For the first time in nearly 50 years, passenger express trains are using Florida East Coast railroad tracks to zip through the heart of Palm Beach County’s coastal communities — in some cases cutting through bustling downtowns, busy nightlife spots and other areas popular with pedestrians and bicyclists.
The launch of Brightline’s commuter service last month marked the long-awaited return of passenger trains to the historic railroad, which runs parallel to U.S. Highway 1. Brightline’s supporters have heralded the private rail project to help limit vehicle traffic and make it easier to move around South Florida.
But with trains moving through downtowns faster, at speeds of up to 79 mph, and more frequently, up to 22 times a day, city leaders are now faced with difficult — and potentially costly — decisions on how to educate pedestrians and bicyclists on today’s train, and whether to make additional upgrades at crossings.
Before Brightline’s launch, only slow-moving freight trains used Henry Flagler’s historic rail corridor. Passenger service was discontinued in 1968. Brightline’s new locomotives move at speeds that are nearly twice as fast as a typical freight train — something officials worry residents just aren’t used to seeing.
In Boynton Beach, two people were killed last month when they tried to beat the train at crossings. The gates were down in both instances, police said. It is illegal to go around railroad guard gates or to stop a car on the train tracks.
Brightline has positioned safety ambassadors at some crossings, put out informational signs and placed large electronic signs at several busy rail crossings. They also partnered with Operation Lifesaver and developed a multi-lingual campaign and with the School District of Palm Beach County and sent a mailer to approximately 40,000 families who live along the FEC Railway.
“Rail safety is an important issue, and we’ve been educating the public for more than a year in anticipation of running passenger trains,” a Brightline spokeswoman said. “With two active rail corridors in South Florida, partnerships with stakeholders and cities are critical to bringing continued awareness on how to be safe around the tracks. Brightline teammates will continue to be in the community sharing this message, and we implore people to stay off the tracks.”
Meanwhile, cities are tailoring their own education and safety measures. After all, the tracks came first.
“I understand the railroad’s not going away,” Boynton Beach Commissioner Joe Casello said. “We have to do our utmost to make these crossings as safe as possible.”
From north to south on the rail, here’s a look at what each city has done and is planning:
West Palm Beach: New warning signs posted
Palm Beach County was little more than mosquitoes and palm trees before Henry Flagler brought his railroad here in 1894. Cities slowly began to rise as Flagler built new stations along his rail corridor.
Today, West Palm Beach has about 108,000 residents and a growing downtown along with Brightline’s only Palm Beach County station.
This past week, officials announced that yellow signs will be painted onto sidewalks along the railroad tracks.
The low-cost warning signs — which read “See Track? Think Train” — will serve as a wake-up call to pedestrians, city officials say.
“It’s a public service for us,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said. The city already has started to stencil the signs onto Brightline crossings and the Tri-Rail tracks that parallel them a few blocks to the west.
Lantana: Walgreens, Kmart nearby walking spots
The FEC railway lines a light commercial area in Lantana with residents often crossing tracks to work, home or to a store such as Walgreens or Kmart for household essentials, Mayor David Stewart said.
And many do so while walking or riding bikes.
Stewart said pedestrians and bicyclists need to understand the train is moving at a speed much faster than they are used to and not to take chances.
“It’s going to have to be an education process for them to understand that in the past they may have felt when they looked and saw the train coming that they had a minute to two minutes to get across because the freight train is running in the 30-mph range,” he said. “But with the new Brightline train doubling that speed, and there is no room for error when the gates go down, you just can not even consider crossing,” he said.
“It’s going to be an education process for the pedestrians and the people who have abused the crossings in the past.”
If necessary, the town plans to use signs to inform residents of faster speeds.
Lake Worth: Are signs too small?
The Guatemalan-Maya Center served at least 800 families in January — many who live on or near the FEC tracks and walk to the center because they don’t have drivers licenses.
And many don’t speak English.
Tim Gamwell, the center’s assistant executive director, hasn’t seen any Brightline signs — placed on the ground near the tracks in areas throughout the county — in Spanish or Creole and added that the signs are too small.
“It’s not something that looked like a deterrent to me,” he said. “It’s a yard sign. It looks like someone’s campaigning for office.”
The center plans to run a television commercial about the train — an idea that came from a young member of one of the center’s programs. And a volunteer plans to talk about the train, and its speed, at a Feb. 10 community meeting.
“People are just not used to the speed,” Gamwell said.
Delray Beach: Does Atlantic Ave. need quad gates?
Mark Denkler — who owns two businesses on East Atlantic Avenue, Vince Canning Shoes and Tootsies Shoes — shot a video Wednesday of a woman winding through the train gates at Atlantic Avenue to cross the tracks.
