Construction for high-speed trains called ‘imminent’

Construction on railroad tracks and crossings for the Virgin Trains USA passenger rail expansion is to start this year just to Brevard’s south in Indian River County.

“I think this year, absolutely, but we’re just saying imminent at this point,” said Michael Hicks, a Virgin Trains USA spokesman, about the construction kickoff.

Virgin Trains USA anticipates zipping 32 trains per day at 110 mph through Space and Treasure coast neighborhoods and historic downtown areas when passenger service between Orlando and West Palm Beach starts in 2022.

The passenger service started running last year between West Palm Beach and Miami.

Florida East Coast Railway tracks and crossings will be upgraded from West Palm Beach to Cocoa to handle the passenger trains, Virgin Trains USA said May 21. The work includes the construction of a second main track and the replacement of 19 bridges.

New tracks will be constructed along State Road 528 between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport.

The Brevard County Commission and Grant-Valkaria Town Council both passed resolutions in the past two months supporting state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s efforts to convince FDOT to regulate Virgin Trains USA passenger rail.

In an April 18 letter to Mayfield, FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault agreed to assign a top state rail administrator to work with Indian River County officials regarding their safety concerns.

But FDOT rejected public calls for fencing along the entire the length of the Virgin Trains USA tracks, Thibault said, because of “concerns that this action would be subject to issues with legal authority for right of way and private property ownership.”

Mayfield (R-Melbourne) could not be reached for comment about FDOT’s response.

An aide, Adrienne Cronebaugh, told the Brevard County Commission Mayfield is still working to get FDOT to address shortcomings in federal and state regulations governing trains traveling below 125 mph, such as Virgin Trains USA.

An Oct. 31, 2018, report by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability identified gaps in safety and operational regulations for trains traveling between 80 mph and 125 mph.

So far, 16 people have died in mishaps on the tracks since passenger train started in January 2018, published reports show. But the OPPAGA report also noted most of the deaths on railroad tracks in recent years involved suicidal people and were outside of the railroad company’s control, said Rusty Roberts, Virgin Trains USA’s vice president for government affairs.

“Safety is ‘Mission 1’ for the Virgin Trains project,” Roberts told the Brevard County Commission. “There have been zero deaths, zero incidents that have been caused by a malfunction of our gate system, signaling system or the trains. We have taken a lot of lessons learned from our operation in South Florida and we’re actually adding additional safety measures in South Florida to find a way to reduce these deaths.”

Virgin Trains USA worked with the Federal Railroad Administration and FDOT to design the railroad crossing upgrades for the passenger train project, Roberts said.

“FDOT and FRA worked hand in hand with us in every county and every municipality on a crossing by crossing diagnostic review to determine what are the best safety measures to put at each crossing,” Roberts said.

“And then we worked with local public works directors and city and county engineers to figure out what more we could do,” Roberts said.

Virgin Trains USA anticipates starting passenger rail service between Orlando and West Palm Beach in early 2022, Roberts said Friday in an interview.

Virgin Trains USA announced last week it contracted HSR Constructors, a joint venture of three top railroad and transit builders, for most of the work between West Palm Beach and Cocoa.

They are Herzog Railroad Services of St. Joseph, Missouri; Stacy and Witbeck of Alameda, California; and RailWorks of New York.

The other major component of the West Palm Beach to Orlando expansion is the construction of 35 miles of new tracks alongside State Road 528 between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport. That will be built by Granite Construction Inc., of Watsonville, California.

Meanwhile, Indian River County officials have been talking with train company and state transportation officials about safety enhancements for the county’s 32 railroad crossings and roughly 35 miles of track.

Florida Department of Transportation and county officials recently conducted field inspections of rail crossings and identified safety issues, said County Attorney Dylan Reingold.

Commissioner Tim Zorc said the county government wants to make sure sidewalks are built across the tracks at several major crossings, including 45th Street, near Gifford Middle School, among other safety measures.

Indian River County is only one of the local governments along the rail corridor calling upon FDOT to develop plans to improve the safety of the Virgin Trains USA passenger rail.

The entire passenger train project is expected to cost $4 billion, Virgin Trains USA said in a May 21 release.

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