Silencing Brightline: One-fourth of crossings to get no improvements

Updated March 02, 2018
A Brightline train crosses Monceaux Road on Friday. The crossing will get no further improvements but West Palm Beach is adding flexible polymer markers to keep cars from going around the gates. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

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See improvements for every crossing between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton. Will your neighborhood get quad gates or no improvements at all? Check the map and video at MyPalmBeachPost.com

At 20 of 80 railroad crossings in Palm Beach County no upgrades will be made to keep motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians from maneuvering around lowered warning gates despite plans to silence train horns along the rail line now hosting the high-speed Brightline passenger service.

Less than half the crossings will have the most restrictive safety barrier, known as quad gates, to cover all lanes of traffic on both sides of the tracks. The gates, at big intersections such as Forest Hill Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, create a fully closed barrier to block people from entering the crossing when a train is approaching.

Another 20 crossings will have curbed-concrete medians, a safety feature that makes it more difficult for cars to maneuver around gates — even if they are not quad gates. Twelve will have both medians and quad gates.

Six crossings, including one in Boynton Beach where a woman was struck and killed by a Brightline train, will get no safety improvements, and 14 crossings will receive only upgrades to block sidewalks, a Palm Beach Post analysis of the $7 million plan to silence train horns shows.

Leaders in six coastal cities and towns will decide this spring whether to follow through with the quiet zone plan, a choice some officials have said could force them to put public safety above quality of life after a series of accidents and at least one suicide attempt involving the Brightline’s passenger trains this year.

“I am very concerned that the communities don’t quite understand the risk,” said Rick Rose, a West Palm Beach resident who has spent more than a decade fighting for safe and quiet trains. “I think they should definitely address those crossings that have not received upgrades on the roadways.”

Relief from horns

The quiet zone must meet a higher safety standard, because trains don’t blow their horns at rail crossings. But federal guidelines don’t require that every crossing gets a safety makeover, officials said.

Malissa Booth, a spokeswoman for the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which pledged the $7 million for the quiet zone improvements, said the county’s plan complies with federal rules for silencing train horns.

“The infrastructure in place will provide a safe environment for those who abide by the law,” Booth said.

In the five cases of Brightline trains striking people since the service began on Jan. 12, officials say the people were on the tracks despite lowered gates, warning lights and train horns.

A federal analysis of quiet zones across the country found that crossings where trains did not blow their horns were generally as safe as those where the trains did.

To begin service, Brightline invested more than $60 million to complete safety upgrades along the FEC corridor from Miami to West Palm Beach, including installation of a signal system that communicates with approaching trains, triggers gate openings and closings and regulates train-crossing times. Those improvements were made at every crossing in Palm Beach County.

In addition, the county’s Transportation Planning Agency agreed to pay for safety improvements to establish the quiet zone. Those upgrades include quad gates, medians and pedestrian and sidewalk improvements.

In Palm Beach County, the quiet zone would silence the horns of both Brightline’s locomotives and those of other freight trains at 80 crossings between 15th Street in West Palm Beach and the county line in Boca Raton. Residents living close to those crossings have long pushed for relief from the horn blasts, which have increased dramatically since Brightline launched its service running as many as 22 trains a day along the route.

“There is no question that all the families living one block to the east or the west, they are severely impacted,” Rose said of the added noise.

The safety upgrades, which include more restrictive gates and raised concrete medians, are designed to keep motorists and pedestrians out of the path of the quieter, faster trains.

Work at 64 intersections along the Florida East Coast Railway is expected to be completed in late March, and quiet zones could be established weeks later. The other 16 intersections, including some that already had quad gates or medians, will get no additional improvements before quite zones are established.

Once the upgrades are finished, it will be left to each city along Brightline’s route to file a quiet zone application with the Federal Railroad Administration. The review takes about 21 days.

Once established, train engineers would still have the authority to sound the horn if they feel it is necessary.

Where two died

Two cities — West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach — have announced plans for additional safety features following two deaths in Boynton Beach involving Brightline’s trains.

Brightline’s trains have hit at least three more people, including one in a car, who have survived. The three who were injured included one suicide attempt.

In all of those cases, those killed or injured ignored warning devices at the crossings, including the blasts of Brightline’s horn.

In February, West Palm Beach said it would pay for additional safety measures at 13 railroad crossings  that were getting no — or very limited — improvements under the quiet zone plan approved in 2015.

The city plans to install flexible polymer markers, like the kind on highway toll lanes, at those crossings to make it more difficult for drivers to maneuver around gate arms when they are in the down position. The markers will be installed in the center of the roadway, creating a barrier between eastbound and westbound lanes.

“We decided to do this because we are concerned about the safety of all of our residents,” Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said. “It is more of a barrier for them to get used to the fact that there is a crossing there.”

In Boynton Beach city officials have asked the county’s Transportation Planning Agency to add four crossings to its list of intersections slated to get more restrictive gates before the quiet zone is established.

The request includes additional barriers at East Ocean Avenue, where bicyclist Jeffrey King was killed on Jan. 17  when he rode around a lowered crossing gates and into the path of a Brightline train.

A second crossing, where 32-year-old MelissaLavell was struck and killed on Jan. 12, will not get any improvements under the plan. Lavell was struck at Northeast Sixth Avenue after attempting to beat the train when the gates were down.

Gates were down

Brightline’s trains move at speeds of up to 79 mph, about twice the speed of freight trains that have run on the FEC tracks for a century. The company has stops in downtown West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and expects to add a stop in downtown Miami in 2018. Eventually, it plans to expand service to Orlando.

Many FEC rail crossings have just two gates, one blocking eastbound traffic and the other blocking the westbound lanes. Those crossing arms are located on opposite sides of the train tracks. They do not touch in the middle, creating an opening for cars and pedestrians, even when the arms are down.

That was the case in King’s death. The crossing gates were down as the train approached the roadway before the accident, a video released by Boynton Beach police shows. King can be seen riding around the lowered gate arms, and over one of two sets of train tracks on the FEC line before he was struck by the right side of Brightline’s locomotive.

Intersections with the more restrictive quad gates are considered safer because they make it harder for pedestrians and motorists to cross the tracks when the warning devices are down. The arms cover all lanes of traffic on both sides of the train tracks. They also touch in the middle of the intersections, creating an additional barrier.

Crossings with raised concrete medians in the center of the roadway also are considered more secure. The medians are placed on both sides of the train tracks, dividing the eastbound and westbound lanes. The raised surface creates a barrier, making it more difficult for motorists to drive around gate arms that only cover one side of the roadway.

Rose has pointed to the CSX Railway tracks where Tri-Rail operates as a superior example. As part of $334 million double-tracking project completed in 2006, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, Tri-Rail’s parent agency, spent $35 million in federal money to install quad gates and high median curbs along its route. Those features have been installed from Mangonia Park to Hallandale.

“That is literally the Rolls-Royce of quiet zones,” Rose said. “There are virtually no incidences at crossings.”