Trains are one of the most accessible forms of transportation, and they connect cities all over the world. In the United States, passenger railway infrastructure has been slow to develop, and Amtrak is slow (at best) and often unreliable. Its high-speed Acela train, which I love, still doesn’t come close to the performance of high-speed trains in Europe and Asia, and only offers a minimal cost savings over Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service (but at 5 times the price).
Enter Virgin Trains USA (formerly Brightline), which is reimagining rail travel in Florida with a positive impact on the passenger experience — including, and especially for passengers with disabilities. I had a chance to try the Brightline service in South Florida and — WOW — I am excited to share it with you!
High-speed train service in Florida
Currently, Brightline operates only in South Florida between West Palm Beach and Miami, with an intermediate stop in Fort Lauderdale. The service is slated to expand all the way up to Orlando, Florida, with a stop at the city’s international airport. As a frequent traveler between Orlando and South Florida, I can’t wait to hop aboard the train rather than flying.
Everything about Brightline is clean, fresh and new — but it’s more than a coat of paint. And there are many reasons why Brightline has an edge over Amtrak and the region’s commuter rail service.
The number one benefit of Brightline over Amtrak and Tri-Rail is that it is truly city-center to city-center in South Florida. The Miami station is at Bayside, with public transport connections via the Metro Rail, Metro Mover and city bus all within walking distance. The Fort Lauderdale Station is directly alongside the Central Bus Terminal, along Broward Blvd., and steps from the Riverwalk. Brightline’s West Palm Beach station is along S. Quadrille Blvd. at the heart of downtown. Brightline takes you to the heart of the action.
Purchasing train tickets
Purchasing your Virgin Trains USA ticket is easy and can be done on the web, on the Brightline mobile app or from one of the accessible kiosks at the station.
Fares are divided into three booking classes: Smart, Smart Plus and Select. Smart Plus passengers enjoy one complimentary snack and drink during the trip, but receive the standard Smart service otherwise. Select passengers enjoy wider seats in a 2-1 configuration (versus 2-2), access to the Select lounge at the station, complimentary beer/wine and snacks, plus free parking at the Brightline station.
I booked my Brightline ticket two days in advance and the prices ranged from $17 to $22 for Smart and $30 to $35 for Select. Since this was my first time riding Brightline, I opted for the full experience in Select, for which I paid $35 (vs. $22 for Smart).
If you’d like a couple beers, the upgrade might be worth it – but it’s only 30 minutes between stops (and an hour end-to-end). Accessibility is excellent regardless of your class of service, and you can remain comfortably in your own wheelchair regardless.
By the way, if your schedule runs late, there are no penalties for same-day changes — you’ll only pay the fare difference, which in most cases will be $5 or less.
Be sure to check out the latest offers from Brightline, including coupon codes for discounts and promotions!
At the station: check-in, security & lounge
After entering the station in Ft. Lauderdale, I was immediately greeted by a staff member who asked how he could help. I stopped to take a look around and noted the wheelchair accessible touchscreen displays that could be used to purchase or change tickets. After snapping a few pictures, I was shown to the elevator up to security.
Whether you have a paper ticket or a digital one on your smartphone, you’ll scan it at the entrance gates to the security checkpoint. All of the gates are wide and wheelchair accessible.
Carry-on bags are inspected using an x-ray scanner. No firearms, knives, axes, fireworks, dangerous chemicals and the like are allowed onboard.
The Brightline stations have spacious waiting areas with power outlets, seating and free wi-fi. There is a shop that sells food, drink and a few other items. Select passengers have access to the Select Lounge, which has a number of complimentary snack and beverage options.
Boarding the train
I made my way to the platform (accessed via elevator) a few minutes before the train was due to arrive. The platform was not crowded, and there was no drama during boarding.
Brightline trains have a metal plate that extends upon arrival, bridging the gap between the train and station platform. I would estimate the remaining gap at about 1.5 inches. My power wheelchair made it onboard without any issues. The boarding process was barrier-free, dignified and didn’t require me to track down the conductor. Though, with Brightline’s attention to detail, I had already been met by a station staff member as soon as I arrived on the platform.
Wheelchair accessible seating
The first thing I noticed when boarding the train were the incredible wide aisles. My large power wheelchair had more than enough space to roll down the aisle and between rail cars. No passenger’s movement should be restricted, so way to go Brightline on making these trains so wheelchair-friendly!
All seats are assigned on Brightline trains, including wheelchair spaces. I chose the wheelchair space right next to the companion seat, which was used by a friend.
There was plenty of legroom and space to turn my wheelchair around in place. Your move, Amtrak.
Wheelchair accessible train bathroom
Not only can wheelchair users fit in the bathroom on Brightline trains, they can fit inside with their own power wheelchair AND park it directly alongside the toilet for a lateral transfer.
A motion-activated sink and air dryer added to the bathroom’s accessibility. Its door could be opened, closed and locked with the press of a button. It was great!
Work has already begun on a Virgin Trains USA expansion from South Florida to Orlando. Construction of the Orlando station is nearly complete, but 170 miles of new track must still be laid. The company also says that they are “currently engaged in the initial steps of the process to provide rail service” to the Tampa Bay region as well.
In addition to its Brightline project in Florida, Virgin Trains USA has recently acquired XpressWest, a company that plans to connect Las Vegas to Southern California with an express train service. Executives have said they hope the first train journey will be operated in 2022, but the project is still in the conceptual stages.
Brightline is an example of what travel should be, and why accessibility should be included from the start. My journey on Virgin Trains USA’s Brightline service was seamless from beginning-to-end, did not require the intervention of anyone else, and upheld my independence and dignity. Seriously, what more could I ask for?
What was your favorite rail journey?
How would it compare to my trip on Virgin Trains USA?
Let me know in the comments below!