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[Guest Blog] Experiencing the Brightline Orlando Extension

November 27, 2023

After leaving the RailNation conference in Meridian, Rail Passengers Member Tom Casartello (MA) headed to Florida to check out the new Brightline station in Orlando and ride the extension down to Miami.

By Tom Casartello
Rail Passengers Member – Massachusetts

On Thursday, October 12, 2023, I took a round trip ride on Brightline from the new Orlando station to MiamiCentral in Downtown Miami. Brightline service began on the new West Palm Beach to Orlando segment in September. The new Orlando station is at Orlando International Airport next to their new C terminal. This was my first ever ride on Brightline and the station is sleek and modern and features a lot of high-tech gadgets including ticketed gated entry into the passenger waiting areas and lots of uses of technology I had never seen in a train station before. The station is easily accessible from the nearby toll roads serving the airport, and terminal C has its own rental car area and a tram connecting to the older part of the airport. Parking for Brightline is available in terminal C garage, with offsite shuttle parking as a backup when the garage fills up. Dedicated Brightline surface parking adjacent to the ground level Brightline drop off area is currently under construction but is not yet available, so for right now Brightline passengers must use either the garage or nearby economy lot/shuttle. When I got back to Orlando from the return trip I noticed that the parking garage was almost completely full, so I would definitely urge anyone who isn’t leaving on an early morning departure and needs to park to give themselves extra time in case they need to use the economy lot and shuttle bus at least until the new dedicated Brightline parking becomes available.

For those familiar with Brightline’s existing stations, the Orlando station includes many of the familiar amenities including a marketplace called MRKT where one can purchase snacks, beverages, and other conveniences as well as Brightline shirts and other swag. The station also includes a full-service bar and café called Mary Mary where one can buy alcoholic beverages as well as hot meals. The in-station Mary Mary bars are Brightline’s alternative to having on board café car, as onboard food service is limited to beverages and some light snacks and sandwiches. The Orlando station also has a conference/meeting room that can be reserved for business travelers.

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Only those with tickets can enter the station’s passenger facilities from the public area of the building, and this is controlled by automated gates, requiring one to scan their QR code. Brightline has ticket purchase kiosks and a customer service agent located just outside the gates to assist passengers. Security personnel are also present at the gates and carry-on baggage can be subject to screening, which is obviously a difference for those of us used to Amtrak. Brightline does also offer checked baggage for larger items. Similar entry gates also control entrance from the general passenger area into the Premium Class lounge. The Premium class lounge includes a large comfortable seating area and complementary food and beverage items and one of the neatest high-tech gadgets in the station – a complementary self-service bar kiosk where one swipes their ticket and pours their own beer or cocktail.

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The train ride was quite a smooth ride and Brightline’s newer Siemens equipment is sleek, modern, and spotless. The seats are quite comfortable, though one thing I missed from Amtrak seating is the ability for the seat back to recline -instead, the lower part of the seat can move forward towards the seat in front of you to allow one to sit back a bit. The premium class seats are a bit wider, so they are arranged in 2x1 configuration, while in the basic Smart class they are 2x2. The trains are operated “push-pull” (meaning they are not turned around at the end points) so there are seats facing both directions and the seats in the middle of the car at the transition points have tables. The seats come with all the amenities you would expect – tray tables – overhead reading light, and baggage storage, as well as power outlets and USB charging ports for your mobile devices on both sides. There are also window shades that can be pulled down. The Wi-Fi seemed a lot speedier and more reliable than the service I had on any other previous train ride, and the internet service for the Wi-Fi is by SpaceX’s much talked about Starlink satellite service. The restrooms are fully accessible, clean, and modern with touchless controls and automatic doors. The trains move fast with 125 MPH speeds on the newly constructed dedicated alignment for Brightline between the Florida East Coastline and Orlando airport, and they max out at 90 MPH on the shared Florida East Coast corridor – they are testing to increase this to 110 MPH. The on-board crews were all very friendly and provided very timely announcements about any unexpected delays, including slowdowns for train meets. We took a lengthier delay on the way back north for a draw bridge that would not close, and the crew provided timely updates on the situation while we were stopped.

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On board, food service is airline cart style. In premium class all items are complementary, while in their “Smart” coach service they are available for purchase. They offer soft drinks, beer, wine, and some mixed cocktails. Food items are mostly snacks with some cold lighter sandwich options for lunch. In premium class I got a breakfast box on the way down with yogurt, a small muffin, a kind bar, and some fruit. The attendant also was making mimosas, of which I had a couple. On the way back, I got a prepackaged small sandwich and a spicy premixed margarita cocktail. It is not first class on Acela, but satisfactory when considering the price of the premium ticket. As I stated before, those looking for a hot breakfast or lunch item will want to visit the Mary Mary bar at the station before boarding, as that is the only place where Brightline offers more substantial hot items – there is no equivalent to the Amtrak café car aboard.

The Miami station has similar facilities to Orlando and is in the heart of downtown. I visited a nearby restaurant for lunch and went for a walk to Biscayne Bay before returning for my return trip. When I returned to the station I waited in the premium lounge and observed a couple differences from Orlando – the largest one being that the little market store is fully autonomous allowing customers to simply scan their credit card and entry, grab the item they’re looking for, and walk out – another example of the heavy use of technology in the stations.

All in all I can see Brightline’s new Orlando service being extraordinarily successful connecting two of the state’s busiest areas. The future holds even more potential with the eventual planned rail connection between the airport and the existing rail line that hosts SunRail and Amtrak service which will provide a rail connection between the Brightline station and Orlando proper as well as several surrounding SunRail served communities. Further SunRail expansions west could also eventually allow direct rail access to the Orlando Convention Center and the Universal and Walt Disney World theme parks as well as allow Brightline to extend its own service west to Tampa. Like many areas of the country, it is an exciting time for passenger rail in Florida. I highly recommend anyone traveling in the area between Orlando and Southeast Florida consider this as an option.