By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org
The owners of Brightline, the nation’s only privately funded and operated train, have been on notice for years that they weren’t doing enough to prevent fatalities on their tracks.
Now, in just its third year of operation, the death toll has reached at least 40, including two deaths that occurred during testing before the train became operational, according to the Alliance for Safe Trains, a South Florida watchdog group.
Two of the latest to die were Derek Chandras, 31, and, according to the Palm Beach Post, Jose Roibal, 55, who was hit and killed on Dec. 20 as he attempted to cross from west to east over the Florida East Coast Railway track at Nottingham Boulevard. A Brightline train struck Chandras about 3 p.m. on Jan. 1 when he walked onto the tracks in the 300 block of South Dixie Highway in Pompano Beach. City rescue personnel pronounced him dead at the scene, said Broward Sheriff’s spokeswoman Robyn Hankerson. She added that homicide detectives are investigating.
Brightline, soon to be known as Virgin Trains USA, has 178 rail crossings and 66.5 miles of track between Miami and West Palm Beach. It also has the highest per-mile death rate of the nation’s 821 railroads, according to the Associated Press. The majority of those killed were pedestrian trespassers attempting to cross the tracks. Some were committing suicide.
In April 2014 – three years before Brightline began to roll – Florida Bulldog reported that Brightline’s then-owners had rejected recommendations by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to beef up safety features at planned rail crossings in northern Palm Beach County, where the train was proposed to run in speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. Also rejected were additional safety measures, including new gates and signs at pedestrian crossings throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Recommendations included sealed corridors at 31 crossings in South Florida, which block cars and people from entering the tracks. The use of completely fenced bridges and underpasses were also recommended. The same treatment was urged for Phase 2 from North Palm Beach to Orlando.
Lack of ‘reasonable care’
The report’s author, engineer Frank A. Frey, said, “The company was not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed passenger rail service.” He added that the company felt such measures would be cost prohibitive.
Since that time, Brightline agreed to include the engineer’s recommendations into Phase 2 of the project that runs from West Palm Beach to Orlando.
For Phase 1, the company said it is up to date on crossing safety along its Miami-to-West Palm Beach segment. “Upgraded enhancements have been completed and all crossings have action warning devices including gates and flashing lights as well as additional safety and engineering improvements,” said Brightline spokesman Michael Hicks.
“Brightline, the FRA, the Florida Department of Transportation [FDOT] and local roadway authorities participated in a joint review of every crossing on the corridor. Brightline incorporated the recommendations of the diagnostic team and its designs.”
Trains across the South Florida leg will operate at 79 miles per hour or less, and Brightline says it complies with or exceeds regulations designed for that speed.
“At the majority of crossings where sidewalks exist, the crossing gate that stops vehicles extends over the sidewalk,” Hicks said.
The company also is testing drones that have two-way speakers to warn trespassers off the tracks as well as the use of infrared fencing along the tracks that would signal when someone trespasses, company president Patrick Goddard announced at a Dec. 4 press conference.
To help offset the costs, Brightline received up to a $2.37-million grant from the FRA this year for the South Florida East Coast Rail Corridor Intrusion Protection Project. The funding will include supplemental safety features to 48 grade crossings from West Palm Beach to Miami.
This project includes installing delineators, tall but flexible posts or cones that channel traffic, at 11 crossings, exit gates at nine crossings and information signs to 28 crossings. The proposed improvements were aimed at reducing the frequency of grade-crossing violations by keeping motorists and pedestrians from trespassing onto the tracks when trains approach.
“Trespassing is an epidemic along this corridor,’’ Frey said in 2014. “Rather than encourage it, it is recommended per my field notes at particular locations to equip sidewalk approaches with a visual and [separate] gated barriers to provide safe passage of pedestrians through a very active rail line and prevents those from walking into an open railway corridor.”
Brightline said it is eager to help where safety is concerned. “Anything that can be done we are supportive of doing. It is tragic because all of this is preventable,” Brightline’s Hicks said.
“Is the 45 seconds it takes a train to pass a railroad crossing worth your life?” he added.
The Alliance for Safe Trains, a South Florida-based watchdog organization that has been calling for more safety features since the train’s inception, insists Brightline can do more to keep people off the tracks. The nonprofit, which has been tracking the Brightline fatalities, is calling for fences along much of the South Florida route, especially in communities that have a history of pedestrians illegally crossing tracks.
“Baltimore and Washington, D.C. have pedestrian bridges over and under railroad tracks as well as fencing alongside the tracks,” said Susan Mehiel, Alliance spokeswoman. She said her agency is skeptical of Brightline’s claim that 75 percent of the fatalities are from people who wish to commit suicide or were highly intoxicated.
