Riding Tri-Rail, South Florida's Commuter Rail Service
April 16-17, 2004
In April I attended a professional meeting in downtown Miami while rooming in Delray Beach about 55 miles to the north. Reluctant to drive on congested I-95 I checked into commuting on Tri-Rail a relatively new service (begun 1989) developed under the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA). "Tri" refers to 3 counties served: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Total estimated population for the 3 is 4,500,000. Additional background info and pictures can be found on-line by entering a search for "tri-rail."
Tri-Rail commuter trains use the former Seaboard/CSX rail line (now owned by the state of Florida) between Mangonia Park, on the north side of West Palm Beach, and NW 36th Street in Miami a distance of 72 miles. They share the rails with Amtrak and CSX freights. The system serves 18 stations with connecting bus and shuttle services. The 36th street station provides Miami airport access via a 5 minute shuttle ride. There are also station stops for the busy, ever-expanding Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports. The 79th street station in North Miami connects to the Metrorail line which extends south through downtown Miami, Coral Gables/Coconut Grove into the suburb of Kendall. In downtown Miami, Metrorail connects with the unique "metromover" at Government Center station. Metromover is an elevated tramway looping 1.9 miles around downtown with automated cars running every 5 minutes.
Tri-Rail operates train sets of 3 or 4 bi-level commuter cars pulled southbound by F40PHL-2 or F40PHC-2c locomotives. Northbound trains are operated from a cab control car with locomotives pushing on the rear. Original cars came from GO transit in Toronto while newer cars were bought from Bombardier in the 1990s. They seat between 154-157 passengers except for lower capacity cab control cars containing handicapped rest rooms, luggage and bike racks. Car sides are colorfully painted with blue sky, clouds and coconut palm trees.
Research on-line indicated that weekdays trains ran hourly southbound starting at 4:20AM from Mangonia Park. From Delray Beach I could take either train P603 at 6:11AM or P605 at 7:11 and arrive at the Metrorail transfer point at 7:25 or 8:25. I then had 10 minutes to ascend the Metrorail platform and catch a southbound train. Running time to Government Center station was about 20 minutes. The connecting metromover went directly to my meeting at the Knight Center in 5 minutes. Thus, I could expect to arrive at the meeting a few minutes after 8 or 9. The last northbound weekday Tri-Rail train (P626) left the Metrorail transfer station at 7:39PM to arrive in Delray Beach at 8:55. I had to be on metromover by 6:45 to connect with a Metrorail train that would get me to P626 on time. Weekends the first southbound Tri-Rail train (P641) left Delray at 7:11. Northbound, final train P652 left the transfer station at 9:39PM. The original single track Seaboard main is being double tracked in "segments"; new cross platform stations will accommodate boarding from either track. Tri-Rail expects this to significantly improve running times, frequency, and ridership.
Weekday Tri-Rail fares vary by number of zones traveled. The round-trip 4 zone Senior fare is $4.50. Weekend round trip fares for all adults are a flat $4.00, good for all day travel. Better yet, a round trip Tri-Rail ticket is valid for a round trip on Metrorail and metromover is free. The low fares and opportunity to ride metromover definitively put me on Tri-Rail for both Friday and Saturday meetings.
On Friday, April 16 I parked in the Delray Beach Tri-Rail/Amtrak parking lot, bought a round trip ticket from a vending machine and ascended the concrete platform about a half mile south of the old, Spanish-style Seaboard station now boarded up. Construction crews were busy, some working on an overpass and new platform opposite ours while others worked on a deep fill that would accommodate the new track. A digital information sign and the PA system announced southbound train P605 would be 10 minutes late. At 7:22 I boarded 4 car P605 with about 14 others and took a right-hand window seat upstairs in the last car. P605 was about one-third full. In my car 8 business men and women were clicking laptops and talking loudly in 2 facing seat pairs with tables. Much conversation focused on a letter in our seats from Tri-Rail Executive Director Joseph Giulietti. The letter apologized for a 4 hour delay the previous evening because of a "catastrophic failure" of the CSX dispatching system at Jacksonville. The business folks had shared $80 cab rides from the Miami Metrorail transfer station to West Palm Beach. I said a little prayer that CSX computers were now running smoothly.
P605 rapidly accelerated to 60 mph or so for the short run to the fancy new Boca Raton station. At Boca a good many passengers boarded some airport bound with carry-on's and a few wheeling bicycles. As P605 moved south new second track began on the right side laid mostly with concrete ties interspersed with new wooden ties. Some concrete ties were labeled Koppers, others KSA. Spur tracks leading to warehouses and light industries are still plentiful all the way to Miami. At Deerfield Beach we passed Amtrak's northbound Silver Meteor with about 8 or 9 cars headed by Genesis locomotives. The main Fort Lauderdale stop is anchored by the original, nicely renovated Seaboard depot. At the Fort Lauderdale airport station 15 passengers de-trained and raced to the airport shuttle. Just north of the Metrorail transfer station we passed Amtrak's yards and Miami area station on the left. Several cuts of Genesis locomotives, Amfleet cars and Viewliners were in evidence. Despite bursts of slow running south of Fort Lauderdale we arrived at the Miami Metrorail transfer only 7 minutes late. There, most of us got off, raced through the turnstiles and up the stairs to the elevated Metrorail platform to catch an arriving southbound train. To the south I could see P605 headed for the Miami airport. Metrorail elevated trains resemble Atlanta MARTA trains both in appearance and moderate to fast running times.
