainly be an issue for families with young children. Regardless, we made it safely back to West Palm Beach, again enjoying the relatively short ride.
In short, Brightline/Virgin Trains USA is a clean, comfortable, stylish and affordable way to travel on the South Florida coast (despite some very minor flaws). The service, clearly inspired by European high-speed rail, travels at a rate faster than driving, and conveniently brings you to the downtown of each city. I hope to utilize this service again in the future, and I am excited to see what Branson is able to accomplish in expanding Virgin Trains USA.
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