Miami to New Passenger Railway: Not So Fast

by | February 8, 2018

By Martin Vassolo

Before Brightline comes rolling through Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has asked  the Florida Department of Transportation to evaluate safety measures  in place at the railway crossings along the private passenger line's route.

In a letter sent last month to James Wolfe, FDOT's District Six secretary, Gimenez  noted the private rail company's recent string of "unfortunate incidents" -- two deaths in the company's first month of operation in South Florida; four since testing began last year -- and described as imperative the need for a state safety review to identify "any deficiencies that may be attributed to these incidents."

Specifically, Gimenez asked for an analysis of all grade crossings along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, and that the state establish a "plan of action in order to enhance safety for the public. This could include educational programs and coordination with the leaders of cities along the FEC, like North Miami and Miami Shores, said Mike Hernandez, a spokesperson for Gimenez.

Wolfe's office received the letter on Friday night and he has not yet responded as of Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for his office said.

Brightline began operating its diesel-electric trains last month between West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. An extension to Miami, where Miami Central Station is under construction downtown, is expected to be completed later this year.

The expansion of Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, to Miami  will mark a significant change in rail activity along the FEC tracks, which for decades have exclusively belonged to much slower freight trains, which often block intersections for a few minutes at a time.

Come summer, the tracks will be buzzing with passenger trains reaching speeds of 79 miles per hour. Brightline trains come and go in a matter of seconds and promise to take you from Miami to Fort Lauderdale in half an hour -- and for as little as $10, while introductory rates last.

Some have speculated that ignorance of Brightline's presence on the tracks led to the deaths of people who perhaps thought they were racing freight trains  -- not passenger trains -- across the tracks. Each incident, along with a non-fatal  accident last month,  involved residents either walking or riding a bicycle across the tracks after safety gates dropped, lights flashed and a piercing whistle sounded.

Following the accidents, Brightline -- owned by Coral Gables-based Florida East Coast Industries -- stepped up its educational campaign and  deployed safety ambassadors to pass out safety literature and off-duty police officers to monitor the rails.

Hernandez stressed that Gimenez is fully supportive of Brightline's expansion to Miami-Dade County, which will link up the downtown areas of South Florida's tri-county area and  eventually  spread north to Orlando. The construction of Miami Central Station will include a Tri-Rail connection, which Gimenez is excited about.

"This should not be misinterpreted as the mayor being overly concerned with Brightline," Hernandez said, adding that  Gimenez views the expansion as a big benefit for South Florida. "We have to work together to educate our residents about this new service."

In a statement, Brightline said it shares Mayor Gimenez's interest in prioritizing safety, and that it has been collaborating  with the county government, the school district and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, along with other "stakeholders and emergency responders at all cities along the corridor."

"We are working on a new PSA campaign and increased community outreach, like safety ambassadors and message boards at crossings," the statement said.

In mid-January, Florida's two U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, wrote letters to Federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to launch a review of Brightline's safety protocols.

"It is critical that the Department of Transportation assess safety measures with Brightline, while coordinating with local officials and members of the community to prevent future tragedies from occurring," Rubio wrote to Chao. "In response to these recent and tragic events, how does the Department intend to ensure that the Florida Department of Transportation, its local partners and Florida East Coast Railway safeguard pedestrians at Brightline rail crossings?"

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who represents Northeast Dade, said she was excited for Brightline's expansion south and glad safety reviews are being conducted before the train's arrival.

"I'm glad we weren't the first link in it," she said. "It's a needed alternative to have people mobilized on the rails and off our streets, but at the same time it has to be safe."

The key, she said,  is educating the community about the train's presence.

"I know it's a concern of everybody," she said.

(c)2018 Miami Herald