‘Extensive study’ of train crossings needed for All Aboard Florida

A Federal Railroad Administration engineer is so concerned about the safety of train crossings with the addition of All Aboard Florida, he is asking that a private expert be hired to review traffic signal timing from Miami to Cocoa.

Engineer Frank Frey issued his second report on the express passenger rail service’s impacts in late September after walking intersections that bisect the Florida East Coast Railway corridor from Vero Beach through Brevard County.

The eight-page analysis says “extensive study” is required on the timing of traffic lights to ensure vehicles clear the tracks before a train comes and stop before entering an intersection as the train approaches.

Called “traffic signal pre-emption,” additional requirements for the timing mechanisms are outlined by the U.S. Department of Transportation when four-quadrant gates will be used to stop traffic, Frey said.

Many crossings on the FEC corridor are expected to get four-quadrant gates as an added safety measure that will allow for quiet zones — areas where trains don’t have to sound their horns.

All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains daily from Miami to Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Train speeds are expected to reach 79 mph from Miami to West Palm Beach, and up to 110 from West Palm Beach to Cocoa.

There are 349 crossings between Miami and Cocoa, including 114 in Palm Beach County, although not all have traffic lights.

Frey notes that traffic signal preemption is not a direct responsibility of the railroad. Timing of lights is usually left up to city and county officials.

“Yet, the safety of the railroad, its employees, and the public both on the roadway and on the train are directly impacted by these systems and their potential failure to provide sufficient time to permit a vehicle or pedestrian to clear the path of an approaching train,” Frey wrote.

But Frey’s request for a private consultant to review preemption is just a recommendation, and it’s unknown whether one will be retained.

All Aboard Florida has said on several occasions that safety is its first priority. It was non-committal when asked about Frey’s Sept. 23 report.

“All Aboard Florida recently received the second field report,” the company said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing it and are in dialogue with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration on the subjects raised in the report.”

The Florida Department of Transportation referred questions to All Aboard Florida.

Robert Ledoux, senior vice president of Florida East Coast Railway, said there is no plan currently to hire an independent expert.

“We’ve had experts from the railroad, experts from the counties and towns, experts from Florida DOT, I’m not sure the value of bringing in a third party,” Ledoux said. “I won’t say it will be absolutely precluded. We are very comfortable and confident that what we do today is safe and what we implement for AAF is safe.”

The issue of signal timing and preemption was highlighted after a 1995 accident in Fox River Grove, Ill., when a train hit a school bus that had not cleared the tracks, but was stopped by a traffic light on the other side. Seven students were killed.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a technical bulletin that said despite new recommendations regarding pre-emption, there continued to be a lack of standardization of operation, and that accident data continued to show “significant” increases in collisions where pre-emption was in place.

Rick Campbell, president of an engineering firm that specializes in traffic signal operations and who reviewed Frey’s report, said pre-emption plays a bigger role in train accidents than even what is reported.

“It’s unlawful to stop on tracks, but the reality is it happens,” said Campbell, whose company CTC is based in Fort Worth, Texas. “Basically, we are dealing with a situation where if pre-emption doesn’t function correctly, someone can be trapped on the track with no place to go.”

The report issued by Frey is separate from the draft environmental impact statement that was released by the Federal Railroad Administration on Sept. 19. The statement doesn’t specifically address pre-emption, but does note that to mitigate the impact of All Aboard Florida to traffic and crossings, it will work with state and local traffic officials to adjust traffic signal timing as needed.

Crossings are expected to be closed three times per hour for two passenger trains and one freight train. Closure times are expected to range from 1.7 minutes for the passenger train to 2.8 minutes for freight.

The number of freight trains is also expected to increase from the current 14 trains per day, to 20 by 2016.

“The project has been going extremely quickly for its size,” said Dan Weisberg, director of traffic for Palm Beach County, about All Aboard Florida. “We’ve never had a situation before where there has been a major change to the crossings so certainly there needs to be coordination.”

Weisberg said his staff, which is responsible for all signal timing in Palm Beach County except Boca Raton, is reviewing 400 pages of crossing plans and will submit recommendations.

All Aboard Florida plans to start running its Miami to West Palm Beach route by the end of 2016. The Orlando leg is expected to open in early 2017.

“If we are talking about a rail corridor that will see increased train traffic at higher speeds, put the pieces together; the need for preemption study is going to be significant,” Campbell said.

Frey is the same engineer who wrote a March report that covered the All Aboard Florida route from Miami through St. Lucie County. His findings included a stern rebuke for what he felt were safety precautions that All Aboard Florida was omitting, such as “sealed corridors.”

The company, with money from the planning organizations of Palm Beach and Broward counties and Florida Department of Transportation urging, has since agreed to follow the enhanced safety guidelines.

Frey also recommends installing “vehicle presence detection” in areas where train speeds will reach above 80 mph. The system will alert if a car is in the crossing area for a fixed length of time. Frey said the system is necessary because he saw traffic stopping on tracks and vehicles queuing over tracks at intersections. Plus, the potential addition of Tri-Rail Coastal Link could include dozens of more trains using the FEC tracks every day.

“Motor vehicles stalled, or trapped on a crossing due to queuing, present a derailment hazard,” Frey wrote in March. “In multiple track territory or where freight is standing on adjacent tracks, derailments can result in catastrophic secondary collisions.”

And that’s worrisome to some public officials.

“This is not compatible with many of the neighborhoods it will pass through,” said St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky during a September meeting. “It’s a health and safety concern.”

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