By Mary Hladky
Four-year-old Brightline is the shiny new thing, offering high-class rides in sleek trains.
But 33-year-old Tri-Rail’s no-frills commuter line transports far more passengers.
Tri-Rail’s ridership totaled nearly 3.4 million in 2022, while Brightline carried just over 1.2 million riders.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted service for both rail operators, Tri-Rail carried nearly 4.5 million passengers. Brightline, a brand-new service then, carried 1 million.
Both Brightline and Tri-Rail say the two operators can’t be compared.
Tri-Rail is a commuter service with 18 stations whose core riders need to get to and from work. It receives funding from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Florida Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, and from its ticket sales.
Brightline, a private company, insisted it was not a commuter rail when it launched. With only three stations in South Florida then, its focus was moving people speedily over longer distances. Its Orlando station is expected to open in the second quarter of 2023, and eventually the line will extend to Tampa.
But more recently, Brightline has acknowledged transporting commuters and, with the December opening of stations in Boca Raton and Aventura, can better accommodate them.
For instance, land use attorney Michael Marshall recently used Brightline to get from his Fort Lauderdale office to a Boca Raton City Council meeting, where he was representing a client.
“It’s genius,” he said of Brightline, which arranged last-mile service to his meeting on Uber.
So far, Brightline has not siphoned away riders, said Victor Garcia, Tri-Rail’s director of public affairs. “They are filling a gap that was apparently needed.”
Both operators are now trying to reclaim riders they lost during the pandemic. Brightline suspended service from March 2020 to November 2021. Tri-Rail sharply reduced its service in March 2020 and returned to full schedule in October 2021.
The pandemic changed rider dynamics. Demand fell as employers shuttered offices or required their workers to come to the office fewer days each week. Many people shied away from mass transit that forced them into close contact with others.
“We want to get back to where we were pre-COVID,” Garcia said.
In its most recent financial reports in December and January, Brightline said that by the first quarter of 2022, its ridership exceeded pre-pandemic levels in the comparable period in 2019.
“Rides by monthly passholders increased 44 percent in January 2023 compared to December 2022, demonstrating a trend back toward normal commuting patterns for an increasing portion of our market,” Brightline said.
Both rail lines expect more ridership growth for similar reasons.
Traffic and road conditions on Interstate 95 and other major arteries are bad and getting worse. More companies and people are moving to Florida, bringing in more potential riders. That also creates more traffic and the desire to avoid it. And the soaring price of gasoline last year prompted many to consider an alternative to the car.
Another factor for Brightline is that it can expect a ridership boost when it launches service to Orlando.
Brightline offers fast and efficient service with airy, comfortable stations featuring food and beverages. It has a number of options to get passengers from the stations to their final destinations. Its trains run on the FEC rail corridor, through east coast downtowns.
Tri-Rail, which also has options to get passengers to their final destinations at no or reduced cost, has no indoor lounges at its stations and minimal food and beverage options. Its trains run on the CSX corridor, west of downtowns.
But it has stations in the major South Florida east coast cities, making it possible to commute to cities such as Boynton Beach and Delray Beach that are not serviced by Brightline.
Tri-Rail’s dependability and on-time performance have improved substantially in recent years, removing a disincentive to using its trains. It runs more trains per day, which provide riders with more options, particularly during rush hours.
It also stops at the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports and provides access to Palm Beach International.
Yet a major reason that its ridership figures outpace Brightline’s is that Tri-Rail costs a lot less to ride.
On Feb. 17, Brightline’s one-way regular “smart” fare from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale ranged from $19 to $27, depending on the time of day traveled. The return trip prices were the same. So round trip, the fare was $38 up to $54.
The premium fare ranged from $32 to $69, for a total of $64 to $138 round trip.
Parking at Brightline garages costs $7 a day if purchased in advance or $15 a day for a ticket purchased at the garage.
The costs come down if riders buy a monthly pass that covers 40 rides. A regular pass from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale is $229; a premium pass is $489. A monthly parking pass is $75.
Tri-Rail has divided its route from the Miami airport to Mangonia Park into six zones. Fare cost depends on the number of zones riders pass through to reach their destinations.
The weekday trip from Boca Raton to West Palm Beach goes through three zones, for a round-trip cost of $10. A ride from Boca to Fort Lauderdale goes through two zones, or $7.50 round trip.
Tri-Rail offers monthly passes, good for unlimited travel, for $110. If a rider used Tri-Rail for 20 commutes a month, the cost of a round trip from Boca to Fort Lauderdale would drop to $5.50.
Outdoor parking is free at its stations.
Tri-Rail last raised its prices in 2020, the first hike in 10 years. Brightline’s prices have gradually risen. It raised the cost of a monthly pass by about 15% in November and said in a December report it expects further increases due to likely higher demand related to the Aventura and Boca Raton stations.