Virgin Trains Brings South Florida Together with Speed, Comfort and Convenience
By Fred Grimm
The future must look a lot like Virgin Trains USA, the gleaming, luxurious high-speed passenger train system that knits metropolitan South Florida into a single, wildly diverse destination.
At speeds up to 79 miles per hour, passenger trains fairly zoom from Miami to West Palm Beach and back, with a brief stop either way in Fort Lauderdale.
Travelers who once endured capricious and often harrowing drives along Interstate 95 or the Florida Turnpike can now make the journey with speedy certainty: the Miami-Fort Lauderdale leg in 35 minutes, Fort Lauderdale-West Palm in 40.
And Virgin Trains, the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger railroad in the nation, does it in style. Passengers are ensconced in wide, reclining leather seats (21 inches in the premium “select” carriages, 19 inches in the less expensive “smart” cars). There’s free WiFi, and USB and electric power outlets at each seat.
Virgin Trains also offers luggage and bicycle storage. And food and beverage services, including wine, beer and liquor with top-shelf labels. Toilets are accessed by waving one’s hand over a small green light near the door, and, swoosh, it opens with a kind of Star Wars flourish.
The trains — pink, red, orange, green or blue carriages pulled by yellow bio-diesel locomotives — run so quietly that passengers assume they’re barely creeping down the rails. Except the South Florida scenery rushes by the large carriage windows at a startling pace. The trains seem to glide from one station to the next, with barely time to finish your Simi Chardonnay or Tito’s Vodka between stops.
The three stations are all strategically located in rapidly evolving downtowns.
West Palm Beach
The West Palm Beach location is a nearly perfect pedestrian destination, barely four blocks south of the bars and shops and restaurants and theaters and art installations of City Place. The Palm Beach Convention Center, the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and the Norton Museum of Art all are mere blocks beyond.
Just north of the West Palm station, a modern structure of concrete and glass blocks supported by a series of distinctive V-shaped braces, Clematis Street offers a ruckus strip of food, drink, shopping and entertainment east to a waterfront park and marina. Virgin Trains is finishing its own tower next to the West Palm Station with 290 apartments perched over 12,500 square feet of retail space.
The Fort Lauderdale station, which shares the same architectural aesthetic as its West Palm Beach and Miami counterparts (though Miami Central Station has been designed on a much grander scale), lies a few blocks north of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and the Museum of Discovery and Science and the Himmarshee Village entertainment district.
The Riverwalk, along the New River, leads pedestrians to the upscale shops and restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard. And Water Taxi stops along the Riverwalk offer connections to waterfront restaurants on the Intracoastal Waterway and docks near the city’s famed beachfront. A 202-room Hilton Hotel is going up just on the other side of the railroad tracks from the Fort Lauderdale station.
Virgin Trains USA cruises past the graffiti-art of Wynwood, then approaches downtown Miami on elevated tracks, 50 feet above the streets and sidewalks, affording passengers a panoramic view of the city’s spectacular, ultra-modern skyline.
The train pulls into Miami Central Station, which could very well be a destination in itself. The 11-acre mixed-use development along six downtown blocks will include 180,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space along an elevated food hall, including snazzy restaurants like the 800 Degrees Wood-Fired Kitchen, Kuenko (a Spanish eatery), Rosetta Bakery, and Monger, a 10,000 square-foot restaurant operated by TV celebrity chefs Bryan and Michael Voltaggio (both of “Top Chef” fame).
The lobby features a three-story LED art installation with ever-changing Miami scenes (and the occasional ad). Miami artist Robert McKnight has created two aluminum friezes and three murals that recall the old Overtown neighborhood that has been utterly transformed by Virgin Trains and other new developments.
Miami Central Station includes connections to Miami’s elevated transit systems: Metrorail with a 15-minute connection to Miami International Airport and Metromover, the self-driving fare-free people mover system soaring over downtown streets, with stops at Museum Park, home to Perez Art Museum Miami and the new Frost Museum of Science, the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, the AmericanAirlines Arena (home to the Miami Heat), Bayfront Park, the Bayside Festival Marketplace, the Miami Riverwalk and the hot, new Brickell shopping and dining district. Zany Wynwood and Miami Beach are both just a short drive away. (The rideshare company Lyft has an access agreement with Virgin Trains at all three stations.)
Just east of Miami Central Station, a once forlorn streetscape of rundown warehouses and rooming houses has become a sprawling construction site for the $2 billion, 27-acre Miami World Center, with hotels, condos, offices, a convention center and a seven-block-long pedestrian-only outdoor open-air, retail, dining and drinking district. Just a block from the lobby entrance to Miami Central Station, a Hilton-branded condo-hotel will occupy a 73-story tower, which will hold the distinction (however briefly, given the mad, skyward competition underway in boomtown Miami) as the tallest building in Florida.
Tickets prices vary according to peak ridership times. But premium seats between Fort Lauderdale and either of the other destinations range from $10 to $15 for the “smart” economy seats, $20 for the “select” premium seats, which include access to free snacks and a beverage. Trips between Miami and West Palm Beach cost $30 for select, $15 to $20 for smart seats. Parties of four passengers can book a table and turn the trip into a rolling party.
More to come
Virgin Trains plans to extend service to Orlando by 2021, 235 miles from Miami, linking Florida’s two major tourist destinations. (Yet another section, still under discussion, would carry passengers to Tampa.)
Virgin Trains is a fast train to the future. But the rail line also recalls Florida’s past. Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway (Virgin Trains' parent company) was built along this same South Florida right-of-way.
Flagler invented the South Florida tourism industry in 1894 when his passenger service connected points north with West Palm Beach. Two years later, Flagler extended his railroad another 70 miles south to a sleepy backwater called Fort Dallas. Flagler built grand hotels along the way, including the still glorious Breakers in Palm Beach. And Fort Dallas was renamed Miami.
Flagler’s original railroad virtually made South Florida. Some 120 years later, Virgin Trains is giving the region an extravagant makeover.