Brightline, FEC and state seek millions in federal money help to cut down on rail deaths

South Florida saw its most recent death on the railroad tracks on Monday, and the tragic toll from crashes will keep climbing if no action is taken, officials say.

Now, the proliferation of accidents has led to a new $45 million plan to boost public safety. Brightline and the Florida East Coast Railway are teaming with the state of Florida to pump millions more dollars to prevent crashes along the railroad corridor between Miami-Dade and Brevard counties.

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The companies, along with the Florida Department of Transportation, are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation for $25 million to supplement $20 million in combined contributions from the railroads and the state.

In the recent grant application, the companies and state said they want to build “supplemental safety measures at 328 roadway railroad grade crossings” and install 33 miles of pedestrian protection measures along the rail segment, which covers 190 miles.

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The state is listed as the project sponsor while Brightline and the FEC, both private companies, are designated as “partners.” The federal DOT’s $25 million share would constitute 56% of the funding.

FDOT and Brightline officials were not available for comment Monday, although the railroad supplied a copy of the grant application.

Dubbed the Florida East Coast Corridor Trespassing and Intrusion Mitigation Project, the initiative comes at a critical time for rail safety along the line, which has been the scene of nearly 60 deaths involving Brightline trains — including one on Monday morning — since the inter-city rail line started paid passenger service in 2018.

Florida East Coast Railway trains also have been involved in collisions, as well as in the deaths of pedestrians trespassing on railroad property.

The latest death happened early Monday in Pompano Beach when a Brightline train collided with a truck whose driver died. The crash is under investigation by the Broward Sheriff’s Office. The fatality is believed to be at least the 58th involving the passenger rail service. It is believed the driver tried to beat a Brightline train by driving around railroad crossing arms.

Without exception, authorities have placed the blame for the collisions on both drivers and pedestrians.

Motorists involved frequently have been found by police and company investigators to have ignored lowered crossing gates and driven into the path of oncoming trains. Pedestrians have perished or suffered injuries while walking along the tracks.

To curtail the incidents, the companies and state say they would spend the $45 million to install the following:

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  • Rail dynamic envelopes: Consisting of Xs painted on roadways near rail crossings, the visual warning helps keep drivers out of crossing danger zones. The state, according to the application, deployed the technique in early 2020 after a pilot program indicated that the number of vehicles that stopped on or too close to the tracks “was reduced by at least 15%.”
  • Delineators, raised pavement markers, and edge striping: Delineators are 4-foot-high reflective plastic posts that warn drivers that they are approaching a crossing. In 2018, according to the application, the Long Island Railroad in New York “installed high-visibility safety delineators and striping at railroad crossings. Results indicated an 85% reduction in right-of-way intrusions by motor vehicles and 100% reduction in train/vehicle crashes due to vehicle right-of-way intrusion.”
  • Fencing and landscaping: Many miles of the FEC corridor, particularly in densely populated downtowns, are easily accessible to pedestrians from nearby sidewalks and roadways. Sunrail, the commuter line in Central Florida, “observed a 91% reduction in trespassers over the two years following the installation of fencing in the Sanford area in 2018,” the application says.
  • “Do Not Stop on Tracks” and crisis support signage: Many motorists do not recognize the potential hazards facing them when they approach a crossing.

According to the application, the Florida East Coast line would maintain “a state of good repair of the project components” through existing maintenance agreements with municipalities.

Brightline would take care of components not covered by the agreements, and “would maintain the elements installed as part of this project.” Costs associated with maintenance would be paid by local governments and municipalities or by Brightline with funds generated through revenues.

This not the first time regulators and rail operators have sought to curb the carnage along rail lines.

Before Brightline resumed service last November after a long COVID-induced hiatus, the company spent millions to upgrade its safety systems and launch a public awareness campaign.

But on the first formal day of operations, an inaugural train traveling south from West Palm Beach struck a vehicle that attempted to cross the tracks in Pompano Beach.

In the ensuing three months, there have been several more collisions between trains and vehicles along the 66.5-mile stretch of Florida East Coast Railway tracks between West Palm Beach and Miami.

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In February, the Federal Railroad Administration called a meeting of railroad managers, law enforcement and city officials in Boynton Beach to discuss the proliferation of accidents in South Florida and to set the tone for a series of action plans with the help of public money.

The FRA also launched a series of inspections at crossings that have been the scenes of accidents. The results of those inspections have yet to be made public.

A spokeswoman said the agency is returning to South Florida this month to hold another Town Hall meeting in Miami with public officials and engineers to “discuss best practices and needs.” A meeting is planned for Broward County at an unspecified date.

Brightline, the FEC and the state elected to move ahead with their joint project not long after the Boynton Beach meeting.

In their application, they acknowledged the prospects for more deaths and injuries could well heighten as South Florida’s population continues to grow and Brightline extends its South Florida line, which serves the downtowns of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami, to Orlando next year.

The new link to Central Florida will add 36 passenger trains along the corridor each day, the application says.

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The Florida East Coast line is also making significant improvements “that could increase freight rail to about 24 trains per day and expand the average train length to 8,150 feet,” the applicants say.

Soon, Tri-Rail, the publicly subsidized commuter line that serves 18 stations between Palm Beach County and Miami International Airport along the CSX line west of I-95, will use a portion of the FEC corridor in Miami-Dade County when it starts serving downtown Miami.

Finally, over the next several years, new commuter rail services along the FEC corridor are planned for Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“The passenger and freight traffic growth could mean that segments of the corridor may see more than 60 trains a day by 2023,” according to the application. “The growth of rail traffic and population will increase human/rail traffic conflicts and the number of incidents will likely rise if no action is taken.”