All Aboard Florida’s Brightline won over residents living along the railroad tracks with the promise that a continuous quiet zone would silence train horns from Boca Raton to West Palm Beach when it started shuttling passengers on its new express route.
But with service expected to start next week, the company now says the horn blasts will likely continue for months after its launch — an announcement that is drawing fire from some long-time supporters of the project who are calling on government officials to stop the train.
“We want the city to make an official request to Brightline to not engage the service until those upgrades are completed,” said Rick Rose, a West Palm Beach resident and Brightline advocate who has spent more than a decade fighting for safe and quiet trains. “That is what they promised and that is what is only fair.”
In an email to The Palm Beach Post on Wednesday, a Brightline spokeswoman said it would be “several months” before work is completed on the quiet zone. The company’s construction crews are completing a series of government-funded safety improvements needed to silence train horns from 15th Street in West Palm Beach south to the county line.
“All safety upgrades required for Brightline’s service are in place,” the spokeswoman said. “For a quiet zone to be operational, additional supplemental safety measures are required to be installed at various at grade crossings throughout the corridor. There is still coordination and construction work needed on the installation of the supplemental safety measures, and we anticipate the work will take several months.”
In a press release issued at 3:38 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29 — the start of the long New Year’s weekend — West Palm Beach officials announced it will be four to six months before the zone is established. The news was also included in the mayor’s weekly newsletter, which was was emailed to many city residents early New Year’s Eve morning. It was also posted on Facebook.
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 rail venture begins its passenger rail.
Brightline has been testing its trains without passengers for months along the rail corridor — blowing horns at rail crossings through coastal cities and towns, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth and the southern part of West Palm Beach. But many residents living along the tracks had expected the blasts to stop once Brightline starts carrying passengers.
“It pacified people to a certain degree,” Rose said. “This is going to be a big uproar. People are just now beginning to understand the impact.”
Rose recently revived the Facebook page Palm Beach County Residents for Safe and Quiet Trains — an effort he launched years ago after working to establish quiet zones along the CSX railroad tracks where Tri-Rail operates. The page has seen a surge in followers in recent weeks, he said.
Rose has long said the Brightline project is one of the only ways to get a quiet zone established along the FEC tracks. Without the quiet zone, he says West Palm Beach residents could be forced to endure more than 3,000 additional horn blasts a day as Brightline revs up its service.
Brightline announced late last month that it would begin introductory passenger service between its stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale the week of Jan. 8. With just days until its launch, the company has not released its ticket prices or its trains schedule.
Quiet zones require a higher level of safety, because trains don’t blow their horns at crossings. A quiet zone would eliminate the need for both the express passenger trains and freight trains that already use the FEC tracks to sound their horns at each crossing.
To begin service, Brightline invested more than $60 million 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 that block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.
That work has not been completed. It is being managed by Brightline.
“I am not overseeing their contractor,” said Nick Uhren, executive director of the transportation planning agency.
Urhen said he could not speak to the “priorities they were assigning to their contractor.”
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.
“They are pushing their contractor as hard as they can,” Uhren said. “We all want to get to the finish line as soon as possible.”
Urhen said the agency had hoped that the quiet zone would be in place before Brightline’s service began.
“It has always been our priority to make their corridor eligible (for a quiet zone) when their service commenced,” he said.
Initially, the agency set aside $6.6 million to establish the zone in Palm Beach County. Over the years, that amount has grown to about $7 million, Uhren said.
Under the agreement, Brightline is reimbursed for work once it is completed.
The company was not given all of the money up front, Uhren said. Instead, they have received periodic reimbursements as portions of the upgrades are finalized.
Once the construction work is finalized, 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.
Jeffrey Livergood, Boynton Beach’s Director of Public Works and Engineering, said the quiet zone’s delay came as a “surprise to all of us.”
“Despite the delay, I am the eternal optimist,” he said in an email to The Post. “It has been a long time coming for these quiet zones. The need was there well before the emergence of All Aboard/Brightline. Frankly, the AAF project has made the quiet zones a looming reality. Even with the delay, this is good for the county and cities.”
Brightline officials have repeatedly said that safety is their top priority.
For years, the FEC line had a single track that was used only by freight trains. Brightline required the construction of a second track — an addition that will allow two trains to pass each other at the same time and mix freight and passenger traffic.
Now, if the crossing gates are down and a train goes by, a second train could still be approaching the intersection. Brightline’s passenger trains will also move faster than freight traffic. The company’s trains are expected to reach speeds of up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach. Freight trains on the FEC line operate at speeds of between 35 mph and 40 mph, although the trains are capable of moving up to 60 mph, officials have said.
“We encourage the public to adhere to the laws and regulations designed to keep them safe around active railroads,” a company spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer, Lulu Ramadan and Kevin Thompson contributed to this report.
Top 5 rail safety tips
1. Look and listen for a train as you approach all railroad crossings — obey all signs, warning lights and gates.
2. Trains are quieter and faster than you think — never try to beat a train.
3. Because of their size and weight, it can take a mile or more to stop a train.
4. Always expect a train on any track; avoid distractions when you approach a crossing.
5. Railroad property is private property. Walking on the tracks is illegal and dangerous.