As I was starting to write this month’s cover story on Brightline, it occurred to me that it’s the second month in a row that Henry Flagler has echoed through our cover story. Last month’s cover featured The Breakers Palm Beach, which was created by the railway pioneer. Brightline has brought rail service back to Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.
My fascination with trains goes back to when I was growing up in northwestern Illinois, where Illinois Central still operated the Land O’ Corn and the Hawkeye. From a little farm town of 1,500 called Warren, where I lived until third grade, you could hop a train and be in downtown Chicago in a couple of hours. It seemed magical. During my time in college, I occasionally would take the El from Evanston to downtown Chicago and then take Amtrak’s Hawkeye from Chicago to my hometown of Freeport. It was always a relaxing experience with big, comfy seats, not to mention beer, which is extremely important to college boys.
Freeport at one time was an important rail hub with three lines, including the Illinois Central. There were well over 1,000 people in a city of roughly 20,000 working for the railroads. At one point, three of my uncles worked for the railroads. It was a big thrill as a child for one of my uncles to take me aboard the engine of a Chicago Great Western train as it shuffled freight cars.
One of my all-time favorite vacations was taking Amtrak from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Buffalo-Niagara Falls; Boston and New York City. You really felt a connection with the countryside instead of flying over it.
So, now, it’s like watching a business case study unfold as Brightline launches service in South Florida. The idea of a privately financed high-speed rail service in the United States is a novel venture that’s drawing a lot of attention. As our story outlines, Brightline officials have already mentioned other pairs of cities that might be ripe for service. The target is journeys that are a bit too far to drive by car, but not quite worth the hassle of airline flight.
After riding Brightline eight times, most times anonymously as a member of the public, I can honestly say it’s a great experience. For starters, when driving I have to budget 90 minutes during rush hour to go from Fort Lauderdale to Miami and even that can be dicey. There’s always the dread of the seemingly inevitable slowdown as you hit the Golden Glades Interchange. Going north in the late afternoon, I get annoyed at paying close to $10 at times for the Interstate 95 express lane and still getting stuck in traffic that crawls.
With Brightline, you just scan your app, hand your bag to security for screening, and head for the lounges, which are clean and comfortable. The employees always seem happy and friendly. The Select service includes a cup of coffee, a can of soda and/or a snack—plus an alcoholic beverage on the train after 3 p.m. The 30-minute journey seems quick when you are working on your laptop.
Let’s hope Brightline is a big success and that the big experiment in South Florida gets replicated across the nation.