NEW: Brightline to add safety ambassadors, more signs at key crossings

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline on Friday announced new safety and public education initiatives it plans to implement in the coming days amid mounting calls from state representatives to review recent deaths involving the private rail venture’s trains.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, on Friday joined the list of lawmakers urging federal transportation officials to evaluate whether proper safety measures are in place to prevent more deaths along Brightline’s route. On Wednesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, asked federal officials to investigate the deaths and look at what is being done to address safety at railroad crossings.

Brightline’s President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Goddard said Friday that the company plans to use electronic signs and position employees at busy intersections to urge the public to obey warning devices at railroad crossings.

Brightline, which began shuttling its first paying customers this past Saturday, also plans to enhance a statewide public service campaign it launched in the months before its service started along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

“We offer our deepest sympathy to those affected by the recent incidents,” Goddard said at a news conference to announce the new safety measures. “The fact that these incidents are completely avoidable is what makes them so tragic.”

Jeffrey King, 51, was struck and killed by a Brightline train Wednesday afternoon on his way home from Troy’s Barbeque in Boynton Beach, where he was a dishwasher. Police said King was on his bike when he tried to beat the train by pedaling around the safety gates.

In a 911 recording released by police on Friday, a witness told dispatchers that King did not stop for the train.

“There was a train coming through and this person was riding his bicycle and did not stop (inaudible) and (inaudible) through the gates and he barely got hit by the train,” said the witness, who did not give his name.

On Jan. 12, the day before Brightline opened its service to paying customers, one of the company’s trains struck and killed Melissa Lavell near the intersection of Northeast Sixth Avenue in Boynton Beach.

Lavell, 32, tried to beat the train with another person but only the man made it across, according to a police report. Brightline’s engineers told police the guard gates were down.

Brightline’s trains have been involved in three deaths in Palm Beach County since July 24, when an 18-year-old woman was killed in Boca Raton. Her death was ruled a suicide. A Brightline train also was involved in a fatal crash Nov. 1 in Deerfield Beach.

“Increasing awareness about rail safety is of critical importance, which is why we continue working with our transportation partners to help spread the word,” Goddard said. “For the past year, we have been engaged in the communities along the corridor, and we will continue these outreach efforts. We implore the public to be patient and not circumvent the safety devices in place to keep you safe. Your life is worth more than waiting a few extra seconds for a train to pass.”

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Rubio urged federal transportation officials to work with Brightline and state and local officials to prioritize safety and public education.

Goddard on Friday invited Rubio and Nelson to meet with company leaders, adding that Brightline needs their assistance in “amplifying the message we are trying to send to the community today.”

“We share their priority and focus on safety,” Goddard said.

In the months before it began operating, Brightline partnered with I Heart Radio to run public service announcements on several local channels.

In April, Brightline teamed with the Palm Beach County school district on a campaign designed to educate students and people near the FEC corridor about railroad safety. The campaign included an educational flyer that was mailed to 42,000 families who live near Brightline’s route.

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, who serves as chairwoman of the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, called the recent deaths “tragic and avoidable.”

“This is not a Brightline issue or a Tri-Rail issue or a freight train issue,” Haynie said. “There must be a heightened awareness around our rail safety.”

Tri-Rail, a commuter train service traveling between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, was involved in 22 deaths in 2017. Bonnie Arnold, a spokeswoman for Tri-Rail, said it’s the highest number of fatalities Tri-Rail has recorded in the nearly 18 years she has worked for the train service.

This past year, Tri-Rail launched a suicide prevention outreach and awareness program in an effort to reduce the number of people killed each year.

As part of the effort, Tri-Rail plans to install crisis help signs in areas along its tracks where people have been hit. Officials want the signs to make people think twice about taking their own lives and warn train crews of the six problem spots along its 72-mile route.

The rail line also is working with the state and the 211 help line to launch a program about train safety and suicide. It’s even considering using drones to monitor these areas and warn train crews if someone is on the tracks, officials have said.

“These trains are not cars,” said Steven Abrams, who serves as chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail. “They can’t swerve. They can’t stop on a dime.”

In Palm Beach County, the average speed for Tri-Rail, which operates on the western CSX tracks, is about 40 mph, Arnold said. In Broward County, Tri-Rail averages approximately 60 mph, and in Miami-Dade it averages approximately 45 mph, she said.

Brightline’s trains operate at speeds up to 79 mph on the eastern Florida East Coast Railway tracks, much faster than the freight locomotives that travel on the same line.

“It is important that the public understands that these trains move faster than they appear,” said West Palm Beach Commissioner Keith James, who is also a member of the county’s Transportation Planning Agency. “Don’t try to beat the train.”

Staff writer Alexandra Seltzer contributed to this report.

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