A growing chorus of local leaders on Thursday said more must be done to warn the public about the danger of ignoring railroad safety gates after two people were struck and killed by Brightline trains in less than a week.
But despite mounting concern over the deaths, it was unclear late Thursday who would lead such a public awareness campaign. In both cases, officials said those killed were on the tracks after the safety gates had already gone down.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a longtime Brightline critic, along with an attorney representing the family of one of the victims, called for separate inquiries.
Jeffrey King, 51, was struck and killed by a Brightline train Wednesday afternoon on his way home from Troy’s Barbeque, where he worked as a dishwasher. Police said King tried to beat the train while on his bicycle and pedaled around the safety gates.
Zedrick Barber II, the attorney representing King’s family, pointed to the Brightline’s speed, saying crossing gates at the Boynton Beach intersection where King was killed may not provide enough warning.
Brightline’s trains operate at speeds of up to 79 mph on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, much faster than the freight locomotives that also travel on the same line.
“The gate might not be fast enough to warn people of this train,” Barber said. “This train is different than others. The speed of the train makes it a completely different animal. A completely different beast.”
King’s death marked second fatal accident in less than a week involving the highly anticipated passenger-rail service.
On Friday, another northbound Brightline train struck and killed Melissa Lavell near the intersection of Northeast Sixth Avenue in Boynton Beach. The two deaths occurred within a mile of each other.
Lavell, 32, tried to beat the train with another person but only the man made it across, according to a police report. Brightline’s engineers told police the guard gates were in the down position. Police said it appears her death was accidental. The medical examiner is still investigating.
Mast, R-Palm City, called on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to hold an oversight hearing to investigate the deaths. Mast also said the Department of Transportation should investigate Brightline’s “safety issues” before it allows the private rail venture to issue nearly $1.2 billion in tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the service’s extension north to Orlando.
“(S)top victim blaming and take responsibility for the fact that your trains are killing people. Trains should stop running until massive safety flaws are resolved,” Mast tweeted Thursday.
Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant was among those calling for more public outreach.
Brightline, which opened its service to paying customers on Saturday, operates as many as 10 round-trip trains a day between its stations in West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale. In the coming weeks, Brightline plans to extend its service to downtown Miami.
“We need to make sure the education aspect is prevalent in all communities, in Boynton Beach and throughout the area because there is going to be more trains coming,” Grant said. “There’s been no billboards or anything regarding Brightline saying that the trains are going.”
Growing number of fatalities on the tracks
The deaths involving Brightline’s trains underscore a growing problem in South Florida, where the highly anticipated express service will bring more rail traffic to densely populated coastal towns and downtown hubs.
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.
“There are really two types of people that we are finding predominately get killed on tracks,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who serves as chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail. “One is intentional suicides, the other is people trying to beat the train. When those gates go down they have to stop.”
In Palm Beach County, the average speed for Tri-Rail, which operates on the western CSX tracks, is approximately 40 mph, a spokeswoman for the commuter service said. In Broward County, Tri-Rail averages approximately 60 mph, and in Miami-Dade it averages approximately 45 mph, she said.
The state has invested $287 million on rail projects over the past five years, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday. During that time, $9.6 million has been spent on rail safety programs including improvements to more than 70 rail crossings and tracks infrastructure projects, spokeswoman Kerry Wyland said.
Although investigators said the crossing warning systems functioned as required at the time King was hit, Barber said Thursday there are still “a lot of unknowns” about the accident. Barber also said he had not found any witnesses who confirmed King was trying to beat the train. Police have said King rode his bicycle around the railroad safety gates.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragic accident like the one that occurred yesterday for those safeguards to be reviewed,” Barber said. “But what’s most important to this family is that one, we bring some closure to it and that two, we’re able to prevent anything like what happened yesterday from happening in the future.”
A second chance at Troy’s
King’s mother Shirley Folsom said her son made coffee and meals for homeless people in town. King had a 10-year-old Siberian Husky named Siber and a girlfriend of three years, Barbara Thiefault.
“I’m glad I got to see his light,” Thiefault said. “He was a beautiful light.”
King’s sister, Deborah King, said her brother was selfless.
“I know that my heart will never ever be the same,” she said.
She said working at Troy’s was her brother’s first paying job in a while.
Anthony Barber, owner of Troy’s, said King was a great worker who was dedicated to his job.
“He was always saying ‘very good sir,’” Barber said.
Barber said King was thankful for the job because it was the first opportunity he was given after serving time in prison.
“People deserve a second chance. People grow,” Barber said. “I saw Jeff taking great pride in his job.”
Barber will host a fundraiser for the King family at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Troy’s, 1920 S Federal Hwy, Boynton Beach.
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this report.