Making Brightline Safe
The latest intelligence about accidents involving the fast, new Brightline train between Palm Beach and Miami is that it may be unsafe to sit on the tracks as a train going 79 mph bears down on you.
This astute perception stems from a recent report in The Palm Beach Post of a news conference in which relatives of people killed at crossings claimed that the new high-speed train is unsafe. One of the families was that of a man who police say was actually sitting on the tracks. He was not in a car trying to beat the train, which is the case of some of the other incidents at rail crossings.
Suicide by train is not all that uncommon, unpleasant as it sounds. Even though it has almost no grade crossings, the Northeast Corridor has seen its share of such grisly deaths. Those tracks are fenced in, but victims access the tracks by way of the numerous commuter stations along the route. According to Ali Soule, spokesperson for Brightline, eight of its 10 fatalities over the last year are being investigated as suicides.
The relatives, of course, do not think their kin committed suicide. They call for more safety features to prevent such incidents on a railroad that for years had slow-moving freight trains that encouraged people to take chances at grade crossings, knowing the odds were not that bad. Now, they are. Among the suggestions are more signs, voice warnings, etc. Those ideas, however, collide with the wishes of residents near the tracks who want the loud horns of the train silenced.
While we are a fan of Brightline and consider it long overdue, we concede the families complaining have a point. A train going almost 80 miles an hour at grade level through a busy city with numerous street crossings is inherently dangerous. All it takes is a little absent mindedness to find yourself stopped in heavy traffic on or near the tracks as the gates go down.
Brightline hopes to eliminate the few genuine accidents with simple advice. “We ask people to pay attention,” Soule says. “We ask them to avoid stopping on the tracks or going around gates. You don’t have to beat the train. Just follow the law and don’t take chances.”
Sound advice, but no more likely to be heeded than asking people not to drive 60 miles an hour in a 25 mph zone, or routinely bust red lights, or text while driving. Fatal accidents from such conduct are daily occurrences that make railroad mishaps seem rare.
There is only one real solution to Brightline’s problem: rebuild the railroad. If that sounds ambitious, it is, but it would obviously be a long-term project. There is a fast way to start. Eliminate some grade crossings. This has already happened. There are several streets in downtown Fort Lauderdale that were closed off years ago. A recent one was done to make room for the station just north of Broward Boulevard. The same thing happened in Palm Beach.
Closing off major streets is impractical, although bridging some is feasible where there are no major buildings or businesses that would be seriously affected. But there are dozens or less used crossings in Broward and Palm Beach County, which could be closed without bringing on the end of the world. It might seem that way to some neighbors, who would bring up the usual arguments about delaying emergency vehicles, etc. Those would be countered by homeowners on both sides of the tracks who would find their neighborhoods more private and free from a lot of traffic, eventually enhancing property values.
There are sections of track that run a considerable distance with only a few crossings. One example is from State Road 84 through the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, as far as Griffin Road—a distance of more than two miles. There are similar sections, especially in the less populated areas. If some crossings were eliminated, and the track fenced in, speeds up to 100 mph could be safely attained on those unobstructed stretches. That could permit trains to slow down a bit in congested cities and still maintain fast schedules. It would require an exemption from the 79 mph maximum limit, but that has been done on sections of the Northeast corridor where unobstructed main lines make it safe not just for the high-speed Acela, but also some conventional commuter trains.
Postscript: The train hasn’t even reached there yet, but some of the strongest criticism of Brightline has come from the Treasure Coast. The complaints about safety have reinforced the fact that the train had not planned to stop between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Ali Soule advises that Brightline is addressing that problem, exploring sites for stations in Martin County (Stuart) and Indian River (Vero Beach). That should not only silence some objectors but also greatly add to the usefulness of the service.