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NEW: Quiet zone plan for Brightline crossings raises safety concerns

The launch of Brightline’s passenger service later this year will bring an unfamiliar quiet to the neighborhoods that sit along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor.

After decades of noisy train horns, the piercing blasts will stop.

Brightline and county transportation planners are putting the finishing touches on a series of safety upgrades that will allow a “quiet zone” to be established along the tracks from West Palm Beach south to the county line. Once in place, train operators will no longer be required to blast locomotive horns at rail crossings along the route.

But some West Palm Beach residents are concerned the quiet zone plan doesn’t go far enough to keep drivers off the tracks — particularly at rail crossings that run through residential neighborhoods where traffic is not as heavy. And it’s not clear how other similar issues about quiet zones will be handled by other municipalities throughout the rest of Palm Beach County.

Although the safety improvements are designed to keep drivers and pedestrians out of the path of an approaching train that is not blasting its horn, federal rules don’t require that upgrades be made at every crossing along the route.

In West Palm Beach, where the quiet zone will first be implemented, at least one neighborhood association has asked city officials to consider paying for additional safety features to prevent cars from driving around crossing gates.

“I really think there is an added danger,” said Rick Rose, a resident of the Grandview Heights neighborhood and a supporter of the Brightline project. “There is probably an unsatisfactory risk level.”

Rose, a long-time rail safety advocate who helped push for a quiet zone along the CSX tracks where Tri-Rail operates, said 13 of the city’s 30 FEC rail crossing won’t receive any significant safety upgrades to keep drivers off the tracks under the current quiet zone plan. Rose has asked the city to consider installing low-cost plastic barriers to prevent drivers from maneuvering around rail gates. Raised medians could also be used to keep drivers off the tracks and to beautify neighborhoods, he added.

Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said Wednesday the quiet zone plan complies with federal safety standards, adding that the city doesn’t have money set aside to pay for additional upgrades.

“We aren’t going to move forward with any additional improvements,” Kelly said.

Before it can begin service, Brightline must complete a series of safety upgrades along the FEC corridor, including the installation of a signal system that communicates with approaching trains, triggers gate openings and closings, and regulates train-crossing times.

In addition to those features, the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization has pledged more than $6 million for a number of other safety improvements in order to establish the quiet zone. Those upgrades include medians and additional railroad gates that block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.

When deciding where to make safety improvements, local governments use a complicated formula to calculate the “Quiet Zone Risk Index.” The Federal Railroad Administration requires the risk index to be below a certain threshold before a quiet zone can be established. Typically the busiest intersections are at the highest risk of an accident, making them the first to receive safety upgrades.

Adding to the safety concerns in Palm Beach County is the recent opening of a new set of tracks along the FEC corridor.

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.

Brightline has been working to raise awareness about rail safety.

Although Brightline isn’t shuttling passengers yet, the company’s trains are undergoing testing and commissioning along the FEC tracks between West Palm Beach and Miami.

As part of a national rail safety campaign held late last month, Brightline partnered with I Heart Radio to run public service announcements on several local channels.

In April, Brightline teamed up with the school district on a campaign designed to warn students and those living near the FEC 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.

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