Sunday, December 22, 2013

Service Change: South Florida, Part 1 - The Delray Beach Roundabout Trolley, The Tri-Rail, and the FL1 Shuttle

(This turned out to be published earlier than expected)
I really wanted to take some public transportation in Florida - as soon as we got there I began doing research on my mother's iPad. My ultimate goal was to convince her to ride the Tri-Rail, the suburban rail system in south Florida. It runs from West Palm Beach in the north, all the way down to Miami via Fort Lauderdale. There's a stop for Delray Beach, where we were staying, but it's a bit out of the way. Taking the Tri-Rail was out of the question unless there was a way to get to the station.


And that's where the Roundabout Trolley comes in. It's a free (made sure to advertise that to my mother) shuttle between the Marriott, located by the beach, to the Tri-Rail station (although it's supposedly divided into two routes, with Route 2 only going halfway from the Marriott, we only saw one Route 2 bus on our trip). It runs every half hour, with Route 2 supposedly running every 20 minutes. The trolley runs down Atlantic Ave, the main drag of Delray Beach, and then makes a turn at South Congress Ave to the Tri-Rail. We were staying at the other Marriott in Delray, located two blocks from the one on the beach. The trolley has a stop here, but I wanted to experience the whole route. It says on the website that you can flag it between stops, so I figured we could just flag one down if it came early while we were walking to the first one.

The trolley going down Atlantic Ave.
As we were getting ready to go (on a Sunday), I had a frightening thought - it doesn't start running until noon on Sundays. We asked the front desk to confirm this - one of the receptionists said it doesn't, the other said it does. We figured we'd walk to the stop to see if it came, and we'd wait until noon if it didn't. "There's a trolley!" my mother shouted. "Where?" I replied. She said it was turning off of Atlantic Ave. Having seen them turn around by doing this, I got excited and figured it was coming back. We waited on the street corner for a few minutes, but nothing came. I got upset, figuring it wasn't in service, when a trolley came out of the Marriott and headed back towards Atlantic Ave. I got into full flag-down mode, waving my arms like a loon and jumping up and down. The driver pointed ahead, signalling that he would stop a little further. I ran after it as it turned onto Atlantic Ave, the doors opened, and we were in.

The empty interior of the trolley.
The trolley was very old-fashioned inside. There were charming (but uncomfortable) wooden benches to sit on, "stop request" wires connected to a bell, and a somewhat out-of-place wheelchair lift in the back. We started driving and we were soon over the Atlantic Ave drawbridge with a nice view. This is essentially downtown Delray Beach on the other side of the drawbridge, with shops and restaurants lining both sides of Atlantic Ave. Soon, the bus goes over a single railroad track (used for freight). After passing the "famous" 100 foot Christmas tree (which has some cute dioramas inside, including a small model rail track - although it looked pretty lame after Miniatur Wunderland) and the Cornell Museum (which features different exhibits every few months - they're about Elvis and the '60s and '70s until February), we enter the rougher part of town (although there's some cool public art approaching I-95).

The trolley on the drawbridge.
We turn on South Congress Ave after crossing over the Tri-Rail tracks, and then we parallel them down to the station. After passing through some pointless stops, we pull into the station busway and all six of us get off (with us being the only tourists, surprisingly enough). Despite being a bit ticked off about the trolley actually starting much earlier than noon, I was happy that we made good time - a check of the Tri-Rail schedule we got at the hotel said that we had a half hour until the train got there. Soon, the trolley left the station with no one on it.

Pretty nice shelter.
I was pretty happy with the trolley overall. Again, I didn't like how they say it starts at noon when it actually doesn't, and Route 2 seems to be all but nonexistent. I'm a sucker for free service, though, and I think the trolley's a convenient way of getting around downtown Delray. In part 2 of this Service Change, I'll talk about the ride back - it wasn't pretty.

"Route 2" - ha!
This is the busway used by local buses, Palm Tran.
The Tri-Rail station (also served by Amtrak trains) was much better than most of our Commuter Rail stations, although it lacked character - it just felt really generic. We went into the station and entered the small ticket machine room. One of the two machines was out of order, so there was a small line. Now let me explain how the fares work, because it's easy to pay more than you have to. On weekdays, the Tri-Rail uses a zone fare system, which would make it about $8.50 or so per person from Delray to Fort Lauderdale. On weekends, however, you can get an all-day pass for just five bucks! However, this isn't apparent when using the ticket machines, and some people may just use the generic ticket option without knowing about the weekend deal. The Tri-Rail does seem to use an honor system (no one checked our tickets at all), but do pay your fare.

This is at Fort Lauderdale, but all the ticket machines look the same. They actually use the same dollar bill slots as our CharlieCard machines!

Two views of the station.
Soon, lights appeared in the distance. The train seemed to be 10 minutes early, although we actually had an outdated schedule! Luckily the change wasn't too big. We got on, and found the train to be surprisingly crowded. Turns out there was a football game that day between the Miami Dolphins and the Patriots (woo!) in Fort Lauderdale, and many people decided to take the train. The train cars had the amazing combination of being double-decker and having forward facing seats!

