For Brightline, it's a time for many to try rail

Posted January 16, 2018 2:52 p.m. EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Roger and Mary Hansen were among the curious.

The Wellington retirees had friends, Tom and Wanda Werneking, visiting from The Villages, a Central Florida retirement community.

"We usually go to the fair, but we thought we'd try the train today," Roger Hansen said.

So the four friends made an outing of the area's new train service, Brightline, by catching a noon train from the downtown West Palm Beach station to its only other destination so far, the station in Fort Lauderdale.

"What are you going to do in Fort Lauderdale?" I asked.

"We're just taking the 12:55 train back to West Palm Beach," said Hansen. "We're not going to do anything there."

"There's the Hard Rock," his wife said, mentioning the casino in Hollywood.

"That's too far away," her husband said.

For now, the train ride is enough. Brightline appears to be proving, at least for now, that it's the journey, not the destination that counts.

And that's the way it was for a lot of people on this, the first long weekend of train service for Brightline, a train that is expected to be a link between South Florida's three big coastal cities and Orlando, but for now is just a gleaming new train service with just two stops.

And whether you get off at West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale, you get deposited in a place that is far less welcoming than all the smiles and yellow balloons in these two gleaming stations.

I found Caroline Kotcher asking for advice on where to eat in West Palm Beach. She and her husband, Ken, were visiting from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and had just taken the Brightline to West Palm Beach with their Fort Lauderdale cousins. Restaurants were abundant and in many directions. But it wasn't obvious.

There are maps of the areas surrounding the stations on the seat backs inside the trains, with points of interest noted. But I didn't see anybody getting off at Fort Lauderdale looking for the recommended Galleria Mall 2.8 miles away, or looking to hoof it to the Flagler Museum, which is 2 miles from the West Palm Beach station.

I crossed the busy Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and made the 10-15 minute walk to Las Olas Boulevard for lunch before heading back to West Palm Beach. On the walk, I met two of my fellow train travelers, Andy Wamsley and his sister Laurel, who were ending their journey in Fort Lauderdale.

"We took the train to West Palm Beach, and somebody told us about Restoration Hardware, so we had lunch there, and then we came back," he said.

Beth Bicki of Royal Palm Beach drove to the West Palm Beach station with her 5-year-old son, Izac. They caught an early morning train to Fort Lauderdale, then walked to the nearby bus terminal to take a trolley that took them to the beach in Fort Lauderdale, then back to the bus terminal, where Izac got a Happy Meal at the nearby McDonald's before taking an afternoon train back to West Palm Beach.

"We'll probably do it again," Bicki said. "The train is nice."

I wonder, though, how many of these curious riders will be back? The train is a novelty now. And at introductory fares of $10 each way, it's an experience worth trying.

The train stations resemble airport terminals more than train terminals. Baggage stations, security checkpoints, and two classes of travelers -- "smart" and the up-charged "select" -- each with their own lounge. There's a tidy little Starbucks-inspired food area, and even some Brightline merchandise to buy, such as $18 travel mugs, $22 T-shirts and $10 ear buds.

And when you wait for the trains, you're sitting in an elevated room with big picture windows, as if you're in an airport sky lounge expected to gaze outside at the taxiing 747 jumbo jets, instead of county transit buses.

Yes, it's a very elegant presentation, right down to the rolling beverage carts on the trains.

But in the end, it's just a train with one other stop. And in a few months, a second stop in Miami.

What it needs is 40 miles of missing track in Central Florida and the connection to Orlando that is supposed to be the whole purpose of the train. And that's more than a year off.

In the meantime, we have one helluva two-stop local train. An oddity worth experiencing, at least once.

"We wanted to experiment because we have friends coming down," said Ken Kelsey and Randy Kersh of suburban Boynton Beach. "It turned out better than we expected."

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: fcerabino(at)pbpost.com.

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