Political pressure continues to mount against South Florida’s newly minted Brightline passenger rail system, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio the latest to call for a review of safety protocols following two fatal accidents during the commuter trains’ first week of operation.
In reaction to a Wednesday incident in Boynton Beach where a Brightline train killed a man riding his bicycle across the Florida East Coast railway, Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Thursday requesting that she work with state and local officials to monitor precautionary measures around the railroad.
Police say the cyclist, Jeffrey King, was struck by a train after he pedaled his bike around safety gates that had dropped across the railroad crossing ahead of the train’s passing. He was hit not far from where Melissa Lavell was struck by a train six days earlier while crossing the tracks. Her death, which occurred during a sneak-peak, invite-only ride ahead of Brightline’s grand opening Saturday, followed two others over the summer that happened as the company sent its trains on test runs.
Public safety issues have arisen that must be addressed.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio
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“It is critical that the Department of Transportation assess safety measures with Brightline, while coordinating with local officials and members of the community to prevent future tragedies from occurring,” Rubio wrote to Chao. “In response to these recent and tragic events, how does the Department intend to ensure that the Florida Department of Transportation, its local partners and Florida East Coast Railway safeguard pedestrians at Brightline rail crossings?”
Brightline President Patrick Goddard is meeting with the press Friday morning at a Boca Raton FEC station to discuss just that.
“Brightline is committed to equipping the general public with the knowledge necessary to stay safe around not just Brightline tracks, but all train tracks,” the company said in a press release.
Owned by Florida East Coast Industries, Brightline is a privately owned mass transit venture that is ultimately planned as a $3 billion Miami-to-Orlando service. Right now, the trains run only from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. An expansion of Brightline’s trains — which move far faster than the freight trains that have dominated the FEC lines for decades — is planned into downtown Miami, and then to Orlando.
There’s been no evidence that safety lapses contributed to any of the deaths involving Brightline trains. And the Federal Railroad Administration documented 12 fatalities along the Florida East Coast Railway in 2017, so train-related deaths aren’t unusual.
But the spate of deaths so soon into Brightline’s official operations has raised concerns across the state. Rubio’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, asked Wednesday for a federal investigation into the fatal incidents. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, has called on the service to shut down until “safety flaws” can be reviewed. King’s family and their attorney have also demanded an investigation.
The issue is threatening to become a public relations crisis for the passenger rail system, which worked hard to create hype ahead of its grand opening Saturday. The system, to be built with the assistance of tax-free bonds, has been pitched for years as a way to help alleviate South Florida’s gridlock and wean the region off its addiction to the automobile.
But the buzz Brightline hopes to generate ahead of its expansion to downtown Miami could be muted now, with the city’s mayor concerned about unintended consequences associated with a train that will cut through neighborhoods and an upscale retail district en route to its terminus next to Government Center.
“A couple of deaths in a sudden period of time needs to be addressed and needs to be looked at,” said Mayor Francis Suarez. “I don’t know what the solution is, but is it a concern? The answer is, absolutely.”
This article previously overstated the number of FEC railroad deaths in 2017. There were 12 recorded by the Federal Railroad Administration.