Could the Seattle high-speed train derailment happen with Brightline?

Dec 19, 2017
The Brightline BrightPink train leaves the downtown West Palm Beach station during testing on December 8, 2017. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The derailment of an Amtrak train on its inaugural run south of Seattle on Monday is raising questions about the safety technology that All Aboard Florida’s Brightline plans to use when it starts shuttling passengers to and from its three South Florida stations during the next few weeks.

Federal officials said late Monday that a data recorder in the Amtrak locomotive showed the train was going 80 mph in a 30-mph zone when it derailed along a curve, plunging off an overpass and killing at least three people and injuring more than 70.

Positive train control — technology that can automatically slow or stop a speeding train — wasn’t in use on the stretch of track, according to Amtrak President Richard Anderson. Regulators have pressed railroads for years to install such technology, but the deadline has been extended repeatedly at the industry’s request and is now the end of 2018.

Positive train control will not be in place when Brightline launches inaugural service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, but the company has said it is working to install the technology in advance of the federal deadline.

Tri-Rail, which operates passenger trains between Palm Beach and Miami Dade counties, is also working to install positive train control techology by the federal deadline, a spokeswoman said.

RELATED: Amtrak derailment in Washington: Train going 80 mph in 30 mph zone, NTSB says

Until the upgrades are complete, Brightline’s trains will be equipped with automatic train control — a similar technology that monitors the train’s speed and notifies the engineer if the locomotive is going too fast.

Although the Federal Railroad Administration requires train operators to have one locomotive engineer during operations, Brightline’s trains will have two employees in each cab — an engineer and a train manager.

“The Brightline team extends its thoughts and prayers to those affected in the recent Amtrak incident,” the company said in a statement released Tuesday. “Brightline is working toward operational readiness in close coordination with federal authorities to ensure we meet the highest safety standards. As we have communicated to local stakeholders, we are currently operating simulated service, which means we are running our schedule without passengers.”

The Treasure Coast-based Citizens Against Rail Expansion, also known as CARE FL, has raised a number of safety concerns about the Brightline project, including the number of rail crossings along the corridor and the mixture of freight and passenger traffic on the Florida East Coast Railway line.

On Tuesday, Brent Hanlon, the group’s chairman, pointed to similar safety concerns raised by officials in Washington near the site of the Amtrak derailment.

“Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to those who are affected by this crash,” Hanlon said. “We feel terrible about this. That is why it has been our mission from Day One to really stop this Brightline/All Aboard Florida project. We have been so concerned about the number of safety issues along the corridor.”

Brightline has said it plans to launch introductory service by the end of 2017. But with just less than two weeks left until the new year, the company has not announced its schedule or ticket prices.

MORE: Brightline stimulating South Florida with simulated train service

In anticipation of its launch, Brightline began simulated service early this month, running multiple trains a day along the Florida East Coast Railway line. The trains are not carrying passengers.

Eventually, Brightline plans to extend its service north to Orlando. Positive train control is expected to be in place along Brightline’s entire route when Orlando service begins.

The safety technology is at the center of a bill filed in Tallahassee this fall that seeks to regulate Brightline’s passenger trains and similar high-speed rail projects.

The bill (SB 572) would require rail companies operating trains at speeds in excess of 80 mph, including the Brightline project, to install safety features, cover the cost of maintaining rail crossings, pay for fencing along sections of tracks where pedestrians could be at risk, and help train first responders in the event of an accident involving passenger trains or hazardous materials.

RELATED: Brightline asks to cancel meeting on $1.2 billion bond request

Brightline officials have opposed the legislation, arguing it unfairly targets their project.

Brightline plans to run as many as 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The company’s trains are expected to reach speeds of up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach; 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa ; and 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.

Freight trains on the FEC line operate at speeds of 35 to 40 mph, although the trains are capable of moving up to 60 mph, officials have said.

“The safety of Brightline’s guests, teammates and stakeholders is our highest priority,” the company said in the statement released Tuesday. “We are installing safety measures such as a new automatic train control signal system, Positive Train Control, crossing predictor units to provide consistent warning time to motorists of a train’s approach, and grade-crossing improvements at every at-grade intersection.”

In addition to the safety upgrades, Brightline has held a series of train safety workshops for police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers from across South Florida.

The company in April launched a safety campaign designed to warn students and those living near the Florida East Coast Railway corridor about the dangers of walking along train tracks. Brightline has asked cities along the route to help promote the campaign, part of a national program called Operation Lifesaver, which is designed to reduce collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings and prevent trespassing on or near railroad tracks.

ALSO: Brightline’s Orlando extension wins federal approval

Bella Dinh-Zarr, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said late Monday it’s not yet known what caused the Amtrak train to run off the rails and too early to say why it was going so fast.

Dinh-Zarr said it is too soon to say whether positive train control would have prevented Monday’s tragedy.

The Amtrak train, with 85 passengers and crew members, was making the inaugural run along a fast new bypass route that was created by refurbishing freight tracks alongside Interstate 5. The 15-mile, $180.7 million project was aimed at speeding up service by bypassing a route with a number of curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.