Crash experience steels the resolve of Brightline foe

Last week, local congressman Brian Mast (R-Hutchinson Island), a staunch opponent of Brightline’s high-speed rail project in South Florida, witnessed first-hand the sort of dangerous and traumatic event he fears can result from Brightline’s development.

On Jan. 31, Mast was on the chartered Amtrak train that struck a garbage truck in Crozet, Virginia, while it was ferrying dozens of Republican lawmakers to a retreat in West Virginia. A passenger in the truck was killed, and several train passengers were injured.

Mast says this experience solidified and reinforced his stance on Brightline.

“There’s a perfect compare and contrast here,” said Mast in an interview with St. Lucie Voice, “in that this was an at-grade crossing, there was a death, and the reality is we were going maybe 60 miles per hour. We were basically right at the speed limit. But then, imagine trains going 80 to 125 mph. The reaction time is substantially less. This is a very dangerous situation across the breadth of the Treasure Coast and south Florida.”

Mast says he’s particularly worried about South Florida’s plethora of at-grade crossings: “One of the biggest safety issues that has been talked about time and time again is the at-grade crossings. We are different in south Florida. It’s not like the northeast, where a lot of times the train is running in culverts, and it’s not at the same level as the cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Across our area, every single one of them is at-grade. Every mile, every half-mile, every quarter-mile, you’re hitting an intersection.”

According to FRA data, the state of Florida touts 3,677 public at-grade crossings, and the 607 along the Florida East Coast (FEC) corridor makes this railroad runner-up in the state for the majority of these intersections. About 80 percent of FEC’s at-grade crossings lie along the track that Brightline will be sharing with the freight route, throughout its expansion from Miami to Orlando.

Recently, Mast had a meeting with Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, where she also expressed profound concern over at-grade crossings in the country at large.

In January, within Brightline’s first week of operation, there was a spate of casualties, with the death of a pedestrian and a bicyclist – within mere days of one another, both in Boynton Beach – and the injury of another in Fort Lauderdale. In response to this quickly unfolding pattern, Mast called on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (CT&I) to investigate these incidents, as well as overall regulations regarding rail use in the United States.

Very soon, Mast will participate in an oversight hearing led by CT&I’s Rail Subcommittee, which he hopes will facilitate a better understanding of All Aboard Florida’s capabilities and limitations with Brightline. There are still many factors that pose serious doubts about how quickly and effectively the passenger rail project – the only private-owned company of its kind in the U.S. – will be able to proceed.

Mast expects that the hearing will take into minute consideration elements such as the population densities of the various areas affected by high-speed trains, as well as traffic patterns, pedestrian traffic, and whether or not quiet zones will impact train safety procedures.

“In one sense, you have the train going through highly residential areas, where they want quiet zones,” says Mast. “They don’t want the train blowing the horn, yet that’s one of their main tools to say, ‘Hey, get out of the way. There’s a train coming.’ So that’s something that’s going to have to be looked at.”

Mast’s hope is that the recent crash that many of his colleagues in Washington experienced in person might add a bit of urgency and underline the credibility of his campaign, when he meets with House committees in coming weeks.

“I just had a life experience, as did a number of other congresspersons, that hopefully nobody ever has in their life, and that is being in a train accident. We just experienced what that is – a train accident on a passenger rail hitting a vehicle … It allows everybody who was in that train to speak to it from a first-person perspective.”

Article by: Adam Laten Willson

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