Bridges For Speed And Safety
(Photo by BBT609, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
For those who have not yet ridden Brightline between Miami and West Palm Beach, you should know that it compares with the best fast trains in the world. It is attractive, extremely comfortable and smooth-riding, and perfectly situated to serve a large market. It has only one problem. It is dangerous as hell.
Not dangerous for the passengers. In four years there have been no injuries to riders. The danger is to those outside the train, to those in vehicles and on foot who have to deal with the lethal combination of high speed and numerous street grade crossings along its 65-mile route. It has quickly established itself as the most accident-unfriendly railroad in the country. It is first among 800 railroads in fatalities in its brief lifetime, five already since it recently resumed service after a long pandemic suspension.
This is not Brightline's fault. The Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) tracks have not had any passenger traffic since the 1960s, and even then it was only a few trains a day — nothing to compare to the busy Brightline schedule. Brightline is a modern concept, a combination of commuter line and intercity express with limited stops. Such trains are popping up around the country, often complementing long distance Amtrak trains. They need to be fast.
At the moment, Brightline's northern terminus is West Palm Beach, but an extension up the coast through Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River counties is planned, connecting with a new rail line from Cocoa Beach to Orlando. When operational, it will be a huge asset for South Florida, serving both tourists and residents who will be able to commute to jobs in Fort Lauderdale from as far away as Stuart and Vero Beach.
Because there were no fast trains on its tracks until recently, the FEC permitted numerous grade crossings as South Florida grew over the years. With only slow moving freights, the grade crossings were a nuisance, holding up traffic for long minutes, but not a serious danger. Brightline changed that and the hazard will continue until the inevitable is faced — the railroad needs to be rebuilt. That job will take years, just as it took years for the problem to develop.
Right now the effort seems to be to make the crossing gates impenetrable to impatient motorists who routinely get around them or stupidly let themselves be stuck on the tracks in traffic jams when the bells start warning of the approaching train. Unlike northeastern railroads with extensive commuter train networks, Brightline does not have to deal with undulating terrain either elevating tracks or lowering them in ditches, both of which require numerous bridges. That was done 100 years ago on northeast rail lines.
The process could begin by closing off lesser used road crossings, and by taking advantage of sections of track that already have few or no crossings, and which could permit higher speeds than the current 79 miles per hour. That is standard for passenger trains around the country. It might be feasible to slow trains down to perhaps 55 or 60 miles per hour in the busy downtowns, and make up that time elsewhere.
An example of a possible speed-up zone is the two-mile stretch in south Fort Lauderdale from I-84 to Griffin Road, past the airport, where there are no nearby residential neighborhoods or grade crossings. In north Broward, the grade crossings are farther apart, and bridging at several key crossings could open up almost five miles of track entering Boca Raton. There are other sections at the Broward-Dade County line that are industrial and have few crossings. Some of the Brightline fatalities are obviously people who mindlessly enter the tracks. It would require serious fencing to keep such people off the rails, but it should permit trains to match speeds (approximately 125 miles per hour) planned for the new Orlando extension. Bridges in downtown Fort Lauderdale and Miami would be complicated and disruptive, dealing with larger buildings at the busy intersections. Not so to the north where only light industry would be affected by the construction.
Ben Porritt, Brightline’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, says Brightline and the FEC would both like to reduce the number of grade crossings, but it can be a cumbersome process involving public input and approval at several levels of government.
It seems more expedient to bridge some crossings. Compared to the cost of building an entirely new elevated railroad from Cocoa Beach to Orlando, strategically placed bridges would not seem a great expense, while achieving the dual goals of reducing the accidents and enabling higher speeds at the same time. Such a program could start quickly, and gradually turn the FEC into a first-class high-speed corridor.
It may take some years, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the FEC.