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By Jack M. Turner

    Sometimes events in life come full circle.  Such is the case for me with riding over the Florida East Coast Railway rails.

    A clear recollection remains in my memory bank of a round trip between Miami and West Palm Beach over the Florida East Coast Railway in 1962 with my dad and my brother Steve.  Northbound we rode the Illinois Central’s City of Miami and I still remember the impressive club-observation-lounge car at the rear of the train as well as the beautiful chocolate and orange train cars that became my all-time favorite railroad paint scheme. We spent the layover between trains sitting outside the West Palm Beach FEC station and I recall sitting in the shade on the east side of the station where a nice breeze blew in from the ocean.  The return trip was aboard the East Coast Champion and Dad splurged for a room in a sleeper near the end of the train. 
    Not long after that ride the FEC went on strike and all passenger service was moved over to the Seaboard rails through southern Florida.  My only other opportunity to traverse Henry Flagler’s railroad came in 1968 aboard the six days per week pocket streamliner mandated by the Florida Supreme Court.  That journey took me from Melbourne to North Miami where the train terminated since the Miami station had been torn down. 

    From the 6th grade onward fun outings by train between Miami and West Palm covered the Seaboard (later Seaboard Coast Line) rails.  At times these rides were made with my brother, various school buddies, and later with female dates.  Oftentimes we spent the layover in West Palm Beach by walking about a mile to the downtown area where we would go to lunch, shop in Burdines Department Store, or watch yachts in the Intracoastal Waterway before walking back to the SAL/SCL station to catch our return train.  Along the way we walked across the double track FEC mainline and I would wish for another chance to ride those shiny rails.  The prospects were dim due to an anti-passenger train stance dating back to the strike.
  In 1999 the opportunity finally came to ride the FEC again aboard a special private car train from Jacksonville to Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm Beach, then over the CSX line to Tampa via Auburndale.  In May 2010 my son and I were invited to ride an Amtrak inspection train the length of the FEC between Miami and Jacksonville.  Alas nothing came of endless studies and promises and the Florida East Coast remained freight-only.

    However, in 2012 a stunning announcement was made that a higher speed passenger service was in the planning stages using the FEC tracks between Miami and Brevard County, FL then following a new rail line west to the Orlando Airport.  The service eventually was named Brightline which would be a subsidiary of the Florida East Coast Railway.  Service commenced on January 13, 2018 between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale with the extension to Miami debuting on May 19, 2018.  Upgrades to the line beyond West Palm Beach to a point north of Cocoa and the construction of the new line along the State Road 528 median would begin in the near future.

    A chance presented itself to ride Brightline on Thursday, July 12 during a visit to Miami with my wife Christine.  The Hampton Inn-Dadeland near South Miami was a perfect lodging choice as it is located a couple of blocks from Miami Metrorail’s Dadeland North station.  The hotel shuttle van deposited us at the station and moments later we were whisked along the elevated tracks passing vehicles slowed by traffic on adjacent US 1.  We left Metrorail at the Overtown station and walked around the corner to a bright, glassy building housing Brightline.  Entering the new Miami Central Station building we noticed a few businesses on the first floor including a rental car counter.  A long escalator took us up a couple of floors then we were directed through the security screening which was smooth thanks to friendly staff members.  This led us to a modern waiting room filled with comfortable seating with excellent views of the city through large windows.  Close by a cafe area sold a variety of beverages, muffins, and snacks and clean restrooms were just beyond.  Airline style monitors updated us on our train’s departure time though there was little need since it would run on schedule.


A MetroRail train arrives at Dadeland North heading to downtown Miami.


Escalators from ground level to the waiting lounge of Brightline’s Miami Central Station.


A rental car office and ticket counter on the ground level of the Miami station.


Entrance gates and the security check at Miami Central Station.


The station cafe offers a number of take out items.


The departure board provides information for the next three trains.


Miami Central’s waiting lounge contains ample comfortable seating.


Colorful signs provide information about destination cities.

    A boarding call was made and we proceeded up yet another escalator to the train platform.  Waiting for us on Track 3 was Bright Red, one of five current Brightline trainsets each named for the predominant color in its paint scheme.  Our assigned seats were in Car 3 near the center of the 4 car train.  Siemens Charger engine # 101 was on the head end with engine # 104 on the back end of the train.  This arrangement allows the train to reverse directions at the end of the line without turning the train.


