“It looked like a brand new space-age train,” said Mark Marovitch, who drove to Fort Lauderdale from New Smyrna Beach to ride Brightline. “It’s nicer than a first class airline seat.”
Andrey da Cruz was frustrated by the online ticket reservation system that frequently froze. Still, he called the ride “awesome and said the service is “what we need.”
While Saturday’s ride for the public went smoothly, the Friday inaugural service for VIPs was marred by the death of Melissa Lavell, 32, who was struck by the train in Boynton Beach. Witnesses told investigators it appeared Lavell ducked the closed gates and trying to cross the tracks when she was struck.
The first train open to the public left West Palm Beach at 8 a.m. and arrived in Fort Lauderdale about 40 minutes later.
Hoan Forman, husband Lance, and their nine-year-old twins Samuel and Seth were among the waves of people on it. The family had trouble with a scanner not recognizing their tickets but they got help.
“They just have to work out the kinks, the bugs in these early days,” said Hoan Forman.
Still, they were impressed. “Five stars,” said Seth.
President and COO Patrick Goddard said Brightline was working to fix “bugs in the system.”
As the first passengers got off, another crowd was waiting to be let on the northbound train. And a group of Brightline employees was in the station and on the train to help them.
Julio Pelotti, 22, West Palm Beach, called the seats “super comfortable” and liked the convenience of electrical outlets and USB ports at every seat for his cellphone and computer.
“I was also excited that I could take my dog in a carrier because I take my dog everywhere,” he said. “That was pretty cool.”
But he said he would like to see the trains run beyond the current weekend schedule between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
“I wish they had earlier times and later times,” he said. “So, if you want to go clubbing in Fort Lauderdale or Miami until 3 a.m. you can take a train back home.”
Saturday’s ridership estimates were not immediately available.
Introductory prices for one-way tickets cost $10 in the 66-seat Smart Coaches and $15 each way in the roomier 50-seat Select Coaches. Children 12 and under ride for half price. Seniors, active military and veterans get 10 percent discounts. There’s also a promotion to buy one ticket and bring a friend for free. These prices could rise when full service begins.
Boynton Beach police identified Lavell as the third person killed by a Brightline train since test runs began last year. Women were also killed on the tracks in Boca Raton in July and Deerfield Beach in November.
Witnesses told investigators it appeared Lavell was trying to cross the tracks about 6:25 p.m. Friday after the crossing gates came down near Northeast Sixth Avenue.
“It’s always unfortunate when something like that happens and our thoughts and prayers are with those affected,” Goddard said, but he pointed out there are laws against trespassing on railroad tracks.
Business leaders on the VIP ride were transferred to shuttle buses and taken to West Palm Beach while the train remained at the scene during the investigation.
While the initial run for the train is between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the service will eventually run from Miami to Orlando. Here is an update on what is still left to do.
– Orlando: Upgrading railroad tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach, and laying new tracks between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport is expected to begin later this year. Brightline executives said their trains should be making the three-hour trip to Orlando by late 2020.
– Quiet Zones: Federal approval of safety modifications to the last of nearly 200 railroad crossings between West Palm Beach and Miami is expected by June. That means Brightline, Tri-Rail, and freight trains will no longer have to rattle residents with horn blasts as the trains cross over every street in their path.
– Expansion: No timetable has been set but Brightline executives hope eventually to extend the line from Orlando to Tampa next and then Cocoa Beach to Jacksonville.
– Trains: Brightline has five trains now but plans to double the fleet for future runs to Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. Florida East Coast Industries executive director Mike Reininger foresees several express routes that may include stops in other Florida cities between the current destinations.