Hot Tracks

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.

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.

The station is about two miles from where I live, which takes only a few minutes on my 9-year-old, steel-framed road bike. I'm a bit of a cycling freak, so packing a couple of panniers with work clothes and the morning paper next to an air pump, several tubes, and enough tools to make minor repairs is about as normal to me as brushing my teeth.

Same railcar, same door, same place every morning. A few straps of Velcro and my machine is secure for the trip. Since the train is making only its second stop after its origin in Mangonia Park, it's usually not too difficult to find a seat. (Just two stops later, it's another story. At the Boynton Beach station, the train is often full.) As the train pulls away, a few folks will be wrestling their bags into place for the trip down to the airport. The rest are a mix as varied as South Florida: Latino and African-American workers on their way to blue-collar and service jobs, Haitian women dressed in colorful dresses and speaking Creole, a few stiff office types of various hues tapping away at their laptops, the obligatory frightened retired white couple on their way to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, taking their first Tri-Rail trip and wondering what they've gotten themselves into.

And the life of the ride, a chatty group of RTA employees. While the rest of us bury our noses in the morning paper or dog-eared novels or simply stare into space the way you do when you want to avoid eye contact, the usual clatch of chummy Tri-Rail office workers laugh and gab to their destination, the railway headquarters at the Pompano Beach stop, which the P611 train conductor always announces with an exaggerated "Pom-PIN-NOOO Beach! Watch your step! Check your belongings! Pom-PIN-NOOOO!"

On the way, the "train to nowhere," as it's often been derisively called, takes riders through a South Florida landscape that doesn't make the travel brochures. The rail corridor cuts through industrial parks and warehouse farms. If you look out the west-facing windows, you get glimpses inside the back bay doors of machine shops and other manufacturing plants. It's an ugly if honest view of South Florida's harder industries, where no business would waste the money to put up a pretty façade to face a railway.

Equipment yards go by, parking lots, bridges, canals, lots piled up with gravel and sand and other building materials, and easements overgrown with vegetation, some hiding squalid tent camps.

A small state prison facility goes by just south of the Cypress Creek station. It's a work release facility, the Pompano Transit Center, home to a little more than a hundred men considered low-risk prisoners. Their exercise yard, ringed by high chainlink fencing, abuts the tracks. On mornings when it isn't raining, a couple of dozen men mill around on a volleyball court or sit on benches. Sometimes they wave.

The buildings and storage tanks and apartment buildings and office parks are punctuated by streets filled with lines of vehicles waiting at crossing gates as well as the occasional thwap as a passing train goes by in the opposite direction and the shock of air pressure smacks the windows. It always startles a few folks out of the drowsiness the rocking motion of the 70 mph train induces.

People keep to themselves. But the exceptions can be entertaining. There was the stoic woman and her disheveled son who embarked one morning in July, for example. She was toting a large suitcase and looked to be on her way to catch a flight, but her 30-ish son was carrying, apparently for luggage, a black trash bag that he put on the luggage rack only after pulling out a Bud Ice and cracking it open. Even though it was 8 a.m., this was clearly not his first beer of the day. Or even his fifth. While Mom tried to shush him, son loudly explained in accented English for the benefit of the rest of us that the woman (apparently his wife) who had dropped them off at the station he considered a whore, and a woman named Elia in El Salvador was his only true love. "Ellllia... she's the woman who should have had my children. She's the only woman I ever loved. Why can't I get back to El Salvador to Elia, instead of this shitty country where you can't even get a job," he moaned, with Mom tut-tutting all the way.

Still, he didn't seem nearly as screwed up as the woman who had mysteriously been dumped on a northbound train one afternoon after being released from a hospital. She was still wearing her hospital wristband (which showed that her name was Christine), and her belongings were in plastic bags. She woozed her way into consciousness every few seconds and muttered things half to herself and half to anyone who would listen about her recent heart surgery. She kept trying to pass around a coffee can with some belongings in it, and other passengers told me they couldn't believe a hospital would release her in that kind of shape. After she changed her story several times about what stop she was looking for, she settled on Deerfield Beach and we helped her off there, making sure she took with her a purse filled with prescription bottles that she seemed determined to leave behind. We couldn't see anyone waiting for her at the station when the train pulled away.

It's astounding to see the crap people struggle to pull onto the train every day. I didn't realize that they're making suitcases the size of small cars now until I saw people haul them onto Tri-Rail with my own eyes. Other things that get crammed into the luggage rack or hugged against knees include power tools, golf bags, shopping carts, and plenty of baby strollers. One woman put a huge birdcage on the luggage rack one day, with a couple of parrots inside. They stayed remarkably calm. Another guy regularly insists on bringing a moped that's nearly as big as a full-blown motorcycle and takes up a lot of space. Tri-Rail guards never seem to care, but I wonder why the guy doesn't just ride the thing instead of bringing it on a train.

It's the bicyclists I inspect the most. Out of habit, I guess. There was a Bosnian man I met when I noticed his chain was sagging because the back wheel on his junker wasn't adjusted correctly. I showed him how to put it right, and out of him spilled a quick story as his station approached. He was carrying several books in heavy plastic bags on his handlebars, including a $159 psychology textbook that was worth about 159 times as much as his crappy bike. The man, in his late 40s, was studying psychology and philosophy and other erudite subjects, and the bicycle was his dad's. And thanks for fixing it.

