Brevard finally raises voice on high-speed train safety

After years of relative silence, Brevard County commissioners are looking to join their Treasure Coast colleagues in demanding better safety measures from Virgin Trains USA by the time its passenger rail project reaches the Space Coast.

The commission was expected this week to vote on a resolution by Commissioner John Tobia to support state Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne) in her effort to give Florida transportation officials more teeth to regulate the private rail company.

Tobia, of Grant-Valkaria, last week pointed to a gap in the Florida Department of Transportation’s powers to regulate passenger trains. The department has rules governing trains at conventional speeds up to 80 mph, and at high speeds from 126 mph to 220 mph.

But in a few years, Virgin is expected to send 16 trains a day on round trips through Brevard County at up to 110 mph. And the FDOT doesn’t have regulations for trains going from 81 mph to 125 mph. “I’m concerned about the safety issue,” Tobia said. “My goal is to get as much support for Sen. Mayfield as we possibly can.”

Since January 2018, when Virgin Trains – then known as Brightline – began initial operation in South Florida, the passenger service’s trains have hit 17 pedestrians who were trespassing by crossing tracks owned by the Florida East Coast Railway. And those trains were only going up to 79 mph.

Virgin Trains, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, was initially known as All Aboard Florida when company officials began plans in 2013 for Florida’s first privately funded passenger rail service. The estimated $3.1 billion project calls for 32 train trips a day, 16 each way, on improved FEC track from the main station in Miami, to stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, and then a straight shot to Cocoa, before a turn west to the Orlando International Airport.

The company aims to transport tourists between Orlando and South Florida in less than 3 hours. To that end, the project calls for adding a second track for its higher-speed passenger trains along the existing FEC freight track, then adding all-new passenger tracks for 40 miles along State Road 528 to Orlando. Company representatives have said in the past they will consider extending track west to Tampa from Orlando, and north from Cocoa to Jacksonville. But those extensions have not been confirmed.

Representatives have said they expect to start on the Orlando end of the rail work “imminently,” but have not released an estimate for when the work will reach Brevard County.

Vero Beach resident Susan Mehiel, who recently helped form the group Florida Alliance for Safe Trains, on March 26 urged Brevard County commissioners to join her efforts with Mayfield. Mehiel’s group had already addressed officials in Indian River and Martin counties.

“We aren’t a group that says, ‘No trains, no way, no how,’” Mehiel said. “But we do want safe trains.”

Mehiel said Brevard County officials – who have been relatively quiet while Indian River and Martin officials publicly opposed and sued All Aboard Florida – need to start paying more attention because the rail deaths could happen here if the tracks aren’t made safer.

And Brevard has quite a stake, she said, with the largest number of crossings along the 235-mile route. The Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization lists 20 crossings in Melbourne, 13 in the unincorporated County, five in Grant-Valkaria, four in Cocoa, three in Palm Bay, two in Rockledge and a single crossing in Malabar.

The company has said it will add fencing and other “sealed corridor” features along the track to keep pedestrians from trespassing. But Mehiel said she hasn’t see evidence of that apart from some South Florida crossings.

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