Miami-Dade County

A new horn-free zone would make Brightline trains pass quietly. But what about safety?

Brightline fast-travel rail service is finally coming to downtown Miami

Brightline fast-travel rail service is finally coming to downtown Miami.
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Brightline fast-travel rail service is finally coming to downtown Miami.

For many in small-town Miami Shores, crossing the railroad tracks is a quaint rite of passage.

Kids cross the tracks near the popular recreation center. Adults cross to get from golf course to playground.

Setting foot on steel is so routine that the village's vice mayor even does it.

"As somebody who has grown up there, I will admit to running across those tracks as a kid when I definitely should not have," said Vice Mayor Sean Brady. "Nobody should be doing that, but with freight trains ... it's something I've even done within the last six months."

But those slower-moving freight trains are now sharing the tracks with the faster Brightline commuter trains. And that means Miami Shores leaders and train officials are trying to educate people about the risk of crossing the tracks illegally.

Brightline trains can reach speeds of nearly 80 mph, while freight trains are limited to 60 mph but often go slower than car traffic.

Not only are the new yellow trains speedier, they may soon be silent.

A no-horns "quiet zone" is on track to be expanded north to the Miami-Dade County line.

That means all trains running on the Florida East Coast Railway won't be required to sound their horns in advance of whooshing through a public crossing. The county has to approve track safety improvements before the silent treatment takes effect.

The new quiet zone would stretch from the northern end of the county down to 79th Street. A quiet zone already exists from 71st Street to PortMiami, the southernmost end of the FEC.

New safety measures include raised medians and reinforced crossing gates.

Since May 19, Brightline trains have run between West Palm Beach and downtown Miami 16 times a day. But eight people have died and two were injured along the route in Palm Beach and Broward counties since the commuter line began testing trains in 2017. Two have died in Boynton Beach this month alone. All involved illegal crossings, and about half appeared to be suicides.

There were 16 fatalities in 2017 along FEC tracks across the state, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 20 in 2016.

In a statement to the Miami Herald, Brightline emphasized that it has engaged in a "very aggressive outreach campaign regarding rail safety."

"Since a quiet zone is a quality of life improvement, cities and counties also need to be engaged in educating their residents and stakeholders about a quiet zone," the company said in the statement.

Train conductors and engineers will have the discretion to sound the horns in emergency situations or if there are construction workers nearby. The rule calls for locomotive engineers to sound train horns at least 15 seconds — and no more than 20 seconds — ahead of all public grade crossings.

But if a train is traveling faster than 60 mph — which Brightline trains often do — an engineer doesn't have to sound the horn until the train is within a quarter mile of the crossing, even if the warning is less than 15 seconds, according to the railroad administration.

To establish a quiet zone, local governments must show that silencing the trains won't pose a "significant safety risk," Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Transportation and Public Works, said in an email.

About two years ago, when Brightline — known then as All Aboard Florida — started planning for a South Florida launch, several residents contacted the county to request a quiet zone, Damian said. Quiet zones have been established in Palm Beach and Broward counties, but a handful of local politicians have publicly stated that silencing the trains could lead to more casualties.

Former Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein has criticized the decision to silence the trains in her city, predicting fatalities would "escalate dramatically."

“I have people just screaming about these horns,” Glickstein said in late January, according to the Palm Beach Post. “If that horn isn’t blowing, people are going to misjudge the speed of that train.”

A Brightline train arrives at the MiamiCentral station in Overtown. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

The railroad administration's analysis of quiet zone safety has shown that grade crossings in quiet zones were as safe as they were when trains sounded their horns. But a 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the analysis did not account for changes to the characteristics of the crossings over time, like train speeds or frequency.

Damian said 19 crossings in Miami-Dade County would be affected and that county inspections are slated to take place in mid-July. If everything goes as planned, the county will file a notice with the Federal Railroad Administration, which then has 21 days to approve or deny the application. If accepted, "no train horn" signs will be raised at crossings along the track.

The improvements, paid for with federal money, cost about $1,141,714, according to the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization.

Cities and counties started quiet zones — then called whistle bans — in the 1970s, but the rollout was botched, according to a federal watchdog report.

In 1990, the railroad administration found that whistle bans in Florida led to a 195 percent increase in accidents at grade crossings at night, according to the report. Four years later, the federal government took over the quiet zone process, and by 2006, required municipalities to mitigate the increased risk of quiet zones by installing safety improvements at crossings.

Between June 2005 and June 2017, 18 quiet zones were established in Florida, seventh most among states in the United States. A total of 570 new quiet zones were established across 42 states.

In Miami Shores, Brightline helped deliver more than 12,000 pieces of safety literature in three languages — English, Spanish and Creole. In January, the company — which has partnered with rail-safety organization Operation Lifesaver — expanded its safety campaign. That included placing digital signs near intersections warning pedestrians and drivers of the faster trains, stationing police officers nearby and enlisting safety ambassadors to educate the masses.

"We're very excited about the quiet zone implementation, especially the group of people that live close to the tracks," said Brady, the vice mayor. He added that informing the public about the change will be crucial to ensuring a safe rollout.

"When that gate comes down, don't trust your judgment."

Brightline launched its first train route from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, bringing new commuting options that the rail line said will alleviate traffic hassles for commuters.