Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

With the introduction of Brightline high-speed rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach, it has become feasible to travel conveniently between those two cities (and Fort Lauderdale in between) by rail.

The 2-year-old train service, the only privately operated intercity passenger railroad in the U.S., has made car-free tourism in Florida a trend worth watching.

On a recent January weekend, the Brightline trains I took were packed with day-trippers and tourists going back and forth.

As an experiment, I wanted to see if I could play tourist for the weekend and travel to West Palm without using a car, or at least my car. I was able to make the journey door to door carless, except for the first and last miles, which required an Uber ride.

My wife and I started our trip in an Uber to the Brightline station, which is about 8 miles from our Coral Gables home. Once at the station we boarded for the 1-hour and 10-minute trip north. The Brightline stations are extremely clean, pleasant and modern, with multiple options for food and drink. The coaches likewise are light and sleek, with off-white leather seats that have electrical connections and phone chargers in each seatback.

Devices connect to the Brightline WiFi with no need for a password. A cart service with snacks, coffee and drinks is available for free in the more expensive Select service, or a la carte in Smart service, aka Coach.

Upon arriving in West Palm Beach, we walked with our roll-aboard bags one block to our bed and breakfast, the Hibiscus House, which I chose for its location near the station and to the Rosemary Square (formerly City Place) shopping and entertainment district.

After checking in, we set out for the Norton Museum of Art, about a 10-block walk from the B&B. It might not have been doable in July, but the weather was breezy and the street traffic light on a Saturday morning in January. Downtown West Palm is fairly compact and walkable, so that helps enable the car-less concept.

Another big help is the electric-powered on-call vehicles that have sprung up in many communities that provide free rides in a limited-service area. They are generally funded by U.S. Department of Transportation grants and rely on the same type of smartphone apps familiar to Uber or Lyft users.

In West Palm, the service is called Circuit. We summoned a Circuit from our pretheater dinner on Clematis Street and rode it to the Kravis Center, where we had tickets for a Miami City Ballet performance. Afterwards, we opted for another free service, an LNG-powered trolley, back to the Hibiscus House B&B.

The next morning, after breakfast, we again relied on Circuit to take us across the Intracoastal Waterway for a little window shopping on tony Worth Avenue and then back to the Brightline station where we headed for home. In Miami, the terminal is adjacent to a Metrorail station, so we were able to board another train to within a mile of our house, before calling an Uber for the final leg.

The total transportation cost, including tips for the Circuit drivers, was a little over $125, of which $100 went for two roundtrip Brightline fares.

To be sure, the lion's share of tourist travel around Florida is still being done on the highway. But environmental concerns about climate change, especially among younger travelers, will give car-free travel an increasing amount of support. The Brightline has grand plans to extend its tracks to Orlando, which would really increase tourist use.

And it doesn't hurt that Brightline offers a 20% commission for sales by travel advisors, once they register. Email [email protected] for further information.


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