Now that four people have been killed after somehow walking or bicycling into Brightline railroad trains’ paths, the state senator who has been pushing for Florida to regulate safety for the state’s new high-speed, private passenger rail service decried whether there have been enough tragedies for the state to start considering train safety.
“How many more people have to die in order for us to really take a look at safety measures?” implored state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Melbourne Republican who has been pushing bills for two years trying to get Florida to regulate train safety before Brightline trains start coming through her Senate District 17 communities in Brevard and Indian River counties, as well as others up and down Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Mayfield actually made that declaration Wednesday afternoon before the fourth fatal accident happened.
Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, hasn’t been commercially operating a full week yet, and for a few months before its only runs had been occasional test, training or promotional exercises, or just efforts to move train sets from one place to another. Yet now the company is dealing with four fatal accidents involving its trains. The most recent reportedly occurred Wednesday afternoon when a man riding a bicycle was struck by a train in Boynton Beach.
The third fatality, the one that brought Mayfield’s declaration, came last Friday evening when a 32-year-old woman reportedly ducked under a down crossing gate at a street crossing, also in Boynton Beach, and then was struck by the Brightline train on its final promotional run before it was to start commercial service the following morning.
Brightline officials offered thoughts and prayers and full cooperation with all investigating agencies. But with law enforcement investigations underway, they could say little beyond that, other than to provide assurances that the company is doing all it can to assure safety.
The second pedestrian had been killed on that track in November when a 35-year-old woman was hit by a test run of a Brightline train in Deerfield Beach. The first was killed in July when a woman was hit in Boca Raton, a death ruled a suicide in front of another Brightline train on a test run.
The fatalities demonstrate both the warnings that Mayfield and her allies in the Florida Legislature have been trying to put forward for two years now, and the challenges that Brightline or any railroad faces, recognizing that, no matter what the train companies might do, there’s an almost random potential for tragedies if someone wanders onto a track in front of an oncoming train, just as there is if someone wanders onto a highway in front of oncoming street traffic. In fact, also on Wednesday a pedestrian was killed by the much slower SunRail commuter train in Winter Park.
This session Mayfield introduced Senate Bill 572, the proposed High-Speed Rail Passenger Safety Act, while her counterparts in the House of Representatives, Erin Grall of Vero Beach and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta, offered House Bill 525.
Last month Mayfield decried the need for state safety oversight after a high-speed Amtrak train on its maiden run derailed in Washington state, killing three. And then Friday night came news that a third person had been killed after being struck by Brightline trains.
“This is a tragedy. You don’t want anything like this to happen,” Mayfield said. “But how many more people, whether it’s suicides, whether its accidents, or whether they just happen, before we really take a look at putting safety first when it comes to high-speed rail coming through our communities?” Mayfield implored, shortly before the fourth death occurred.
Her comments were similar to those from Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, which has long been leading the community fight against Brightline’s plans to extend high-speed rail service up much of Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
“First and foremost, we express our deepest condolences to the family members of all three victims,” Hanlon said in a news release issued by CARE-FL before the fourth death was announced. “This is exactly why we are fighting for our communities. 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. AAF continues to tout its commitment to safety, but three deaths during test runs indicate something is seriously wrong.”
Right now Brightline is running only through Palm Beach and Broward counties, from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. Later this year train service will be extended to Miami. The company intends to develop high-speed tracks from West Palm Beach to Orlando to one day provide service from Miami all the way to Orlando. For now, the maximum speed is about 79 mph for the South Florida segment. From West Palm Beach to Cocoa, through the districts of Mayfield, Grall and Magar, the train could reach 110 mph. From Cocoa to Orlando it could reach 120 mph. The company also has talked about extending lines to Jacksonville and Tampa, though nothing formal has been announced.
Specifically Mayfield’s bill and the House counterpart seek to have the Florida Department of Transportation impose, inspect for, administer, and enforce safety regulations on any high-speed passenger trains in Florida, of which Brightline would be the first, and so far the only known. There also are some fiscal issues in the bill, as well as reporting and transparency requirements for rail accidents and rail safety. She also wrote to Gov. Rick Scott last month urging him to back her bill after the Washington rail disaster.
Brightline officials insist they are building their system with the highest safety standards offered by the Federal Railroad Administration. That includes pursuing additional measures that would not necessarily be required by federal rules, including upgrading all public at-grade railroad crossings to include gates, warning time systems, bells, flashing lights and signs; implementing “positive train control” high-tech train braking systems; and upgrading crossings to meet highest federal safety standards, whether federal rules would require them at those specific crossings or not.
The company also cited public safety education efforts that include a tri-language [English, Spanish and Creole] rail safety public service announcement campaign; partnerships with school districts to distribute safety information; 40 Brightline employees trained to give safety presentations throughout the communities; and outreach efforts throughout the rail corridor.
Mayfield insisted that safety assurances need to be in law, tailored for Florida, inspected, and enforced, and that the company’s agreements with the local authorities and the Federal Railroad Administration do not provide the level of requirement that her bill would impose.
She acknowledged that proposals in her legislation might not stop pedestrians from ignoring gates, horns, and other warnings and wandering in front of oncoming trains, as appeared to happen in each of the four Brightline fatalities. But she argued that the Florida Department of Transportation could and should take responsibility for identifying risks and seeking safety measures to address them.
“The things we’re trying to address in this bill is to make somebody accountable for the oversight and regulation of any high-speed rail that comes through the state of Florida. It’s pretty clear that the bill says, establish safety recommendations, reporting requirements and training to assure the safest environment for impacted communities as well as passengers.”