Car interiors were clean but some windows were practically impenetrable from dirt and wear. Station platforms seemed neglected; the advertising slots and kiosks were totally empty as were most of the interior car ad slots. Out the left side windows Biscayne Bay and the condos and resort hotels of Miami Beach could be glimpsed in the distance as the train approached downtown. At Government Center station I made an easy transfer to the southbound metromover platform, boarded one of the automated cars without delay and walked into a meeting session only 8 minutes later.
On the return I boarded the metromover a little after 6PM to make sure I didn't miss northbound P626. Another smooth change to a Metrorail train at Government Center got me to the Tri-rail transfer station by 6:40 just in time to miss P624 which left on-time at 6:39. I saw it pull out as I ran down the stairs to the Tri-rail platform. A few minutes later southbound P621 pulled in, disgorged 25 or 30 commuters and whistled off for the Miami airport.
With time to kill, I checked the surroundings. The transfer station has a human ticket vendor whose booth is adorned with Tri-Rail schedules and announcements. I picked up March newsletter "All Aboard" which featured US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta handing Tri-Rail officials and local politicos $28.8 million for the final double-tracking phase. The newsletter also advertised Tri-Rail/shuttle "easy" access to museums up and down South Florida. A brochure advertised an employer discount program in which enrolled companies obtain 25% discounts off employee monthly and 12-trip tickets with free bus/shuttle connections. Lastly, I grabbed a brochure on the double tracking program for perusal on my train ride. In the immediate vicinity was a combined pawn shop/grocery store that blasted Afro-Latino salsa, cumbia, etc. from 2 outdoor speakers. A bit more than toe-tapping music.
By 7:15 a sizable crowd of commuters was on the platform waiting for P626. I moved up the far end of the platform hoping to get a seat. P626 was on-time and I managed a right side window seat upstairs. As we passed the Amtrak yard, I noticed a bright red caboose lettered "Santa Day Caboose" near the Amfleet cars. The train stayed full with people getting off and on all the way although I didn't see standees. En route I pulled out the double-track brochure and noticed it wasn't in English or any language I recognized. At first I thought it might be Mayan or another Latin-American indigenous language since these language groups are increasing in the area. Closer inspection revealed French words and I realized it was in "Creole" for the large Haitian community. In fact many riders were obviously Caribbean basin immigrants speaking "Creole", Spanish, and Island-accented English. The return was comfortable with almost on-time arrival at 8:57.
On parallel I-95 I observed knots of gridlock all the way to Delray Beach and was glad to be on P626.
Saturday I didn't have to be at the meetings until a 1:30PM session so after buying my $4.00 ticket I boarded P645 southbound on-time at 11:11. Once again ensconced in an upper-level seat in the last car, I observed that the train was about half-full. At Boca Raton, six teenagers with skate boards boarded my car and proceeded to talk loudly and shout at each in colorful language. Fortunately, a security guard came through checking tickets and persuaded them to reduce the volume. Unlike Friday, tickets were checked on both Saturday trains. The train was almost full after leaving the Pompano Beach station. Next to my seat was a brochure advertising Tri-Rail train/bus connections to a week-end swap shop and flea market in Ft. Lauderdale. I thought this might account for the relatively large number of weekend passengers. P645 arrived on-time at 12:25 at the Metrorail transfer and I caught a southbound train within minutes. After a quick transfer to a metromover car and a 6 minute ride I walked into the meetings at 1:07.
I had a dinner engagement back in Delray so after 2 intensive sessions I boarded a metromover car at 3:45, made a quick connection to Metrorail and arrived at the transfer station in time to catch northbound P648 at 4:39. At the transfer station I noticed the skateboarders doing their skateboard thing nearby and resolved to be in a different car. I managed an upstairs seat in the forward cab-control car and settled in for a comfortable ride. A few minutes later we stopped at Opa Locka and I noticed that the original Seaboard station, resembling an Arabian nights castle, has been preserved. After a trip to the rest room I lost my seat to 2 women conversing animatedly, one in Spanish the other in English interspersed with Spanish words. Being fluent in Spanish I listened in as the Spanish-speaker gossiped about co-workers while her companion would reply in English, "I agree that Beatrice does not provide leadership but." eliciting a reply in Spanish. Near Deerfield Beach we passed Amtrak's southbound Silver Star on new double track around 5:30. P648 did a good business en route and arrival at Delray Beach was on-time at 5:55.
Overall my 2 round-trips were highly enjoyable and cost -effective with respect to time, stress avoided and money. I especially enjoyed the metromover rides with their computerized control and announcements. The elevated tramway provides good views of downtown Miami and cruise ships moored in Biscayne Bay. Its' a great idea and the system seemed to be well patronized. I'm going to ride the entire route next time.
Patronage on Tri-Rail is currently around 10,000 riders per day. Given the rapidly growing population of residents and tourists this number should be much larger. The demographics provide the right mix-- immigrants, retirees and transplants from the Northeastern US, all of whom are accustomed to public transportation. On the Tri-Rail website I read complaints that bus connections at stations are inadequate. Some South Florida government officials are trying to persuade the Florida East Coast Railway to allow commuter trains. This has some logic since the FEC is several miles east of Tri-Rail, nearer the beaches, passes through the central business districts of most cities and goes directly into downtown Miami avoiding a Metrorail transfer. Moreover I believe most FEC freight trains run at night. However, the FEC is now single track and the state and Feds have invested an enormous amount of money in the Seaboard line. In addition, that line is closer to suburban developments that have grown to the West. Perhaps Tri-Rail could run on both railroads. This, along with improved running times and frequencies, would provide service that nobody could refuse.