Tension mounts over Brightline train horns

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline train service on Thursday faced mounting opposition from West Palm Beach residents who want the passenger fleet stopped until safety upgrades to create a quiet zone to silence train horns are completed.

Hours after Brightline announced its Saturday start date, the board of directors of the CityPlace South Tower condominium urged city officials to “intercede with Brightline” to delay its launch until federal applications have been filed to implement a quiet zone along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

The request came as Brightline dealt with technical glitches on its website that halted ticket sales for its inaugural weekend. On Thursday afternoon, the website showed that all 10 trains departing Saturday from Brightline’s West Palm Beach station were sold out.

Brightline: Why the delay on quiet zones along its route?

“Due to overwhelming excitement, we’re experiencing delays and booking glitches,” a statement on the website said. “We have temporarily suspended booking rides where train times are displaying as “sold out” while we work through the kinks.”

Brightline will start introductory service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. Round-trip ticket prices start at $20. The company will offer 10 daily roundtrip trains on weekdays and nine daily roundtrip trains on the weekends.

MORE: Brightline to start service Saturday; roundtrip fares starting at $20

The inaugural trips are expected to draw train enthusiasts from across the state, many of whom want to be among the first to see passenger trains return to HenryFlagler’s historic rail corridor. Brightline’s launch marks the first time passenger trains have run on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks since 1968, when passenger service was discontinued following a union strike.

Austin Strenecky, 20, said he plans to drive 2 1/2 hours from his home in Melbourne to ride the first train out of Brightline’s West Palm Beach station on Saturday. Despite the techinical problems, Strenecky said he was able to buy a seat on the 8 a.m. train through the company’s website.

“I want to show my support why passenger rail is important,” said Strenecky, who serves on the board of directors for the Florida East Coast Railway Society. “I think that the passenger rail is something that we need to focus on. If we can make Brightline succeed, it can expand and become something that people can use all over the country.”

But as supporters clamored for a seat on Brightline’s trains, some West Palm Beach residents vowed to boycott the service until the quiet zone work is completed.

After meeting with Brightline officials Thursday to discuss the quiet-zone delay, West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said the company has agreed to move up its timeline for the work. Construction on the safety improvements needed to implement the zone between 15th Street in West Palm Beach south to the county line will now be completed by March 26, Muoio said.

Once that work is complete, each municipality is required to file a quiet zone application with the Federal Railroad Administration. There is a 21-day waiting period before the zone can go into effect.

Muoio said Brightline has agreed to work from north to south, a move that could allow West Palm Beach to establish a quiet zone before other cities to the south.

Despite the new timeline, Muoio said she remains “very disappointed” that the zone won’t be in place when trains start running on Saturday. She said she planned to skip a private event Brightline is holding for the media on Friday.

“I can’t stop them from starting service,” Muoio said. “I think they need to know that I and the community feel like they haven’t lived up to their bargain.”

As Brightline worked to build its station and add a second set of track to the FEC line, the company repeatedly said that the quiet zone would be in place at the time of its service launch.

“We understand the needs of local residents, which is why we are committed to constructing the quiet-zone improvements as safely and as quickly as possible,”a Brightline spokesperson said in a statement released Thursday.

The delay means property owners along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks between 15th Street in West Palm Beach and the county line in Boca Raton will continue to hear horn blasts from both freight traffic and the new Brightline trains once the private venture begins its passenger rail.

To begin service, Brightline invested more than $60 million to complete a series of safety upgrades along the FEC corridor from Miami to West Palm Beach, including the installation of a signal system that communicates with approaching trains, triggers gate openings and closings, and regulates train-crossing times. That work has been completed.

In addition to those features, the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency pledged roughly $7 million for a number of other safety improvements to establish the quiet zone. Those upgrades include medians and additional railroad gates to block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.

That work has not been completed. It is being managed by Brightline.

In 2014, the county’s transportation planners inked a deal with Brightline that allowed the company’s construction crews to complete the additional safety upgrades. At the time, officials said the plan would save the agency money because Brightline’s team was already working along the corridor. Mobilizing another construction crew would add at least $1 million to the price tag, officials said.

Mary Mertz, the chairwoman of CityPlace South Tower’s neighborhood issues committee, said blasts from the company’s horns have become intolerable. The condo is just west of the FEC line.

“Our people in our building are ready to go and demonstrate,” Mertz said. “We are so supportive of Brightline. I would buy a season ticket. But the reality is they need to get the (quiet zone) improvements completed.”

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