Could study of Florida rail system derail Brightline plans?

Opponents of Brightline’s high-speed rail line hope an upcoming study of planned and existing railroad operations in Florida will give state officials second thoughts about allowing passenger trains to run north and south through St. Lucie County at 110 miles an hour.

The state currently has no laws or regulations addressing the safety of high-speed trains like All Aboard Florida’s Brightline, which now runs between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and is slated to extend north to Cocoa and west to Orlando in the next couple of years.

Included in the $88.7 billion General Appropriations Act, passed by the legislature and approved March 16 by Gov. Rick Scott, is a directive for the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to conduct an overview study of the Florida rail system.

That action comes as safety concerns about the train have increased due to multiple collisions and fatalities since the company launched limited service in South Florida on Jan. 12.

All Aboard Florida’s proposed expansion would send an additional 30 high-speed trains barreling through St. Lucie County daily. More trains will mean more delays on Treasure Coast roadways and waterways, causing traffic and boat congestion and the possible slowdown of crucial public services like emergency response, Bob Crandall, a member of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE-FL) and the former CEO of American Airlines, said at a community meeting in Stuart earlier this year.

The Florida East Coast Railroad has seen 103 fatalities and 185 injuries between 2011 and 2017, Crandall reported. Those numbers are going to get even worse if dozens of new high-speed trains are added to the region’s tracks. “This is the most dangerous railroad in the United States,” he said.

The review ordered by the legislature will explore the regulatory authority of federal, state and local governments, examine data on injuries and fatalities and make recommendations on how to improve rail safety. The report is due to policy makers Nov. 1.

“This study will require the hiring of experts to take a hard look at the impacts of high-speed rail in Florida and in areas that never previously contemplated trains traveling at 110 miles per hour though densely populated areas,” said Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold in a statement.

“The study should confirm that pedestrians, children and vehicles are in danger at many of the at-grade crossings.”

At least six people have been hit by the high-speed trains in the first months of Brightline operations. Three of the accidents, which often involved pedestrians and bicyclists ignoring safety warnings, were fatal. One was ruled an attempted suicide.

All Aboard Florida pledged to expand its rail safety efforts earlier this year, and spokeswoman Ali Soule said the company welcomes the legislative review. Safety remains a top priority for Brightline and studying railroad engineering, education and enforcement is important, she added.

“Passenger rail is a key part of Florida’s future, and we applaud the legislature for taking a positive position on the benefits it will bring to our state, residents and visitors,” Soule said.

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