County has most deaths
By Jane Smith
The epidemic of people illegally walking across railroad tracks between crossings was driven home last month when a woman was struck and killed by a freight train in downtown Delray Beach as her husband frantically tried to pull her to safety.
The woman’s death raised the issue of pedestrian safety between FEC crossings that course through the urban hearts of coastal communities from Boca Raton to Jupiter.
In downtown Delray Beach and other cities, people often illegally cut across the tracks to get to stores, restaurants, schools and jobs on the other side. A federal study called the trespassing “epidemic” along the FEC corridor, where five people in Palm Beach County were struck and killed in 2015.
“No Trespassing” signs are posted. People are cited for trespassing.
But is that enough?
Next summer’s expected start of the $2.5 billion Brightline (previously All Aboard Florida) passenger rail service down the FEC tracks with trains running at speeds close to 80 miles per hour have ratcheted up the concerns.
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein worries that the new quiet zones being installed at the 11 FEC road crossings in the city will make it even more hazardous for people who walk across the tracks between crossings.
Train engineers now are required to blow their horns at vehicle crossings as a potential warning to people trying to scamper across the tracks. Once dual arm crossing guards are installed in each travel lane as part of a quiet zone, federal rail officials allow trains not to blow their horns. In an emergency, the engineer can still sound the train horn when vehicles or people are seen on the tracks. “Quiet zones make the remaining tracks that much more dangerous,” Glickstein said. “Coupled with Brightline’s 32 trains a day traveling at much higher speeds than freight trains, it’s harder for people to judge how fast trains are traveling.”
He took his safety concerns to the Aug. 9 meeting that U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel held with mayors in her district. Glickstein asked for her assistance with the Federal Railroad Administration, which has jurisdiction over all railroad corridors. He also asked for her help with federal transportation grants for money to build pedestrian safety barriers.
“You are bisecting the heart and soul of this city,” the mayor has said.
Glickstein set up a meeting on Sept. 7 with Nick Uhren, head of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization; Ali Soule, Brightline spokeswoman; Michael Lefevre, Brightline operations planning manager; and Robert Ledoux, a vice president of FEC Railway.
Joining the mayor will be City Manager Don Cooper, acting City Attorney Janice Rustin and several employees from the city’s Environmental Services Department.
They will discuss pedestrian safety between the crossings, Glickstein said. Brightline trains will travel at speeds up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach, with the only county stop being West Palm Beach, Soule said.
In the second phase that will end in Cocoa Beach, the trains will reach speeds of 110 mph. The final phase will end in Orlando with trains traveling at 125 mph, she said.
Depending how that meeting goes, the MPO board may push for pedestrian barriers countywide along the FEC tracks at its Sept. 15 meeting, Uhren said.
Death prompts new efforts
Safety advocate Patrick Halliday also is concerned about the pedestrian fatalities. As vice chairman of Human Powered Delray, he promotes biking and walking safety.
“I wanted to make an issue out of it,” he said of the Boca Raton woman who was struck and killed in early August while crossing the Delray tracks to take a shortcut to a restaurant on the west side.
The woman and her husband had dined at Johnnie Brown’s and left about 9:30 p.m. and headed to Bru’s Room across the tracks.
She fell about 50 feet north of Atlantic Avenue and was hit by a southbound freight train. Her husband died of natural causes the next morning, leaving behind a 17-year-old daughter.
“Imagine watching your wife die before your eyes,” Halliday said. “My heart is feeling pain for the daughter.”
He reached out last month to FEC’s Ledoux, who agreed to meet with Delray Beach officials.
Halliday would like to see landscaped fencing along the tracks a block north and south of Atlantic Avenue to prevent people from walking across the tracks to save a few minutes.
By meeting with Delray Beach officials, FEC and Brightline representatives are showing willingness to listen to their concerns, Halliday said.
In a 2007 report, Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage wrote, “Some courts have taken the view that railroads have a duty to ‘anticipate future trespass’ at locations where trespass occurs regularly, and to react to a ‘well-worn path’ crossing the railroad.”
In the report, Trespassing on the Railroad, he wrote that the railroad might be expected to put up “fencing to make people use nearby formal crossings.”
On the CSX tracks, the other major rail line that traverses the county, the Florida Department of Transportation erected chain link fencing along most of the corridor to prevent pedestrians from taking shortcuts across the tracks.
FDOT bought the CSX tracks when the Tri-Rail commuter service started in 1988. The tracks also serve freight trains and the Amtrak national passenger service.
Certain areas of the fencing were vandalized by people who want to walk across the tracks to save time. The department will buy fencing that can’t be cut, said Bonnie Arnold, spokeswoman for the South Florida Regional Transportation Agency, which oversees regional transportation.
Whatever the outcome, Glickstein said, “We know that people will cross the tracks between crossings at great peril.”
— Research provided by Michelle Quigley.