Bright Red Car 3 welcomes passengers.  Note the sign above the platform.

    As we climbed aboard the train we noted that we were at the same level as the 4th floor of an adjacent building.  The station was located high above the location of the old FEC station that was demolished in the 1960s.  We departed at 10:10am, ironically the same time as the City of Miami left Miami during its final years.  Beautiful views of the Miami skyline appeared from the right side of the train as Biscayne Bay and the Port of Miami were just a few blocks away.  Soon we passed the site of FEC’s former Buena Vista Yard and the line to the current FEC yard near Miami International Airport.  Ten minutes into the trip we passed the Miami Shores Country Club’s golf course.  A few minutes later we rolled through downtown Hollywood and by 10:33am met a southbound FEC intermodal train beside Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  Excellent views could be had of the eastern side of the airport where several aircraft were visible.  Meanwhile, the former Seaboard line used by Amtrak and Tri-Rail travels along the western edge of this airport.  Just east of our route the top decks of several cruise ships could be seen at nearby Port Everglades. 

    Our coach seats were comfortable and offered a slight recline.  Well designed tray tables were sufficient for holding our snacks and beverages as well as my railroad journal book.  The large windows offered excellent viewing of the passing scenery.  The ride was super smooth as the well maintained FEC tracks have obviously been upgraded even further.  A Brightline service manager later told me that the secret is state of the art airbags and shock absorbers under each car that produce a ride that feels like you are gliding over the rails.  Walking down the aisle is made easy as grab handles are placed on the end of each aisle seat for passengers to hold on to as they pass down the aisle.  Restrooms are situated at the end of the car in a fashion that doesn’t disturb passengers sitting near the end of the train car.  Restroom doors open with the touch of a button illuminated with a green light indicating it is available.  The light turns red once the door is securely locked.  Snacks and beverages are available for purchase from service attendants pushing an airline style cart down the aisle of our coach.  This is a cashless operation and credit cards are accepted even for small purchases.  Snacks and beverages are complimentary in upgraded Select Coach.  A while later another attendant came around to collect trash which kept the train tidy.


The interior of our coach.  Note the grab handles on the aisle seats.


The Brightline name is stitched into the headrests.


Pop up power outlets are a feature in tables for four passengers.


An overhead information sign in our coach.

    Five minutes north of the airport we cross the New River and enter the downtown part of Fort Lauderdale.  The southbound Bright Green train is boarding passengers across the platform at the Fort Lauderdale station and we both depart before 10:45.  Complimentary wi-fi is offered on board though we are so interested in our train ride that we have little use for the Internet.  Soon we pass through Pompano Beach and spot the Goodyear blimp hangar on the right.  Typically the blimp resides here in the winter so there will be no sightings this day.  We glide through Deerfield Beach then pass the old FEC station at Boca Raton which survives as a railroad museum.  A couple of vintage streamlined passenger cars stand on station grounds, one of which is a round end tavern observation lounge car formerly used by SCL’s Silver Star.


Bright Green across the platform at Fort Lauderdale.


A former Seaboard tavern-observation-lounge car (right) and a dining car displayed at the former FEC Boca Raton station

    The ride continues to be super smooth thanks to the concrete ties employed by the FEC and the airbags and Brightline’s advanced undercarriage technology described above.  The line is totally double tracked which allows an uninterrupted ride with only the station stop in Fort Lauderdale halting the train.  Our third and final meet of the northbound journey occurs just south of Boynton Beach as we pass a southbound Brightline train.  With each train moving 79 mph I am unable to identify which trainset is passing.    Shortly we roll through Lantana and arrive in West Palm Beach at 11:23am. 


Bright Red at West Palm Beach.


Brightline Charger engines rotate among the various trainsets and are not color coded like the coaches.

    The West Palm Beach station is located right downtown within walking distance of many office buildings, condos, and businesses.  A parking garage across the street is convenient for commuters.  The two-track platform is located at ground level with the waiting room upstairs.  FEC freight bypasses the station via a separate track east of the station.  The modern station with comfortable waiting areas and lots of glass windows is a far cry from the un-air-conditioned FEC station where I waited with my father and my brother in 1962.  Bright Red cools its heels on one of the station tracks until the return trip in less than 40 minutes.  There presently are five Brightline trainsets with three in use at any given time.  A fourth train waits in reserve at the maintenance facility a short distance north of the West Palm station in case one of the trains is badly delayed.  In that case, the standby train is pressed into service to maintain schedules.


