Christie: Brightline shines light on what commuting could be in South Florida

“I could get used to this,” says Rick Christie, Post Editorial Page Editor. Taking the escalator in Brightline’s Fort Lauderdale station after smooth train ride from West Palm Beach Friday morning. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s one smooth ride. And yes, it’s fast.

Nearly six years in the making, All Aboard Florida’s Brightline is finally beginning limited service on Saturday. But I joined a gaggle of reporters, and business and government VIPs this morning for a test run.

And once the four-car Brightline Green train got underway (about 10 minutes late), it was hard for me not to think of the travel possibilities this oft-maligned, privately funded high-speed commuter train can offer stressed-out drivers in South Florida.

Question is, will they buy into it?

During my six-year sojourn in Washington, D.C., I was a daily MARC Train Service commuter: Bowie State University Station in Maryland to Union Station near Capitol Hill, one hour each way. Having spent of most of my life and career in Florida, not known for its mass transit systems, it was a new experience for me.

This time of year, after standing out on a cold Beltway-area platform, I’d endure every noisy bump and grind that comes from a decades-old commuter train. It was worth it, however, to not have to endure driving and parking in D.C. — in either money or time.

Truthfully, my round trip from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale and back this morning on Brightline Green had me feeling none of those negatives but all the positives.

Yes, they’ve still got that “quiet zones thing” that needs to be fixed ASAP, but as a rider I was unaffected. I could hear the train horns blowing frequently as we crossed roads, but the train is so insulated that the blaring sounded like it was off in the distance.

That the Brightline folks dolled up everything for this morning’s “media event” was not lost on me. I didn’t have to put the slick-looking ticket-buying kiosk to the test. There were balloons and helpful, smiling Brightline employees all over the West Palm Beach station, and complimentary food and drinks. The latter included alcohol (although they may want to check that rum choice if they want to impress).

All the pomp aside, both West Palm and Fort Lauderdale stations — in cookie cutter fashion — were bright and roomy (emphasis on the bright). You have to wear sunglasses when sitting on the comfortable benches upstairs because the big glass walls let all the eastern morning sun in. There’s real food and drink for purchase (not vending machine stuff), a sci-fi looking play area for kids and a “pet relief” station outside.

The practical, common-sense accouterments — such as charging stations — are like those I’ve seen in more and more airport upgrades around the country to meet traveler demands.

Can South Floridians get used to working on a train? I sure could; if it meant avoiding I-95 traffic. (Jennifer Sorentrue / The Palm Beach Post)

The ride was smooth from beginning to end,whether speeding up, slowing down or stopping. There was no clickety-clack of the old railroad trains. This felt more like the Atlanta MARTA or D.C. Metro trains, but even smoother.

The most exciting thing on the ride was having to come to a near stop just after Hillsboro Boulevard in north Broward to make way for a passing freight train, apparently due to a motor vehicle accident. Otherwise, I spent time chatting with fellow journalists, asking questions of our hosts, fighting over-attentive train attendants, and getting lost in thought while staring out of the window at the sights (trees, undisturbed scrub vegetation, the curious lack of fencing in some areas, an errant store shopping cart here and there, and, yes, continuing work on quiet zones).

It’s obvious that All Aboard Florida (before it was Brightline) spent a lot time researching and visiting high-speed passenger rail systems in other countries– as well as Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast. That accounts for the smart things like roomy leather seats, free Wi-Fi (that works), food and drink cart service and workstations mixed in with regular seating.

RELATED: Quiet zone work to be completed in March, Brightline says

But the fact that Brightline officials were not able to get all of the quiet zone upgrades done before the limited launch is a disappointment that sticks in the craw of government officials — especially in Palm Beach County. So much so, nearly everyone who spoke at the West Palm station launch brought it up. West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, a huge champion of Brightline from the beginning, was so bothered about it that she didn’t even show up this morning.

One can’t blame her, given the political capital she has invested in this project. And Brightline officials, who’ve already tested the patience of just about everyone with their multiple false starts, need to get these quiet zones done by their self-imposed end-of-March deadline. Not because any public official can stop the train from running, but because Brightline needs those officials’ support if this private venture has any chance of being successful — much less aggressively expand in the way they’re hoping.

Again, this isn’t a passenger thing, but a public thing.

Passenger-wise, all I could imagine was having to get down to Miami International Airport for a flight to the Cayman Islands and being able to bypass all of that horrendous Interstate 95 traffic. And as if on cue during the southern leg of my trip, I took a minute to text a friend of mine who was driving from Boynton Beach to his law office in Fort Lauderdale.

Me: “Yo!… Taking the Brightline Green train down to FTL on a press junket… It’s pretty nice.”

Him: “I swear I’m on 95 and I just looked at the train tracks and thought about the Brightline. I know it’s starting for the public this weekend… I was stuck on I-95 this morning. 40-min. delay due to mva (motor vehicle accident) at Hillsboro.”

Yes, that is the same Hillsboro where we slowed down and lost maybe five minutes off our arrival time in Fort Lauderdale.

Look, admittedly, some of my cultural bias against commuter rail was run out of me by my time in D.C. As a result, my mind may be more open than most to the idea of hopping a train down to Fort Lauderdale or Miami for business or recreation. Basically, I’m not as wedded to my car.

Many South Floridians look at taking the train, and then stress about how to get from the station to a specific restaurant. It’s like they developed an allergy to a cab or never heard of a (gasp!) downtown trolley.

As good a ride as Brightline is — especially for the introductory price of $10 one-way to Fort Lauderdale ($15 for Select Service) — there is still the question of whether South Floridians are really ready to give up their automobiles for the train.

For me, after one ride, I say they should give it a try.