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Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tri-Rail

It's been a few months since Michael Mayo, in his South Florida Sun-Sentinel column, referred to Tri-Rail as a failure, which is far too long since he's taken a swipe. I wish he'd do it again soon. I figure the more Mayo labels the commuter rail line a flop, the more people will stay away.

And maybe then it won't be so hard to find a seat on my morning train.

Since June, I've relied on Tri-Rail to get from West Palm Beach to our Fort Lauderdale offices and back again every weekday. At first, the large number of people jumping on the train each morning at the north end of the line was a pleasant surprise. Maybe this thing wasn't the disaster most people seemed to think it was, I thought. But lately, the success of Tri-Rail is getting a little out of hand. We're going to be sitting in each others' laps soon.

Getting crowded, and only a little late.
Peter Stachiw/ZUMA Press
Getting crowded, and only a little late.

Hadn't heard about that? Nah, I didn't think so. The more I read about Tri-Rail in local newspapers, the more I'm convinced that reporters who write about it haven't actually ridden it.

I'll admit, it was something of a leap of faith when I decided to rely on the train to get me to the office. I'd heard the horror stories, and I'd seen how the Sun-Sentinel and other newspapers (including this one) ridiculed Tri-Rail as a waste of taxpayer money and an unreliable way to get around.

"So we can expect to see you two hours late every morning" was how one of my colleagues at New Times reacted when I told her I'd be commuting by rail.

True, I've had to wait around at the Fort Lauderdale station for some long stretches. One day in June, when my train was more than an hour late, I called Tri-Rail's 800 number to find out what was taking so long, and the people on the other end explained that lightning strikes had taken out traffic signals in Miami. Trains were crawling along at 5 mph while an escort of workers, on foot, guided locomotives through dark Miami intersections. Once they got into Broward County, they got back up to speed.

But as crappy as that day was, it was the exception. Most late trains are no more than ten minutes behind schedule. And often, I'm running late myself and it turns out to my advantage that the train doesn't always show up on time.

Since I began keeping detailed records in July, only six northbound trains I've taken were more than 15 minutes late, and only one was more than 20 minutes behind schedule (last week, some idiot's truck broke down on the tracks in Hialeah, and by the time it was hauled off, my train was an hour late). The morning southbound, since I pick it up nearly at its start, is almost never late at all.

Tri-Rail, surprisingly, turns out to be popular and pretty reliable. Of course, it's also government-run, so it has its ration of suckitude:

* It's stupid that conductors can't sell tickets. I've seen people rushing to buy tickets from the antiquated machines at stations (they're hand-me-downs from a New Jersey rail line and accept only credit cards about half the time), and I've seen the panic in their eyes as the train closes up and pulls away, leaving them to a long wait because they can't pay their money onboard.

* Trains come every 20 minutes during busy periods but only once an hour at other times, which is far too long.

* Space for bicycles and luggage is inadequate. As more people discover the convenience of taking the train to Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports, the more suitcases are piling up by the doors.

* As the Sun-Sentinel pointed out not long ago (and with stunning graphics!), it can be a hassle when CSX dispatchers in Jacksonville force Tri-Rail trains to switch tracks. You may find yourself dashing up three flights of stairs and then down again to catch a northbound train on a southbound line. After this happened to me just once, however, I learned to make a quick survey of things when I arrive at a station and, if I'm not sure which track my train is arriving on, ask an employee. I haven't been caught out since. And before long, Tri-Rail will take over dispatching from CSX and this won't be as much of a problem.

Yes, there are headaches. The trains belch exhaust, the cars can be dirty, and, as with any kind of public transportation, sometimes your fellow human being could use a good hot shower.

But you rarely hear any complaints from the average Tri-Rail rider. We're a hardy bunch. And anything beats driving on I-95.

Each morning, I show up at the West Palm Beach station about five minutes before the 7:53 southbound train rolls to a stop. In Tri-Rail's arcane parlance, it's actually known as the P611 train, which is less than helpful but something you soon learn to ignore. I don't know what a single trip costs. I buy a monthly ticket for $80, which would cost me only $60 if I weren't so lazy and got New Times signed up on an employer discount program. With about 20 round trips in a month, that works out to $4 per day. It easily beats driving the daily 84 miles just in gas money.

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