Looking southward from the West Palm Beach station.


Looking north from the West Palm Beach station.

    Around 11:50am the boarding announcement is made for the 12:00 noon southbound train.  We head to our reserved seats in Car 2, again aboard Bright Red, and find that they are backwards riding seats at a table for 4.  We move to a pair of nearby forward-facing seats and nobody complains as the train is not filled to capacity.  It is a pleasure to ride with service personnel who are happy to have us aboard rather than using their authority to demand we sit in a specific location when other seats are available.  As on the northbound run, the train has good ridership though it is not as crowded as it will be when service expands to Orlando.  On board staff members tell us that ridership is actually much higher on weekends when people ride to Miami to visit attractions such as Bayside Market which is easily accessed via the elevated Metromover system.


Charger # 104 is on the head end of the noon departure from West Palm Beach to Miami.

    Bright Red departs on-time at noon behind engine # 104 and we notice several smiling members of the station staff standing on the platform waving goodbye.  This scene was observed upon departure from Miami in the morning and repeated in both directions at Fort Lauderdale.  This pleasant sendoff makes us feel special and evokes memories of tourist railroads at Tweetsie Railroad and Walt Disney World as well as the original Auto-Train. 

    The return trip allows a chance to observe that the FEC tracks run directly through the downtown part of many local cities.  US Highway 1 often parallels the railway while busy local roads sometimes take its place.  This differs from the Amtrak/Tri-Rail route which parallels I-95 most of the way.  The northbound Bright Green train stands across the platform at Fort Lauderdale while a northbound FEC freight pulled by a pair of blue engines passes just north of Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  Another northbound Brightline train slides by between Little River and Miami Central Station. Then we begin the climb to Miami Central Station’s elevated platform, four stories above street level.


Crossing the New River after departing Fort Lauderdale southbound.


Brightline offers excellent views of Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport's east side.


The Miami Shores Country Club golf course.


The FEC line to Hialeah.  This is the former site of FEC's Buena Vista Yard.  Tri-Rail trains plan to use this line to access Miami Central Station in the future.


A Brightline employee waves to passengers as is done at all three stations along the route.

    Arrival in Miami at 1:15pm concludes a most terrific first ride aboard Brightline.  Elapsed time for our roundtrip is 3 hours and 5 minutes, a personal record for fastest roundtrip among scores of trips between Miami and West Palm Beach spanning approximately 56 years.  The next closest was a 3 hour 20 minute round trip aboard the SCL Silver Star in early 1971.  That fast trip was facilitated by a friendly conductor who let a friend and I make a cross-platform connection to the southbound Silver Star by detraining via the side of our train facing away from the station.  This assist produced our fastest trip between the two cities until today’s Brightline trip.

    Within a half hour we are back at the Hampton Inn-Dadeland looking out our window at the long-abandoned right-of-way of Florida East Coast’s secondary line that connected its yards with its branch line to Homestead.  A few remnants of that line remain near the hotel such as a small bridge and other reminders.  It has been a successful and enjoyable day on the rails and we can’t wait for the new Orlando line to enter service in the future.


A southbound MetroRail train arrives at the Overtown station, just around the corner from Miami Central Station.


The Miami River crossing is on a high MetroRail bridge.  The Miami Marlins baseball stadium is at the far right in the distance.

    The day after our Brightline ride we were joined by our young grandson for a night in West Palm Beach before heading home to north Florida.  While dining out, we drove by the FEC tracks south of the station and watched a Brightline train begin its journey.  The sight of the shiny train was exciting for the little guy and his grandparents.  With 16 round trips per day, Brightline offers convenient departures and numerous chances to photograph.


Our grandson John waves at Bright Green departing West Palm Beach one day after our ride.


Charger # 109 leads Bright Green out of West Palm Beach.


Bright Green heads south along the FEC tracks.


Charger # 102 is on the rear of the southbound Brightline train at West Palm Beach.


Brightline Home Page

Brightline Schedules

Hampton Inn Miami-Dadeland

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