Momentum for rail-safety regs gaining steam

Efforts to establish state safety regulations for Virgin Trains USA passenger rail service are gaining momentum as deaths mount, track construction accelerates and passenger rail projects progress throughout Florida.

The increasing public attention on passenger rail – combined with a consultant’s report identifying holes in state and federal regulations – provided a power boost to state Sen. Debbie Mayfield and others campaigning to enhance rail safety.

“The legislation I’m going to introduce (next) year is going to be directly related to those findings to ensure we have the safety of our citizens in mind,” Mayfield (R-Melbourne) said about the rail safety report.

“There’s no doubt we are going to have high-speed passenger rail in the state of Florida,” Mayfield said. “That’s why it’s important to get these policies and procedures in place before they start building them.”

Brevard and Indian River counties’ legislative delegations last week approved resolutions supporting legislation that ensures safety measures for high-speed passenger rail systems in Florida.

Although past attempts to enact regulations have gone nowhere in the legislature, Mayfield and other said they believe the chances are greater in 2020 because of the increasing public interest.

“I think it has a better shot this time than it had previously because we have more areas of the state impacted and we’re really now getting the evidence as to how dangerous this is,” said state Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), referring to the rail safety report.

Virgin Trains plans to send 34 trains per day through the Space and Treasure coasts at speeds of up to 110 mph between Orlando and Miami starting in summer 2022.

Virgin Trains began running passenger service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in January 2018 and added a stop in Miami that May.

Virgin Trains and predecessor Brightline killed 20 people from Jan. 1, 2018, through May, 31, 2019, federal records show. Since then, media reports attributed seven more deaths to the passenger train. While some of these were apparent suicides, the total number of deaths has attracted legislative attention.

Virgin Trains plans to install all the safety measures required by the Federal Railroad Administration while constructing new tracks and improving railroad crossings on the Florida East Coast right-of-way between West Palm Beach and Cocoa.

“Safety is the top priority at Virgin Trains,” the company said in a statement following Mayfield’s Sept. 10 news conference about her intention to file new train safety legislation in 2020. “We meet and exceed the highest standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration.”

But Mayfield and other rail safety advocates said the consultant’s report showed an absence of federal and state regulations for passenger trains traveling between 81 mph and 125 mph.

Florida has no regulations for when fencing should be installed along railroad tracks or who should be responsible for the costs, according to the Oct. 31, 2018, report by CPCS Transcom Inc., of Ottawa. The consultant recommended setting new regulations for trains travelling 81-to-125 mph, including fencing requirements, minimum at-grade crossing standards and state certification of new passenger rail lines.

The consultant also recommended clarifying Florida Department of Transportation’s role in regulating passenger rail systems and cracking down on trespassing along the tracks.

Harrell joined Mayfield and state Representatives Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) and Thad Altman (R-Indialantic) in writing letters to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in support of more safety initiatives for high-speed passenger rail.

Neither DeSantis’ office nor FDOT has responded to repeated requests by the Melbourne Beachsider since March for their positions on the consultant’s rail safety report and Mayfield’s calls for regulations for trains traveling 81-to-125 mph.

Virgin Trains started construction on new tracks along State Road 528/Beachline Expressway in June and is to begin work in Indian River and Brevard counties in the summer.

Virgin Trains has also announced plans to extend service from Orlando to Tampa along the Interstate 4 corridor.

Another longstanding proposal calls for the reestablishment of Amtrak service from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach.

Several political observers said the string of train-related deaths, the start of construction and the spread of passenger rail projects have improved Mayfield’s chances of winning approval for new passenger rail regulations.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, pegged the odds of the legislature setting regulations for Virgin Trains at “50-50.”

“I think the governor and legislature will be rightfully concerned about the death toll and safety, both because it is an important policy issue and because politically there may be public pressure to require it,” Jewett said. But Mayfield and her allies would have to overcome the powerful anti-regulation forces in the Republican-controlled legislature, Jewett and other political experts said.

Leave a Comment