“The Alliance conducted a study of each of the Brightline accident reports and only 12 percent of the fatalities can be definitively determined to be suicides while another 40 percent are definitely not,” she said.
Brightline is not the only railroad facing growing numbers of tragedies. In 2018, Florida ranked the third highest for the 33 deaths of people who trespassed on train tracks. In that same year, the state ranked sixth for rail crossing fatalities with 12 deaths and 37 injuries.
Measures are underway in the Florida Legislature to strengthen railroad regulations. According to Florida statutes, FDOT is directed to coordinate with railroads in developing and implementing the statewide rail program to ensure the proper maintenance, safety, revitalization and expansion of the rail system.
But no provisions to existing regulations were made for high and higher speed trains. The legislation remedies that by directing FDOT to oversee those faster trains and includes regulations that require railroad companies to construct and maintain fences under certain conditions. The proposed legislation also lays out regulations for transporting hazardous materials such as liquefied natural gas.
A Florida bill
The bill amending and clarifying the existing rail safety laws awaits state legislators when their session begins on Jan. 14. Click here to read the bill.
In November, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked FDOT to look into the deaths by rail. One month later and as a reply to the governor, FDOT announced a directive calling for rail safety measures and launched a statewide education initiative to curb additional fatalities on or near rail crossings and state roads and state-owned land crossings, according to a press release.
The project includes an engineering countermeasure called “dynamic envelopes” at every FDOT roadway and state-owned railroad crossing across the state. It mandates repainting and improving markings on roadways and installing signs adjacent to rail crossings to signal where motorists should stop when a train is coming.
In a separate initiative, Brightline and Tri-Rail would partner with the nonprofit 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast to combat suicide by rail if the Legislature approves an appropriations request of $500,000 for the project. Brightline would provide a local match for the initiative.
211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast operates the 211 Helpline, with free crisis intervention, suicide prevention information, assessment and referral to community services, that operates 24 hours a day. The initiative includes issuing public service announcements, digital advertising, geo-fencing and signage along the South Florida corridor to provide awareness of suicide by rail.
Another part of the project includes the “Buzz Box” campaign where a mobile barbershop will visit homeless shelters, community events and schools providing free haircuts in exchange for signing a rail safety pledge. Brightline and the 211 Helpline plan monthly awareness raising activities and will promote mental health education.
Will These Efforts Make a Difference?
Nationwide, death by train is a growing problem, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
In some areas of the country railroads have planted thick vegetation alongside the tracks to discourage pedestrians from taking shortcuts and trespassing. Another measure is installing closed circuit cameras along the tracks. Railroad companies also are training their employees to recognize warning signs of suicide and how to intervene.
In one positive example, a railroad employee inside a commuter station in suburban Chicago looked out a window in 2016 and saw a man standing on the tracks, according to Chicago Transportation Journal. The worker immediately walked out to the tracks as a loudspeaker announced a train was arriving. He asked the man why he was on the tracks. The man said he wanted to die. The employee grabbed the man and pulled him off the tracks just as the train was approaching.
The FRA released a report in November that it hopes will substantially reduce or eliminate suicide by train, pedestrian trespassing and vehicle/train accidents. It has devised a new approach to preventing fatalities. In the past, the agency looked at individual cases and recommended mitigation solutions incident by incident, according to the report.
The agency, between 2018 and 2019, looked at the top 10 counties in the country with the highest rate of trespassing fatalities and rail crossing accidents. West Palm Beach County was one of the areas involved in the study. It gathered data and analyzed the findings. FRA representatives also made community visits to develop a risk model to identify current and future rail trespassers.
The administration will provide funding to local officials who wish to target trespasser mitigation strategies. And it will continue working with communities, local governments, law- enforcement agencies, railroads and other parties to combat trespassing.
In a news release about the project, FRA stressed that working with outside organizations is vital. It plans to continue meeting with groups including:
- Operation Lifesaver, Inc. to raise awareness of train safety in hot spot communities;
- Global Rail Alliance for Suicide Prevention to share strategies to deter suicides by rail;
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to reduce the number of suicides;
- International Association of Chiefs of Police to share ideas with law enforcement;
- National Organization of Youth Safety to find ways to reach younger populations more effectively, and;
- Community groups and leaders who have an in-depth knowledge of their local problem areas.
Rail safety experts agree that “three E’s” can decrease deaths along the tracks. The E’s include engineering, such as improved crossing-gate technology, education by advocacy groups like Operation Lifesaver and mental health agencies as well as tougher enforcement by local police to deter motorists and pedestrians from trying to beat trains by ignoring signals.