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Tragedy on tracks, followed by frustration for Brightline passengers

Jeffrey Aranofsky was aboard a southbound Brightline train with plenty of time to catch his flight from Fort Lauderdale’s airport. Then a man jumped in front of the speeding locomotive in Boynton Beach.

What came next was a scenario that has grown frustratingly familiar to passengers aboard Tri-Rail and Brightline trains: If a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist is struck after venturing onto the tracks, the railway becomes a crime scene — and a stress-free commute turns into gridlock that can leave passengers stranded for an hour or longer.

Aranofsky missed his flight on Friday, but he says he’ll continue to take Brightline from his home in downtown West Palm Beach to his job as a flight attendant.

“There’s so many accidents on a daily basis on Interstate 95, so much drama, that it’s worth it to me,” Aranofsky said. “Most of the time, the train is great.”

Read more Palm Beach Post coverage of Brightline

While South Florida’s commuter trains typically arrive at their destinations without incident, suicides and other mishaps disrupt the no-hassle travel touted by the rail services. When weighing driving against taking the train, commuters must calculate the odds that they’ll reach their destinations on time.

A crash on Interstate 95 can mean detouring off the interstate, and it can make catching a flight a closer call than normal. But a wreck on the railroad tracks all but guarantees a missed plane.

Five people in Palm Beach County have been struck and killed by Brightline trains since January, when the company launched passenger service on the FEC tracks. Tri-Rail trains killed 17 people along the CSX tracks throughout South Florida in 2017, Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said.

In every case, rail service ground to a halt.

“The train basically becomes the property of law enforcement, so you can’t move the train until law enforcement tells you you can move it,” Arnold said. “You can’t let passengers off the train until law enforcement tells you you can.”

Complicating matters, different police departments take different approaches to investigating railroad fatalities. While some agencies interview only the engineer and conductor, other police departments treat the case as a vehicular homicide and talk to every passenger and train employee.

“If you’ve got a rush-hour train with 450 passengers, you can imagine how long that takes,” Arnold said. “There are some agencies — and I won’t name them — where if there’s an accident, you know you’re going to be there for a long time.”

Brightline and Tri-Rail hope to persuade state lawmakers to pass a law that would standardize how police investigate railway fatalities.

Related: Brightline wins seven-month extension for $1 billion bond issue

After Friday’s accident, Aranofsky said he was not interviewed by police, suggesting that Boynton Beach is not one of the departments that questions all passengers after a fatality. Passengers said Brightline employees handed out free drinks and snacks as they waited, but workers didn’t acknowledge that the train had struck and killed someone. Passengers surmised what had happened when they saw police and firefighters on the tracks, and their suspicions were confirmed by news reports on their phones.

Brightline transferred passengers to another train about an hour after the incident. The company said there’s no set timeline for how long passengers will be delayed by an accident.

“Each situation is completely different,” Brightline spokeswoman Ali Soule said.

Aside from differences in how police departments handle accidents, another complicating factor is the terrain around the tracks. Tri-Rail typically declines to release passengers from trains if they’ll be forced to traverse treacherous gravel surfaces, Arnold said.

In the case of Brightline, pedestrian deaths mar a carefully groomed customer experience. From the custom-designed scent permeating its stations to the touchless handles in its lavatories, Brightline pays meticulous attention to details. Pedestrian deaths are one wild card that can knock the privately run rail service off its game.

Police have not faulted Brightline for any of the deaths involving its trains. Boynton Beach police said the pedestrian who died on Friday was a 46-year-old man who jumped in front of the train as it approached.

Other deaths have been ruled accidents or suicides, and several of the victims tested positive for various illicit drugs.

As for Tri-Rail, of the 17 deaths in 2017, 12 were suicides and three involved pedestrians, Arnold said. In the other two deaths, trains hit vehicles on the tracks.

Railways elsewhere must cope with fatalities, too. SunRail, the commuter service in Central Florida, struck and killed six people in 2017, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Three of those deaths were ruled suicides.

Brightline has launched a campaign to warn pedestrians and motorists that its locomotives move more quickly and quietly than freight trains, although it’s unclear how public education will stop people attempting suicide.

“If someone has an agenda that day to cut their life short,” Aranofsky said, “there’s no amount of safety that can stop that from happening.”

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