Florida

Sen. Bill Nelson calls for investigation after two fatal Brightline train accidents

A Brightline train fatally struck a cyclist in Boynton Beach, the second fatality involving a Brightline train in Boynton Beach in six days.
A Brightline train fatally struck a cyclist in Boynton Beach, the second fatality involving a Brightline train in Boynton Beach in six days. emichot@miamiherald.com

For the second time since South Florida’s high-speed commuter line began carrying passengers less than a week ago, a Brightline train has struck and killed someone, raising concerns about pedestrian safety and leading a U.S. senator to call for a federal transportation investigation.

According to Boynton Beach police, 51-year-old Boynton Beach resident Jeffrey King tried to beat the train Wednesday afternoon and pedaled around the gates as he crossed the tracks going west on East Ocean Avenue. King was struck by one of Brightline’s trains, which only began carrying paying passengers from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale Saturday.

On Friday, the commuter line’s VIP opening was marred when a train killed 31-year-old Boynton Beach resident Melissa Lavell. As was the case with King, Lavell was crossing the tracks in Boynton Beach after guardrails were down.

The fatal incidents this week follow two previous fatalities that occurred after Florida East Coast Industries, Brightline’s parent company, began running its passenger cars along the tracks in July to prepare for the commuter line’s launch. The spate of deaths alarmed U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who called on Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Wednesday to launch a probe into the security of crossings around the train’s path.

“In Florida, we have seen the challenges of addressing grade crossing safety, where according to 2016 data the state is in the top ten for fatalities and collisions. Tragically, this trend is continuing with two recent fatalities in Boynton Beach involving the Brightline high-speed train,” Nelson wrote.

Brightline continues to reinforce awareness and education. It is critical that the public remains attentive when near any active railroad, always obey the laws and respect the safety devices that are in place to protect the public. Never try to beat a train.

Part of a Wednesday night statement from a Brightline spokesperson

A Brightline spokesperson issued a statement Wednesday night:

“Brightline has been active in working with the Federal Railroad Administration, the Florida Department of Transportation and elected officials to ensure infrastructure improvements and safety requirements were complied with as prescribed and approved by officials. Our team shares Senator Nelson’s interest in prioritizing rail safety nationwide for passengers and pedestrians.

“Brightline continues to reinforce awareness and education. It is critical that the public remains attentive when near any active railroad, always obey the laws and respect the safety devices that are in place to protect the public. Never try to beat a train.”

Train-related fatalities are not uncommon, as Nelson noted. The Federal Railway Administration documented 18 deaths in Miami-Dade and Broward counties last year.

But the rash of deadly incidents comes after extended criticism out of the Treasure Coast, where opponents worried about the consequences that Brightline trains might have on traffic, noise and safety. Federal East Coast Industries also runs freight trains along the tracks.

“This is a tragedy,” tweeted State Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, a Brightline critic. “How many more people must die before we really take a look at putting safety first when it comes to high-speed rail coming through our communities?”

Brightline trains, which run at speeds of up to 79 miles per hour, are planned to begin into downtown Miami, although the launch date has yet to be announced.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

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