Friday, December 12, 2014

Sizing up Tri-Rail, SunRail's big brother

We just came back from an adventure in South Florida.

We drove to West Palm Beach to experience Tri-Rail, Florida’s first commuter train system.
Think of Tri-Rail as SunRail’s big brother. SunRail and Tri-Rail have similar birth stories. Both were creations of the Florida Department of Transportation. SunRail was launched this past May to offer a transportation alternative during the massive I-4 Ultimate construction project that begins early next year and is expected to be completed by 2021. Tri-Rail began operations in 1989 to provide a commuter alternative to a massive construction project on I-95 in South Florida.

We rode round trip on Tri-Rail from the Mangonia Park station in West Palm Beach to Hialeah Market/Miami Airport station and back again to Mangonia Park. This was our first ride on Tri-Rail and the roundtrip 140-mile journey took 4 hours.

Tri-Rail passenger coach

We traveled during the off peak period in late morning so we can’t tell you what the Tri-Rail experience is like during rush hour. Tri-Rail’s website doesn’t have a real-time train tracker, which was a surprise. Passengers have to depend on their conductor or platform announcements when there are delays or other problems.

Our first impression of Tri-Rail wasn’t great because the Mangonia Park station is sandwiched between a huge, abandoned jai alai fronton and a sprawling rundown apartment complex. Once we got on the station platform we felt more comfortable because there were uniformed, armed security officers on duty.

The forlorn area at the Mangonia Park station set an unfortunate negative tone for our Tri-Rail experience. We hope Tri-Rail and local officials are working hard to address the twin eyesores at that station.

Our Tri-Rail locomotive 
Another thing, the locomotive powering our train was a workhorse – it looked like one, and not in a good way. The locomotive’s exterior was beaten up. Its paint job didn’t match the cool tropical motif on the passenger coaches. What’s up with that?

Throughout the train trip we kept reminding ourselves that we weren’t in Central Florida. Much of the Tri-Rail track corridor cuts through the grimy underbelly of South Florida --rough neighborhoods, endless junkyards, illegal trash-dump sites, and warehouses marred by out-of-control graffiti. There was enough trash dumped along the tracks to fill 10 Amway Centers. We have concerns about some trashy areas along the SunRail corridor, but the eyesores on the SunRail corridor don’t come close to what Tri-Rail passengers see every day.

Some neighborhoods next to Tri-Rail stations were better than others, but we didn’t notice anything like a Park Avenue in Winter Park setting at a Tri-Rail station.

But enough dishing on Tri-Rail. There were many things about it that we liked.

Tri-Rail passenger coaches were clean and appeared to be well maintained. The ride was very smooth, compared to SunRail where there are some bumpy sections of tracks. Though we were traveling during an off-peak period, there were lots of passengers.

Tri-Rail is very convenient for people on the way to catch a flight because the train stops close to two airports – Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport. Numerous airline passengers with luggage boarded and got off at those airport stations.

The two best things about Tri-Rail: It runs on weekends and late at night.

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