Cities and towns along Brightline’s route will decide this spring whether to follow through with a plan to silence the company’s train horns — a choice some leaders say could force them to put public safety above quality of life following recent deaths along the railroad tracks.
Palm Beach County transportation planners have pledged roughly $7 million to construct a series of safety improvements to establish a horn-free zone along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, where Brightline runs its trains at speeds up to 79 mph. The quiet zone is planned to run from 15th Street in West Palm Beach south to the Palm Beach County line and would silence the horns on both Brightline’s trains and the much-slower freight locomotives.
After the safety upgrades are completed in late March, it will be left to each city along the route to file a quiet zone application with the Federal Railroad Administration.
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said moving forward with that application could be difficult.
Brightline’s route runs through the heart of the city’s downtown, and residents and business owners are furious over the rise in horn blasts, he said. The company’s trains pass by the city as many as 22 times a day under the current schedule, blowing their horns at every crossing along the way.
But without the horns warning the public of an approaching train, Glickstein fears there will be a “dramatic escalation in fatalities.” He pointed to the number of tourists who visit every year, saying out-of-towners may not be familiar with the fast-moving passenger service.
“I have people just screaming about these horns,” Glickstein said. “The city is going to be forced into a very difficult dilemma of choosing between quality of life and the very real public safety issues with that train coming though at the frequency and speed that it does. If that horn isn’t blowing, people are going to misjudge the speed of that train.”
Safety vs. comfort
Brightline’s trains, which travel up to 79 mph through the downtown hubs of many of the county’s coastal cities and towns, have hit three people since Jan. 12 — the day before the company began shuttling paying passengers. Two of those people were killed.
In all three incidents, police said those struck did not heed warning lights and crossing gates positioned at the intersections.
“The city is going to have to make a decision, which is going to be a policy decision by the commission as to whether we make that (quiet zone) application now, or do we wait and see what happens,” Glickstein said. “I think logic dictates you err on the side of public safety rather than noise nuisances.”
Adding to the pain, Glickstein says that Brightline’s trains are mostly empty when they pass though the city. Brightline has not released its ridership counts, but a police report showed 55 passengers were on the Jan. 17 train that struck and killed a Boynton Beach man on a bicycle. Brightline’s trains can seat 240 passengers.
“We are very frustrated,” Glickstein said. “We have the noise, we have the disruption, we have the very real public safety issues, and we have ghost trains running through our town.”
Although Boynton Beach residents and business owners also have been looking forward to the quiet zone, Mayor Steven Grant said the city may have to weigh whether to silence the horns only at night.
“It makes sense to have the quiet zones at quiet times not necessarily throughout the whole day,” Grant said.
In West Palm Beach, Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said officials still plan to move forward with the quiet zone application once work is completed on the required safety upgrades. In the days before Brightline’s Jan. 13 debut, a group of city residents took aim at the company for not completing the upgrades before starting its passenger service.
“As long as it can be demonstrated that it is safe then we will move forward,” Kelly said.
Rick Rose, a West Palm Beach resident who has spent more than a decade fighting for safe and quiet trains, said the horn-free zone won’t prevent people from illegally crossing the tracks.
“The community should not have to pay for those who are not adhering to the law,” Rose said. “We can’t forbid bridges across America because people might go up on them and jump down into I-95 traffic.”
Rose said it is critical for the public to heed warning devices and stay off the tracks.
“The quiet zones have really nothing to do with the security of people illegally accessing the tracks,” Rose said. “If you abide by the law, there is absolutely no risk.”
To begin service, Brightline invested more than $60 million to complete a series of 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. That work has been completed.
In addition to those features, the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency pledged roughly $7 million for other safety improvements to establish the quiet zone. Those upgrades include medians and additional railroad gates that block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.
That work has not been completed. It is being managed by Brightline. The company has said it will be finished by late March.
Once established, train engineers still have the authority to sound the horn if they feel it is necessary.
Delray Beach Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said the city needs to research how many people cross the tracks — and cross them inappropriately. Delaying or not applying for the quiet zone designation likely would draw ire from city residents, she added.
“I’m getting calls already all the time about why the train hasn’t stopped the horns,” Petrolia said. “Residents are waiting for that.”
Delray Beach Commissioner Jim Chard lives two blocks from the FEC Railway tracks. Even so, he would support delaying quiet zones until safety measures are taken.
“I would choose safety over more quiet trains any day,” he said. “Why can’t we be cautious and roll out the quiet zones over time rather than rush to put them in place? I don’t understand the urgency.”
While the idea might generate push-back, most residents, Chard said, won’t mind the noise if it means people are safe.
“My guess would be that residents living near the tracks have probably all their lives lived near the tracks and would not be adverse to a little noise,” he said.