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Trains, South Florida's Transit System And Concerns Over Brightline

The frequency of fatalities in the first weeks of the Brightline service should come as no surprise—and we suspect it did not come as a surprise to the FEC Railway, whose tracks the new service uses. It is a perfectly positioned track for a high-speed train, but unfortunately that is the problem. Running through the downtowns of communities all along its route, it has hundreds of grade crossings—each one an accident waiting to happen.

The grade crossing accidents on the more westerly CSX tracks, which also carries fast passenger trains, with far fewer grade crossings, along with the FEC’s own experience over more than 100 years with both passenger and freight, had to prepare Brightline executives for a rash of accidents with its new service. And they probably knew that stupid, or careless, or drunk, or whatever kinds of people, would ignore safety gates and be clobbered by trains pushing 80 miles an hour.

They probably expected the kind of close call that the Sun-Sentinel reported last month, in which a driver video taped a pickup truck actually swinging around from behind his own stopped car, and crossing the track in the opposite traffic lane, just missing the speeding train by seconds.

While you can’t excuse people who get themselves killed by dumb or careless behavior, there is room for understanding why they ignore crossing gates and flashing warning signals.  How often have we been stopped by a crossing gate long before any train appears, and that train is barely moving, and takes forever to pass? Or had a gate go down for a few seconds, and then pop back up with no train in sight, or sound?  People who have had that experience just aren’t ready for a train moving at high speed, especially if they are among the many who never read a newspaper or watch TV news, and getting hit by it may be the first time they even knew Brightline existed.

News flash: In one of those coincidences that aren’t so coincidental, this essay has been interrupted by the news that an Amtrak train carrying many Republican legislators just hit a truck in West Virginia. Now this is not a new high speed train but a regular Amtrak route. And the train wasn’t going 79 miles an hour, only about 50.

Back to Florida. As we just have seen, grade crossing accidents happen. And on the FEC tracks, with so many grade crossings, every few blocks in the older cities, a train going 79 mph is just flat dangerous. Opponents to Brightline are using that reality to try to stop the train from expanding as planned to Orlando.

This is short sighted. A fast train on the FEC tracks is the greatest development in South Florida transportation since, well, since Henry Flagler first built those tracks more than 120 years ago.  Brightline execs must know that eventually its service will turn into a very busy high speed commuter line, much like the Northeast Corridor, with stops every 15 miles or so. That would be an enormous asset in an area increasingly clogged with traffic. The problem is that this corridor cannot accept high speed trains. It’s not the steel tracks or the road bed that is the problem. Those are good as railroads get. The problem is the numerous grade crossings. The solution is to rebuild the railroad by eliminating as many of those grade crossings as possible. The FEC, and communities all along way, should have been doing that 50 years ago.

Now, with the trains running, it is imperative that the FEC turn into a deep south version of the Northeast Corridor, where tracks are depressed, elevated or bridged. The Northeast Corridor rebuild happened long ago, before most of us were born. There are very few grade crossings on the 238 miles from New York to Washington, and the tracks are protected by fencing all the way. Even so, some people manage to get killed by the fast Acela trains. Usually those are suicides, and the suicides usually get on the tracks via the numerous commuter stations along the route.

We are obviously talking a massive project, and 10 to 20 years would be a reasonable time frame. Among the more expensive projects would be tunneling under the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where very busy waterway traffic and increasingly active  railroad cannot coexist.

However, a relatively inexpensive start can be made by closing some grade crossings now, and starting to bridge others. There are stretches along the FEC where closing one or two crossings would open up unvexed rights of way and permit trains to go faster than the present speed limit of 79 miles per hour, and where train engineers would have views far down the tracks to spot trouble in time to slow down.

In addition, impassable crossing gates, blocking both lanes with strong barriers, as exist in Europe, could be installed at the busier intersections. Of course, people will howl if their regular crossing is closed and they are inconvenienced by a few minutes. On the other hand, residential neighborhoods near the closed crossings will benefit by becoming quieter and more isolated.

The bottom line: Brightline is a great idea and long overdue. But we need to do what is necessary to make it work.