White and yellow confetti burst from a cannon as local politicians welcomed South Florida’s latest enterprise.
Pitched as a comfortable — and safer — alternative to commuting by car, the Brightline train line made its grand entrance last week, inviting local leaders on an intercounty VIP ride.
But now, with two people dead on Brightline’s tracks and Florida’s two senators demanding answers, the company’s honeymoon appears to have come to an end. On Friday, the company, which says its safety features are not to blame, shifted its focus from promoting the launch of its new train route, and an expansion to Miami, to stomping out the public relations fire the deaths have sparked.
Patrick Goddard, Brightline’s president and chief operating officer, stressed on Friday during a news conference that the company is not to blame for the deaths on their tracks, both of which occurred in Boynton Beach, but that he intends to help prevent further tragedy. He also invited Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, both of whom spoke out following the incidents, to tour the Brightline facilities.
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“We share their priority and focus on safety. What I would like to do is I would like to invite them to spend some time with us and understand what we have done,” Goddard said. “We need their help, we need their assistance in amplifying the message that we’re trying to send to the community today.”
Brightline trains, which debuted service in Broward and Palm Beach counties last week, share Florida East Coast Railway tracks with freight trains.
On Jan. 12, hours after the company hosted a confetti-filled celebration fit with rides for reporters and politicos, a Brightline train fatally struck 31-year-old Melissa Lavell, who police say appeared to be crossing the tracks even though the guard rails had lowered, warning of the oncoming train.
Then on Wednesday, less than a week into service, 51-year-old Jeffrey King tried riding his bike through a crossing not far from where Lavell was hit. He died after the train — which can reach speeds of 79 miles per hour — barreled into him. Like Lavell, police say, King attempted to cross after the guard rails were already down.
Last summer, during a testing period, two other individuals were fatally struck by Brightline trains.
Fatalities on the FEC tracks, which run from Miami to Jacksonville, aren’t uncommon. There were 14 last year — the lowest yearly total since 2013 — and 145 in the past decade, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The majority of the incidents involved people walking, lying or running on the railway, with most appearing to be suicides. Four occurred in Miami-Dade County, and all but two involved freight trains.
But the optics of a new railway being involved in two incidents so soon into its debut is clearly concerning to public officials.
And with an expansion planned to Downtown Miami in the coming months, and then to Orlando by around 2020, Brightline is faced with a difficult task: working damage control along its current route and generating sufficient buzz for its future expansions.
“A couple of deaths in a sudden period of time needs to be addressed and needs to be looked at,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. “I don’t know what the solution is, but is it a concern? The answer is, absolutely.”
In an attempt to alleviate the mounting pressure on his company, Goddard said Brightline will roll out new temporary digital signage at high-traffic railroad crossings, expand the company’s public safety campaign and mobilize company ambassadors along the corridor to educate the public about railroad safety — and hopefully deter unlawful crossings. One Palm Beach County commissioner, Steven Abrams, even floated using drones to alert engineers of obstructions on the railway, or borrow a technique from Big Tobbaco and post Surgeon General-type warnings such as “Don’t try to beat the train.”
The digital signage is expected to debut in the next couple of days, a spokesperson said. Exact locations are not yet known.
On his chest, Goddard wore a sticker that read “STAY OFF TRAIN TRACKS.” A company representative handed out safety pledges distributed to children in South Florida’s public schools districts, containing age-old tips like “Cross only where there are crossing signs,” and “Never cross tracks when a train is moving.”
As he spoke, a fluorescent-colored Brightline train zipped by behind him.
On Wednesday, Sen. Nelson asked for a federal investigation into the fatal incidents. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, called on Brightline service to stop until “safety flaws” can be reviewed, although there is no evidence that safety flaws contributed to the fatalities.
On Thursday, Sen. Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao requesting that she work with state and local officials to monitor precautionary measures around the railroad.
“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?”
The family and attorney of King, the cyclist struck Wednesday, have also demanded an investigation, although Brightline has said it was not at fault.
Abrams, who also serves as the chairman of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, said, “The fact is, standing in the way of any train at any speed is dangerous and life-imperiling.”
After Abrams sent his condolences to the families of those who died, his thoughts turned to the engineers guiding the trains during the incidents, forced to watch somebody die knowing they could not stop in time.
“Remember, these trains are not cars. They can’t swerve, they can’t stop on a dime. In some cases, many cases, people are darting out in front of them during these tragic occurrences and they have in the past also had eye-to-eye contact,” Abrams said. “So it’s a very traumatic experience also for our engineers.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.