By Jane Smith
Pressure is mounting on the express passenger railroad Brightline to improve its safety efforts.
The rail service started Jan. 12 with free rides between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale for politicians and other civic leaders.
Later that day, a northbound train hit a woman crossing the tracks in Boynton Beach. She died, but her male companion made it safely across.
On Jan. 17, a bicyclist was fatally struck as he rode around the down gates at Ocean Avenue in Boynton Beach.
Two days later, after Brightline’s president held a news conference about new safety initiatives and public education programs, a woman was struck in Fort Lauderdale by a Brightline train. She was attempting to cross the tracks when the gates were down. She is expected to survive.
“It’s amateur hour,” Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said about Brightline’s response to the fatalities. “Their solution to the fatalities is to have electronic signs that say ‘more and faster trains’ and ‘stay off train tracks.’ ”
Glickstein made those comments in late January at a roundtable of mayors assembled by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel. She planned to ask Federal Railroad Administration officials to meet with the group in early February and answer technical questions about how the crossing arms work, how that information is sent to the train conductor and similar queries.
Then, the mayors could broadcast messages to their residents.
Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant proposed having quiet zones during the nighttime hours only and allowing the trains to blow their horns during daylight hours.
The quiet zones will be installed by the end of March, according to Brightline’s spokeswoman. The zones include dual gates on the travel lanes and a concrete median between the travel lanes.
The day before Frankel’s roundtable, Delray Beach had a City Commission meeting.
“The next commission,” Glickstein told his fellow commissioners, “will have to decide whether they want the quiet zones or public safety.” His term ends in March.
After the two fatalities, the train line hired safety ambassadors to patrol high-traffic intersections along the FEC line, according to its spokeswoman.
In addition, Florida’s two U.S. senators have asked the federal Department of Transportation to investigate the fatalities and report back.
Last year, when Brightline was testing the train system, two pedestrian trespassers were killed. One was deemed a suicide.
Delray Beach resident Patrick Halliday, who pushed for the pedestrian barrier between Atlantic Avenue and Northeast First Street, called for Brightline to install Euro-style crossing gates at each intersection. The crossing arms meet in the middle and have fencing underneath.
Halliday is vice chairman of Human Powered Delray, a nonprofit group that promotes pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
The city just paid about $30,644 to build a fence along both sides of the FEC tracks to prevent people from taking a well-used shortcut between Atlantic and Northeast First. In August 2016, a woman taking the shortcut was killed by a southbound FEC freight train.
Formerly called All Aboard Florida, Brightline trains travel nearly twice as fast as freight trains, at speeds up to 79 mph in southern Palm Beach County. Brightline plans three stops in South Florida: West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
At present, Brightline is running 11 trains weekdays between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, with introductory fares as low as $10 one way. Ten trains operate on weekends. Its goBrightline.com website says: “Miami will open soon.”
Brightline’s plans include building tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, where the train speed will reach 110 mph. The final leg, on new track between Cocoa and Orlando, will allow trains to travel up to 125 mph.
Brightline is not saying when that service might start or what it will cost.
In the state Legislature now in session, two lawmakers have submitted bills to require train lines that operate at speeds over 80 mph to pay to install fencing along both sides of the track, install crossing arms and pay to maintain what was installed.
Brightline officials oppose more regulations as unnecessary, the spokeswoman said. “Brightline has been running PSAs [public service announcements] on local radio and broadcast stations since early last year reminding the public that when you see tracks, think train! And to stay off train tracks,” she said.
The train, which does not stop in Delray Beach, disrupts downtown commerce, Glickstein said.
“The crossing arms go down for one train and then stay down when a train travels into the downtown from the opposite direction,” he said.
“Brightline officials are very reactive. They only do something when they are shamed into acting.”