Wish I'd had longer to talk with him.

Over the weeks, cyclists become familiar as they maneuver their bikes around one another while some come on and others get off.

Kayla comes on at Lake Worth, toting a gleaming Specialized Sirrus, a hybrid commuter bike with the frame and gearworks of a road racer. She disembarks at Boca Raton to get to her job at FAU.

Then there's Jason and his old-school Schwinn cruiser, a cool rolling relic. He works on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale airport, parking planes.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Jim rode a junker, a Murray, which was enough to get him to the steel-wire factory where he's worked for 17 years. But someone stole the bike out of his pickup truck, and he replaced it with another cheap no-name two-wheeler that is a little lighter. In March, he's chucking everything and moving to Hawaii. He goes to work so early, I never see him on the southbound, but we often take the northbound home together to his exit in Lake Worth.

Mason has the coolest bike of all. A Surly frame, Mavic wheels, nice components, and straight handlebars. It's a custom commuter bike assembled by someone so obsessed with cycling, he has tattoos of chain rings on each of his knees. Mason is doing graduate work in Miami to be a social worker. He lives in Lake Worth and has a long train ride.

My morning Tri-Rail leg ends at the Broward Boulevard station, where I disembark and begin the best part of my day, flying downtown in the bike lane past cars stuck in traffic.

Suckers.

Thing is, the traffic is only going to get worse. Which is why, Scott Seeburger reminds me, Tri-Rail was built in the first place.

Seeburger works for the state department of transportation and is helping plan the next major rail project in South Florida, a parallel rail service on the FEC tracks that run through the downtowns of cities like Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Miami. He was also involved with Tri-Rail when it was being dreamed up, 20 years ago, and says he was the one who made the projections for it. Back then, he says, he predicted that in 20 years the train would be carrying 15,000 riders a day.

Twenty years later, Tri-Rail's Bonnie Arnold reports that the line is carrying about 13,000 a day, with ridership increasing 36 percent in the past year. It's a little short of what Seeburger predicted, but it's taken longer than he expected for improvements like double-tracking, which helped cut down on the legendarily late trains. Another thing that helped was a huge day of ridership in June when thousands took Tri-Rail to Miami for the Heat championship parade. Word is spreading, Seeburger says, and he thinks that his 15,000 prediction will soon come true.

Another statistic: Tri-Rail is mandated by law to cover 25 percent of its cost with revenue from tickets. That means the railroad, even when it's full, will never be self-sufficient and will always require government subsidies.

Critics don't like that, suggesting that Tri-Rail riders shouldn't get a handout. But that's because they rarely total up the huge price tag the public pays for subsidizing our driving habits. Think about what we all pay so that motorists can speed to the Qwik-E-Mart or the Waffle House: not just the obvious stuff like the cost to build and maintain roads and dig up resources to build automobiles or even the terrible costs of highway deaths. There are all of those other things that come with a car culture: the warping effects of highways on American cities, the invasive sprawl of the suburbs, the health dues that commuters pay for having to grab a meal on the run, the lack of exercise for vehicle-strapped Americans, the crap in the air we breathe, our reliance on foreign oil.

Those costs aren't even on the same scale of what little it costs to operate a railroad. Maybe it's no wonder that more people are pushing for another kind of train on the FEC line.

"The FEC has been drooled over for decades," Seeburger says. But the new line, which, if approved by a patchwork of jurisdictions, may be built in eight or nine years, wouldn't make the existing CSX line obsolete. Tri-Rail currently has stations spread about five miles apart, making it a good option for people on their way to work who need to go large distances relatively fast.

The FEC line Seeburger is helping to develop would place stops only a mile or two apart, in downtowns and near other attractions. It's the one tourists would be more likely to use or folks on their lunch hour. Commuters would find it too slow.

"They have to be complementary," he says. "And if they're not, there are a lot of things that go south on us... It doesn't make sense to have two commuter systems a mile apart from each other."

Plans also include connecting the two different lines, so the fast commuter on CSX could take a train that eventually slides over to the FEC and drops him off by a downtown office complex or college campus. Other ideas that are being developed are Miami and Fort Lauderdale streetcars that would connect with the FEC.

By the time that all gets built, people will be begging for it. At least, that is, if people keep coming to South Florida in the same waves.

If Tri-Rail hasn't shaken the soiled reputation it earned in its early days, it's probably because people still don't have enough motivation to get out of their cars. Traffic in Broward and Palm Beach counties just isn't bad enough. I-95, for example, is a breeze.

Take it from someone who grew up in Los Angeles. I know from traffic.

Before you gripe about the temporary slowdowns on your I-95 commute, you ought to spend a few hours on the Sepulveda Pass, where the 405 Freeway connects West Los Angeles with the San Fernando Valley and you can feel the prime of your life seeping away as you sit in traffic, creeping forward a few centimeters at a time, staring at a sea of red brake lights, incredulous that you've been stuck so long that the radio station is playing that song for the second time since you passed Sunset Boulevard and you still can't see the top of the pass. And it's midnight, and thank goodness it's not rush hour, when things would really be bad.

That, South Florida, is what you have to look forward to. And when it comes, unlike Los Angeles, you'll already have a commuter rail service in place that can actually get you places at 70 mph regardless of the time of day or the condition of the roads.

But for now, listen to Michael Mayo and stay in your car. I need a place on the train for my bike.

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