The invitation-only ride on Brightline’s express train should have taken 35 minutes.
The locomotive pulled out of the company’s station in downtown Fort Lauderdale about 6 p.m. Friday headed for West Palm Beach.
But as the train reached the railroad crossing at Northeast Sixth Avenue in Boynton Beach — the trip came to an abrupt stop.
Melissa Lavell, 32, was fatally struck by the train as it made its way through the intersection. Brightline’s engineers told police that Lavell appeared to be crossing the tracks after the guard gates were in the down position in an attempt to make it across before the train passed. Police have said Lavell’s death appears accidental.
On board, passengers who had been invited to ride the train on the eve of Brightline’s public debut sat for 60 to 90 minutes while police investigated. Officials eventually allowed passengers to get off the train and board buses that shuttled them the rest of the way to West Palm Beach.
The accident underscores a growing problem in South Florida, where Brightline’s service will bring more trains to densely populated coastal towns and downtown hubs.
“There are just more people around the tracks,” said Don Levine, the Southeast Florida regional coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a national program that educates drivers and pedestrians about safety around railroad tracks. “And we are more impatient then we have ever been.”
Tri-Rail, a commuter train service traveling between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, was involved in 22 deaths this past year. Bonnie Arnold, a spokeswoman for Tri-Rail, said it’s the highest number of fatalities Tri-Rail has recorded in the nearly 18 years she has worked for the train service.
The vast majority of those killed by trains were either trying to commit suicide, crossing the tracks where they didn’t belong or ignoring safety signals and crossing gates warning them of an oncoming train.
Brightline officials said the warning devices at the scene of Friday’s incident were working properly when Lavell was struck. The police report did not address the warning devices.
Brightline has been involved in four deaths since July 24, when an 18-year-old woman was killed in Boca Raton. Her death was ruled a suicide.
A Brightline train was involved in another fatal crash Nov. 1 in Deerfield Beach. There were no passengers on the train when it struck and killed a 35-year-old woman.
Six days after Lavell’s death, a man riding a bike was hit and killed by a Brighline train in Boynton Beach. City police were at the FEC tracks at East Ocean Avenue investigating the crash Wednesday afternoon.
The deaths are drawing criticism from Brightline’s opponents, who have spent years pressing for more safety enhancements along the company’s route.
“This is exactly why we are fighting for our communities,” said Brent Hanlon, chairman of the Treasure Coast-based group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida. “Enough is enough. We need safety measures in place that will protect our pedestrians, our school children who may walk or bike along the tracks to school, our first responders and members of our community.”
Jim Kovalsky, a Brightline supporter and rail enthusiast who was on the train Friday when it struck Lavell, said it is wrong to blame Brightline and other rail operators when their trains hit people on the tracks.
“If you are driving your car and you run a red light and then you are killed in a broad-side collision, do you blame the car that hit you?” Kovalsky said. “There is a huge double standard whenever anybody gets hit by the train that it is the train’s fault. You have to be in its way. If you are doing that, either you are trespassing on the track or you are going around the warning signal trying to keep you safe.”
In advance of Brightline’s launch, Levine said he trained 30 of the company’s employees and other volunteers to help raise awareness about the dangers of going around rail crossing gates and walking along the tracks. Those volunteers are called on to give presentations about rail safety to community groups, including young children, Levine said.
Safety upgrades made along Brightline’s route on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks also provide a constant warning time for pedestrians and motorists in advance of a train’s arrival. Whether its a fast-moving Brightline train or a slower freight locomotive, the amount of time from when the crossing gates go down to the train’s arrival at the intersection is always the same.
This past year, Tri-Rail launched a suicide prevention outreach and awareness program in an effort to reduce the number of people killed each year.
As part of the effort, Tri-Rail plans to install crisis help signs in areas along its tracks where people have been hit. Officials hope the signs will make people think twice about taking their own lives and warn train crews of the six problem spots along its 72-mile route.
The rail line also is working with the state and the 211 help line to launch a program about train safety and suicide. It’s even considering using drones to monitor these areas to warn train crews if someone is on the tracks, officials have said.
In addition to the awareness campaign, Tri-Rail officials are trying to reduce the time it takes to get passengers off the trains when someone is struck. In many cases passengers are required to wait on-board the train while police investigate — a process that can take hours.
Tri-Rail’s most recent accident occurred in Miami Dade County this past week — just days before Lavell was struck by Brightline’s train. Passengers waited for more than 3 1/2 hours while police investigated the death, Arnold said.
The length of the investigation can vary greatly depending on the police agency. Some investigators want to interview passengers on the train, others don’t, Arnold said.
“It is totally up to the police,” Arnold said. “When the police arrive, they take control of the train.”
While police are investigating, Tri-Rail has no way to get passengers off the trains, including those who have flights to catch, Arnold said.
Brightline faces the same challenges.
In the case of an incident, the company said it works with the local authorities and the Florida East Coast Railway Police as they conduct their investigation. The local authorities and FEC Railway Police determine when an on-scene investigation is completed and the train can be released.
“Each situation is different, and if passenger disembarkation can be performed safely, Brightline will attempt to work with the local authorities to disembark guests and transport them via other transportation alternatives to their final destinations,” the company said. “When Brightline’s Safety and Security team arrived on scene for Friday’s incident, they assessed the situation to determine if it was safe for guests to disembark. Upon review of area conditions, it was determined that guests could safely disembark with the assistance of Brightline teammates.”
Arnold said Tri-Rail is working to get legislation passed that would set a standard protocol for police investigating deaths involving trains. Brightline said it also supports those bills (HB 959 and SB 1482).
Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who sponsored the senate version of the bill said the legislation would eliminate the need for police officials to interview every passenger on a train.
“The way the law is interpreted today law enforcement believes they must interview every passenger on the train despite the fact the passengers have no view of the tracks,” Young said. “This bill would still allow law enforcement to interview passengers should the situation require and will drastically reduce delays to passengers.”
Staff writer Alexandra Seltzer contributed to this story.
Top 5 rail safety tips:
- Look and listen for a train as you approach all railroad crossings — obey all signs, warning lights and gates.
- Trains are quieter and faster than you think — never try to beat a train.
- Because of their size and weight, it can take a mile or more to stop a train.
- Always expect a train on any track; avoid distractions when you approach a crossing.
- Railroad property is private property. Walking on the tracks is illegal and dangerous.