It was a tough week for Brightline.
Maybe the last thing you want in your first week as a high-speed passenger rail line is people dying on your tracks. But public outcry has All Aboard Florida’s Brightline close to coming off the rails here.
“We offer our deepest sympathy to those affected by the recent incidents,” Brightline’s President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Goddard said at a Friday news conference to announce the new safety measures. “The fact that these incidents are completely avoidable is what makes them so tragic.”
Yep … one minute you’re escorting the media, and local government and business VIPs from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale on your bright (pun intended) new trains. And the next, you’re answering calls from some of those same people for you to shut down.
Two people are dead, you see. Families are grieving. Politicians are waffling. And the public, rightly, is asking questions.
What can be done to prevent these types of tragedies?
On Jan. 12 — the day of the media-VIP junkets before the inaugural day of service — a northbound Brightline train struck and killed 32-year-old Melissa Lavell near the intersection of Northeast Sixth Avenue in Boynton Beach. Lavell 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.
Then on Wednesday afternoon, Jeffrey King was struck and killed by a Brightline train on his way home from Troy’s Barbeque, where he worked as a dishwasher. Police said King, 51, tried to beat the train at Ocean Avenue while on his bicycle, pedaling around the safety gates.
The two deaths occurred within a mile of each other.
King’s family is understandably heartbroken over the loss of a son and sibling. As any of us would be, they’re looking to make sense of this loss. King was a decent, hard-working guy who turned his life around and gave unselfishly of himself, according to family and friends.
Does that mean, however, that U.S. Rep. Brian Mast is correct in demanding that the train line be shut down?
“(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, R-Palm City, tweeted Thursday.
He’s not alone. State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, who previously filed a bill in Tallahassee that would put more regulations on express and high-speed trains like Brightline, said this after King’s death:
“My question to the corporate bigwigs at Brightline is this: How many lives must be lost before you own up to your corporate responsibility?”
Boynton Beach City Commissioner Joe Casello, said he plans to ask City Manager Lori LaVerriere to request that Brightline stop operations until safety questions are answered. “We all agree with high tech transportation, but it’s obvious Brightline hasn’t addressed all safety issues needed in traveling through our city,” Casello said Wednesday. “And I’m guessing that once these crossings become quiet zones these types of incidents will become the norm.”
Quite frankly, that seems a bit much. Especially since it appears both King and Lavell made their own tragic decisions to disregard flashing lights and go around the railroad crossing’s guard gates to try to outrun the train.
To be sure, there are things I still knock Brightline for. That I have to drive from Royal Palm Beach to West Palm Beach catch the train. That it doesn’t stop in Stuart, where I have to drive to visit my parents. Or that the promised quiet zones were not completed before launching the limited service.
But I’ll focus on the request from Zedrick Barber II, King’s family attorney, who called for the state Department of Transportation to investigate Brightline’s safeguards at the crossings. And on the quick call to federal transportation officials from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida to investigate the deaths and look at what is being done to address safety at railroad crossings.
Both are reasonable asks to make sure we get to the bottom of, and learn from both incidents. That doesn’t mean that Brightline can’t do more, however — and do more now.
It’s not like this is a new issue for railway operators in Florida. According to the state, 52 people died on train tracks in Florida in 2016. Tri-Rail, which runs between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, was involved in 22 deaths in 2017. 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 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.
In Palm Beach County, the average speed for Tri-Rail, which operates on the western CSX tracks, is approximately 40 mph. In Broward County, Tri-Rail averages approximately 60 mph, and in Miami-Dade it averages approximately 45 mph.
But Brightline’s trains operate at speeds of up to 79 mph on the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) tracks.
“The gate might not be fast enough to warn people of this train,” Barber told the Post’s Alexandra Seltzer. “This train is different than others. The speed of the train makes it a completely different animal. A completely different beast.”
Railroad officials say safety upgrades made along Brightline’s route on the FEC tracks provide a consistent warning time for pedestrians and motorists in advance of a train’s arrival. Whether it’s 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.
But there’s a big difference: When the railroad crossing lights start flashing and the arm comes down, a commuter can pretty much see and hear a freight or Tri-Rail train approaching. Not so much with Brightline; although the train is closing at about twice the speed.
That gives Brightline the responsibility of communicating this danger as strongly as possible — especially since it is operating as many as 10 round-trip trains a day between its stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. And in coming weeks, plans to extend its service to downtown Miami.
On Friday, feeling the public pressure, Brightline’s Goddard said the company plans to place “safety ambassadors” and electronic signs at key railroad crossings to warn the public to stay off the train tracks.
Goddard added that the company also will enhance a statewide public service campaign it launched in the months before its trains started running. Hopefully, “enhance” will mean billboards and even TV ads to reach the broadest possible audience. The message to stay off the tracks can’t be stated often enough.
At bottom, no amount of communication will ever completely stop people from trying to beat the train. But maybe it can slow them down some.
King’s family is understandably heartbroken over the loss of a son and sibling. As any of us would be, they’re looking for answers to make sense of this loss.