Watch Out For Train

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, July 27, 2010 No Comment(s)

The Sun Sentinel, in one of its bolder public stands in memory, wrote Monday that we should do a better job of teaching drivers not to get run over by trains. It was reacting to a federal demand that Florida improve its safety record at railroad grade crossings. The editorial said too many Floridians are reckless drivers. We agree with this profound statement. What do you expect with so many people driving without licenses, some of them people who are illegally in this country to begin with?


The paper’s editorial page writer ignored the real problem, which is the existence of grade crossings. Florida, particularly the old Florida East Coast Railroad, has far too many such crossings. We are happy to report that building new ones is getting harder. The CSX tracks used by Tri-Rail are owned by the state and will have no more grade crossings. The FEC is increasingly resistant to growing communities wanting to expand roads to cross the tracks.


However, the problem grew for over 100 years, and the result is serious in cities where the FEC has crossings every few blocks. Cumbersome freight trains can barely slow down, much less stop in emergency situations. And residents near the tracks complain that blaring train horns drive them crazy. It could become a much more serious problem when the FEC starts running passenger trains again. That event seems inevitable because Amtrak wants to use its tracks, the FEC seems to want them used and Tri-Rail absolutely needs to switch some trains to the FEC to make that commuter service truly useful. The problem is that nobody wants to pay for it.


In assessing the impact of Florida losing $7 million in federal dollars, the Sun Sentinel observed that “New overpasses are out of the question because of expense.” There’s the problem. Expense doesn’t seem to matter when we build interstates or improve busy streets. Then the highways go up and down like roller coasters, jumping over roads, railroad tracks and waterways – expenses be damned. The irony is that such lavish expenditures for highways only fuel the growth along those roads, leading to more traffic and more confrontations between the iron rails and asphalt roads. The danger is self-fulfilling.


Today there are sections of northern Palm Beach County and the three Treasure Coast counties where there is considerable distance between grade crossings. Passenger trains could move at a good clip much of the way. But as those communities develop, it is likely that new crossings will appear, making higher train speeds less feasible.


The obvious solution, Sun Sentinel, is to rebuild the FEC, at least in the busy communities. In so doing, elevated stations in center cities could generate commercial development on all sides. Northern railroads faced that reality a century ago. There are commuter lines all over Philadelphia and New York, but you will be hard pressed to find a grade crossing within those cities. Visitors to Philadelphia would not even know there is a network of connecting rails buried beneath the big buildings of its downtown.


It would not be possible to run the popular Acela train at high speeds between Boston and Washington had not the railroads years ago either elevated or depressed the tracks for most of that route.


Expensive? Of course. But it had to be done and needs to be done now in Florida. The proposed costly high-speed train between Miami and Orlando would be nice, but the money could be better spent – much better spent – on rebuilding the FEC, largely by bridging the tracks (ditches won’t work in Florida) and closing grade crossings to make fast commuter service possible along the densely populated Gold Coast corridor. In the long run, economic growth along that track would offset the coast. The danger would take care of itself. So would the noise.

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