Residents of five Palm Beach County cities along Brightline’s route will continue hearing horn blasts from the passenger trains until at least June, after work to complete a railroad quiet zone was put on hold while the company focuses on the launch of its Miami service.
In a letter sent to county transportation planners Tuesday, Brightline officials said the contractor responsible for completing the safety upgrades needed to establish the quiet zone through Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Hypoluxo and Lantana has moved its crews to downtown Miami — where Brightline plans to open a new station in the coming weeks.
“The subcontractor responsible for the signal system upgrade has suffered setbacks and has limited staffing,” Adrian Share, Brightline’s executive vice president of rail infrastructure, wrote to the county’s Transportation Planning Agency. “Currently, all resources are allocated to completing the signal system upgrade required for the extension of service to downtown Miami.”
The announcement drew criticism from some residents who have waited for the quiet zone to be implemented since Brightline launched its service in mid-January, but others said the delay was a minor inconvenience given the safety improvements that are also being made.
Brightline officials initially said the quiet zone work would be completed by the time their trains started carrying paying passengers, but in the weeks before the service’s Jan. 13 debut, it became clear that the company would not meet that deadline. Brightline officials later updated their schedule, pledging to have the work finished by the end of March.
In his letter to transportation planners, Share said construction crews are expected to return to Palm Beach County in mid-to-late April. The quiet zone work is expected to be completed in mid-to-late May, he wrote.
“We take this matter very seriously and recognize that this is a priority for residents and stakeholders living and working along the railway corridor,” Share wrote. “We are working diligently to fix and address this issue.”
After the work is finished, it is up to officials in each individual city to notify the Federal Railroad Administration of their intent to create a quiet zone along the route. It takes federal officials 21 days to review a city’s plan and decide whether safety upgrades meet the requirements to allow train operators to stop blasting their horns at crossings.
Ultimately, the construction delay means it will be at least June before the quiet zone is established in those five cities.
Boynton Beach resident Harry Woodworth, who lives on the Intracoastal Waterway, said he was “frustrated” by the delay, but not surprised.
“We were promised the moon and the stars and everything would be quiet,” Woodworth said. “Here we are a year and a half later and it’s still not done.”
The frequent blasts from Brightline’s trains have made it difficult for Woodworth to enjoy the cooler winter weather because he can’t open his windows.
“I’m not happy about it, but it is what it is,” Woodworth said. “I knew there was a train track there when I bought the house.”
Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant said it is important not to rush the quiet zone work.
“It’s just a matter of progression and I think we’re moving in the right direction as a county and a region having the passenger train and making it more livable by having those quiet zones,” Grant said Wednesday.
While the five cities wait for the crews to return, the quiet zone work has already been completed in West Palm Beach and Lake Worth.
West Palm Beach filed its quiet zone application with the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday. If federal officials sign off on the city’s plan, Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said it would likely be about a month before the horns stop blowing.
Since starting service in January, Brightline has run as many as 22 trains a day between downtown West Palm Beach and downtown Fort Lauderdale. The train’s operators are required to sound the locomotive’s horn at every rail crossing along the route, which currently runs along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks from 15th Street in West Palm Beach south to the Fort Lauderdale station.
Quiet zones require a higher level of safety because trains don’t sound their horns at crossings. If established, the quiet zone will silence the horns of both Brightline’s trains and other freight locomotives.
Before it began service, Brightline was required to 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 Transportation Planning Agency pledged roughly $7 million for a number of other safety improvements to establish a continuous quiet zone between 15th Street in West Palm Beach and the county line in Boca Raton. Those upgrades include medians and additional railroad gates that block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings. State and local transportation planners contracted with Brightline to complete the additional quiet zone safety work.
Despite the delay, Grant said it is unlikely the quiet zone would have been completed without Brightline. That’s because the company spent tens of millions of dollars on the initial series of safety upgrades that were required for the quiet zone. Local governments would have been hard-pressed to come up with money for those improvements.
“This is the first time there’s been passenger travel on FEC line since 1966,” Grant said. “Let’s be honest, if we didn’t have Brightline coming, there’d probably be no quiet zones available. Freight train would still be blowing (horns). I don’t believe it is something to be rushed.”
Staff writer Kevin Thompson and Lulu Ramadan contributed to this story.