“It was a freight train,” Denkler said. “She was lucky. But it’s just amazing to me how people don’t wait when there are high-speed trains.”
The busy thoroughfare of Atlantic Avenue is sliced in half by Florida East Coast Railway tracks that cut through a strip of restaurants, bars and businesses. They’ve been there since the late 1890s, before Atlantic Avenue experienced its economic boom.
The city is negotiating with FEC and Brightline for added safety features and commissioners are considering delaying quiet zones, so blaring horns will continue to act as a warning to pedestrians.
Denkler, who lives just blocks from the tracks, says he hears the horns day and night.
“It’d be nice not to have that annoyance, but if the result is death, we don’t want anyone dying,” he said.
Some downtown patrons say the gates at Atlantic Avenue shouldn’t have gaps, a style of gate called “quad-gates” that preclude pedestrians and cyclists from cutting across the tracks while gates are down.
“There needs to be new secure gates put up and better warning signs,” said Debbie Smulevitz, a frequent downtown visitor from Lake Worth.
Many others, however, say there’s only so much effort — and money — that Delray should put into improving an already safe crossing.
“Before you blame Brightline, I would look into how long the gates are down before their trains come versus the other passenger ones or cargo ones as people get accustomed to that.” said Sheryl Silverstein Traub of Delray Beach.
The gates go down about 30 seconds before Brightline hurries past, that’s the same time as a warning for a freight train.
“All of a sudden we’ve got a bullet train coming through town, and people can’t judge the speed,” Delray Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said.
Boynton Beach: People ‘misjudging’ speed
The Jan. 12 death of Melissa Lavell and the Jan. 17 death of Jeffrey King prompted the city to install the more restrictive quad gates at Boynton Beach Boulevard and Ocean Avenue — where King was hit.
As a safety measure and to reach quiet zone requirements, the city is also adding the gates to Southeast 12th and Fifth avenues. These are additions to a list of upgrades that already exists.
But police said both Lavell and King were hit while trying to beat the train. And officials realize it’s going to take some education to change some people’s way of thinking.
Commissioner Joe Casello said the city has to do whatever possible to “protect stupid from stupid.”
He said residents are used to crossing the tracks, trying to beat the freight trains that move slower, “they rumble, they make a lot of noise.”
“Now you double that speed almost and people are misjudging it.”
Residents have varying opinions on whether additional safety measures are needed.
Debbie Lytle said “a lot more needs to be done” and mentioned other cities that have raised tracks that don’t interfere with drivers or walkers.
Others say residents should just respect the train.
“It’s not Brightline’s safety issue that people think they are more important than a train full of people coming at them,” said Kerrilynn Villafane.
Casello wants to see what other cities roll out regarding additional safety or educational measures. Mayor Steven Grant plans to get tips from industry experts and then present them at a future commission meeting.
At Ocean Avenue, the tracks run through the middle of what is Boynton’s new downtown. If all plans work out, thousands of residents, shoppers and diners over the next several years will chose this area to live, work and play.
Casello said the influx of residents near the tracks concerns him.
The Villages at East Ocean Avenue is one of those incoming developments, and will be built in two sections divided by Ocean Avenue. It’s expected to bring hundreds of homes and commercial space. The entire property that lines the railroad will be fenced in, said project planner Bradley Miller.
Boca Raton: Future growth is a concern
Boca Raton was the site of the first Brightline death when a southbound during a July trial run struck an 18-year-old woman, who had stepped onto the tracks between 20th and 28th Streets near Dixie Highway. Police ruled it a suicide.
There’s no fencing in the area to keep people off the tracks. But in downtown Boca Raton, few people cross the tracks by foot.
The city’s downtown, home to staple plaza Mizner Park and multiple shopping strips, is a hub that runs north-to-south, with the most-frequented areas east of the tracks.
“I come (to Mizner Park) all the time, and I’ve never once walked across them,” said Jessica Weiss, of Boca Raton.
That could change, however, as the city dives into redesigning its City Hall campus, just west of the railroad. Boca wants to add more parking at the campus in response to a shortage of spaces east of the railway.
Once people park west of the tracks, they’ll likely walk across the tracks to shops and restaurants.
“We’re looking at this holistically because of two things,” said Councilman Robert Weinroth, who also sits on the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency. “One is safety. Two is not to let the railway create a barrier for connectivity between the east and west sides of our downtown.”
A local architect, Richard Brooks, designed and pitched a plan for the government campus, on Palmetto Park Road at Boca Raton Boulevard, that includes an elevated walkway, or skybridge over Dixie Highway and the railroad tracks.
The city will consider incorporating the idea, or at the very least create a safe walkway at ground level, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said.
“I think it’s crucial to look at (these concepts) now,” she said. “Especially now that we’re seeing the reality of Brightline.”
Staff writer Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this story.