Two people have died in Florida after being struck by new high-speed Brightline trains on the state's East Coast Railway tracks, sparking concerns about pedestrian safety and calls for a federal investigation.We noted, before even a test train turned a wheel, that local authorities were already taking steps to hamper the train, the better, supposedly, to protect motorists or pedestrians.
Brightline, whose trains run across several car crossings in South Florida, has been linked to two pedestrian fatalities since it debuted its passenger service there less than a week ago.
Look, it's stupid to mess with a train, whether it's a shiny new regional rail service, a stack train, or the local heritage trolley. But taking long chances shortens lives, and it sets off the local politicians.
The most recent fatality occurred on Wednesday afternoon when a bicyclist was struck and killed by one of the company’s high-speed passenger trains in Boynton Beach, Florida, about 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.Florida has a bad record for grade crossing fatalities, and did so even before Brightline got started. "On Jan. 10, Linda Short, 73, of Berea, Ohio, was killed at 7:40 p.m. after driving her car onto the Florida East Coast tracks in Delray Beach and into the path of an oncoming freight train, according to Delray Beach police." Forgive me for seeming cynical, but public officials in Florida might have a problem, whether there are new passenger trains running faster than Florida East Coast's intermodals, and they've had it for some time. "There have been at least 17 fatalities on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks over the last 12 months, and 74 over the last five years, according to data reported to the Federal Railroad Administration."
The victim, identified as 51-year-old Jeffrey D. King, of Boynton Beach, was trying to beat the fast-approaching train when he rode around the safety gates, which were down at the time, and attempted to cross the tracks, police said.
Another pedestrian, Melissa Lavell, 32, was fatally struck on Friday while trying to cross the tracks in Boynton Beach, according to police. The gates were down on that occasion as well.
In the aftermath of the fatalities, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation on Wednesday, calling for a federal investigation into the security of the state’s track crossings.
Here's Trains coverage.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to investigate. Boynton Beach officials may ask Brightline to suspend operations until safety questions are answered, the Palm Beach Post reports. And a Florida state senator has re-filed a bill that would, among other things, require railroads to pay for fencing along high-speed passenger routes under certain circumstances.Fencing is a good idea. Grade separations are a good idea. But infrastructure projects have opportunity costs. On the other hand, situational awareness around trains is also a good idea. "Don't take shortcuts with your life," indeed.
“This is a tragedy. How many more people must die before we really take a look at putting safety first when it comes to high-speed rail coming through our communities,” the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, asked in a tweet.
Brightline, which plans to expand into Miami and Orlando soon, said it was cooperating with the investigation. It currently runs between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.Brightline will be providing additional warning signage, and additional information to residents about the risks of trying to beat a train.
"Brightline continues to reinforce awareness and education," the company said in a statement. "It is critical that the public remains attentive when near any active railroad, always obey the laws and respect the safety devices that are in place to protect the public.
“Never try to beat a train," it added.
Brightline will begin a statewide educational campaign that appears to use materials the railroad already developed with Operation Lifesaver in multiple languages. The railroad will reportedly install digital signs at certain crossings that remind pedestrians of the dangers of trespassing on railroad tracks. Railroad officials are also expected to employ safety ambassadors who will patrol the railroad's route and meet people one-on-one to talk to them about being safe near a railroad.Perhaps, though, the benefit-cost ratio for railway crossing safety in Florida will be low, compared to what Florida officials and residents might do about the risks pedestrians and motorists face away from the tracks. "With pedestrian fatalities at a 10-year high, Florida leads the way among the seven most dangerous metropolitan communities to walk around in the country." Part of the problem is that Florida's roads aren't particularly friendly to bikers and pedestrians.
[Trenda McPherson, the bicycle/pedestrian safety program manager at the Florida Department of Transportation’s Traffic Safety Office, says] the average age of pedestrians struck and killed by cars is 50, and that one of the leading causes of their deaths is their own unsafe behavior, like crossing streets in the middle of traffic. “These aren’t little kids who haven’t learned to look both ways,” she says. “It’s adults. We need to help shift their mentality. Like, why not walk an extra block to the crosswalk?”That's another challenge entirely. Note, though, that when there are pedestrian deaths in traffic, the attitude of Florida public officials is that it's the pedestrian's (or cyclist's) fault. Let a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist disregard the gates, the bells, the flashing lights, and the air horn and get in the way of the train, and it's the railroad's (or the Passenger Rail operator's) fault. Go figure.
If we're going to talk about shifting mentality, shall we shift the mentality of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists to expect train movements? Furthermore, shall we shift the mentality of departments of public works to be more sensitive to foot traffic. Do it for the children. Is it really necessary, for example, that Mom has to bundle the kids into the minivan because there's no path between the house and a coffee shop or toy store, or to the trolley or train station?