Locomotion commotion: Quiet communities brace for Virgin Trains

Sleepy boating communities nestled on the heavily-wooded north side of the St. Sebastian River are bracing for the Virgin Trains USA passenger rail project and 32 higher-speed trains per day.

Sebastian River Heights and Little Hollywood are divided by the Florida East Coast Railway tracks just north of the 93-year-old railroad bridge that links southeastern Brevard and northeastern Indian River counties.

The Holly Street railroad crossing is the primary access route for homeowners in Sebastian River Heights and other neighborhoods west of the railroad tracks and east of the massive St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park.

The only other way in and out of the isolated area is a four-mile trip on Fleming Grant Road north to Micco Road.

Several homeowners along the west side of the railroad tracks in Sebastian River Heights said they’re concerned routine delays caused by freight trains at the Holly Street crossing are going to get worse with the addition of 32 passenger trains per day.

Some said they fear it could delay ambulances from responding to medical emergencies in the neighborhood and transporting patients to Sebastian River Medical Center, on the east side of the railroad tracks.

“I’m really sad because there’s going to be a lot of traffic and a lot of noise, a lot of hold ups when you’re trying to cross the track,” said Linda Cavalier, whose backyard on Nicole Drive abuts railroad property. “My husband has a heart condition. We would hate to be delayed access to the hospital because of the trains.”

Linda Carraway, who has lived on Sebastian River Drive next to the train tracks for 19 years, said her health issues make train-related delays at the Holly Street crossing “a very big concern.”

“What if I need an ambulance?” Carraway asked rhetorically. “I won’t be able to get across the tracks to get where I need to go, a doctor’s appointment, or an emergency of any kind.”

Bob Newhouse, another Sebastian River Drive homeowner with health issues who lives near the train tracks, also fears being cut off from help in the event of a mishap at the Holly Street crossing.

“The major problem here is: If for some reason, this crossing is shut down, Holly Street, the only way into here is through Micco Road,” Newhouse said. “If you need an ambulance quick, you’re not going to get one. Same with a fire truck, you’re not going to get one, not in any hurry, you’re not.”

However, Virgin Trains officials have said emergency response has not been an issue for the passenger rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach, which started in 2018.

“Safety is ‘Mission 1’ for the Virgin Trains project,” Rusty Roberts, the company’s vice president for government affairs, told the Brevard County commissioners on April 9.

Virgin Trains recently started construction on track and crossing improvements between West Palm Beach and Orlando as part of the effort to provide passenger rail service by 2022.

Virgin Trains contractors are expected to start work on the 1,625-foot-long Sebastian River Railroad Bridge by the end of this year, the company said in an email response to a series of questions.

“The existing bridge is nearly a century old and will be upgraded for additional traffic and capacity,” Virgin Trains spokesman Michael Hicks said in the statement.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project says a new bridge will be constructed to accommodate future passenger and freight traffic.

The project calls for the construction of a new, twin, independent ballast deck structure with concrete piers to the east of the existing railroad bridges, the impact statement says.

The old Sebastian River Railroad Bridge – two deck plate girder bridges supported by a trestle – will be demolished and hauled off, the statement says.

The U.S. Coast Guard determined the rusting steel spans had to go to protect navigation.

Scott McCullers grew up in a riverfront house overlooking the railroad bridge in Little Hollywood, where flocks of peacocks roam freely, live oak trees drip with Spanish moss and concrete mini-mansions mix with older wood-frame houses.

McCullers said he believes the construction of the new railroad bridge and establishment of higher-speed passenger rail service will ruin the rustic, laid-back feel of the neighborhood.

“That’s big news to me – about as big as you could get as far as the impact of it all,” McCullers said about the plans to build a new bridge and demolish the old one. “It would have a catastrophic impact on this side of the neighborhood.”

“I think it’s pretty,” McCullers said about the historic railroad bridge. “A lot of people might think that kind of adds something to the scenery.”

Commercial and recreational fishermen like the neighborhood because it offers boats easy access to the St. Sebastian River and nearby Sebastian Inlet, McCullers said.

“People come and eat at Outriggers restaurant – where you turn into the neighborhood there’s a little restaurant right on the river – and they’ll venture into the neighborhood,” McCullers said. “And everyone thinks it’s a neat little neighborhood. It’s tucked back here.”

“But when all these trains start rolling through, there’s a good chance you’ll see a train while you’re driving through checking out the neighborhood,” McCullers said.

“I don’t see anything positive from this perspective. People are not going to like it because it’s kind of a nook neighborhood.”

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