The train approaching the station.
It got more crowded as we went on.
We originally sat on the left side of the train (on the top deck, of course), but then I remembered that the train follows I-95 on the left for most of the journey. This turned out not to be entirely true, but we moved to the right side of the train even if it meant sitting backwards. An announcer said the name of the next stop (no automatic announcements, but the speakers were clear), and we started to leave. The train ended up going pretty fast, but remained almost silent. The views leaving Delray run the gamut of bad stores, office buildings, gated communities, and the occasional shopping mall or industrial wasteland. There's one particular section where the train goes through a deserted area with just low bushes, which was unexpected.

Nice view.
We soon reached the first stop, Boca Raton. It had the exact same design as Delray Beach, except it was blue instead of red. And in fact, most Tri-Rail stations have the exact same design. After Boca, there were a lot more gated communities (including a trailer park!) and industrial wastelands than before. Occasionally, a massive hotel would pop up in the middle of nowhere, and I always wondered if anyone stayed there. There were some level crossings, often across unnecessarily wide roads. There were a few points where the train crossed over small creeks, which were always pretty cool. After a few stops, my mother had to use the bathroom. I gave her the camera and told her to take a picture. She came back with a disgusting description and this:

I didn't even include the picture of the object in the corner of the bathroom - I'll leave you at that.
While she was in the bathroom, we came to Cypress Creek station, which is where things got a bit rowdy. People had steadily been coming into the train, but Cypress Creek was strangely very crowded. I was alone, as my mother was still in the bathroom and our across-the-table seatmate had left the train. Two women in sports jerseys sat in the seats across from me, while a large guy (also in a jersey) asked if the seat next to me was taken. I figure it should've been obvious, as my mother had left her purse there, but I said "Yeah, my mom's sitting there." This resulted in an "Ooooh" from many of the people sitting near me.

One of the many intelligent civilians riding was totally shirtless. One of the women across from me said "No shirt, no service!" to him as a joke. She then proceeded to throw a beer can at some guy behind her, clearly breaking the "no alcoholic beverages" rule. After my mom got back, she asked the people across from us what station they got on at. Seemingly unable to comprehend the question, they both said they didn't know. One had the bright idea of looking at her ticket and said, "Oh, Cypress Creek, I guess." Brilliant.

We soon arrived at Fort Lauderdale Station, and got off the train. This station actually looked exactly the same as Delray, even the same color. Noticing our train leaving, I told my mother, "Be right back!" and ran up the stairs to the pedestrian walkway. I wanted to get a picture of the train leaving from above. The picture was made even better with another train approaching the station on the other side.

I love this!
The train on the other side leaving the station, this time from the platform.
We wanted to take the 9, 22, or 81 Fort Lauderdale bus routes (called Broward County Transit), all of which serve the Tri-Rail station and go to the downtown bus terminal. As we left the station and went into the busway, however, there was a little shuttle bus waiting. My mother asked if it were going to the bus terminal, and the driver said "yes." We got on the shuttle, although I made my mother promise we'd take a BCT bus back. Turned out the shuttle was free, and although I'm "a sucker for free service," I wanted to see what the regular buses in Fort Lauderdale were like.

Not the most official-looking bus.
Not the luckiest bus number...
The bus felt a bit like the Kendall/MIT shuttle (I forgot to check for reclining seats, though!), both in terms of design, and the low ridership. One thing that was different, however, was the smell - it was absolutely disgusting in that bus. We drove out of the Tri-Rail station and turned onto West Broward Boulevard (say that five times fast!) - it's the same route that the regular BCT buses take. We crossed over I-95, and this seemed like a fairly rough part of town, without the public art. We crossed over a small river with a lot of boats with the skyline getting ever closer. I was actually surprised to see all the buildings; for some reason, I was expecting Fort Lauderdale to be more like Delray. And these looked like legitimate office buildings, too, not just high-rise condos.

It still wasn't a very nice neighborhood as the bus pulled over outside of the terminal (it didn't go in), but the buildings were much closer now. And the bus terminal seemed pretty nice, again a lot bigger than I expected. It was, of course, an absolute pain to navigate, but there was a relatively helpful map at the front of the station. Not something you can consult when walking around it, though. It was basically split up into four sections, with a big crosswalk running through the middle. Something I really liked was that they had Walk/Don't Walk signs. I think it's pretty obvious when a bus is crossing over, but it was still a nice touch. Here are the pictures I took here, and this post will be continued...in part 2.

I love that walk sign!
The bus terminal, with some pigeons and the 31 bus (I didn't take it, but it just got in the picture).
These weird, somewhat creepy signs are dotted around the terminal.
The exit, with the supposedly disgusting bathrooms to the right (according to my mother, they were full of anti-Obama graffiti art).
The very complicated system map. You can see the map of the terminal in the bottom left, as well.

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