Thursday, February 22, 2024

Brightline’s Dark Side: Death on the Tracks

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“Talking Transportation”

By Jim Cameron
President
CAMERON COMMUNICATIONS INC
Author: “Off The Record: Confessions of a Media Consultant

Much has been written in praise of Brightline, the modern, stylish privately owned railroad serving Miami to West Palm Beach to Orlando with fast, comfortable trains.

But the railroad also has the highest death rate of any railroad in the US, having killed 108 people since it began operations in 2017… not its passengers but people crossing the railroad’s tracks.

Last week alone at one grade crossing in Melbourne FL there were two accidents causing three deaths in as many days.  Those “accidents” are under investigation by the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.  But all indications are these deaths, like the others, were caused by stupidity:  people driving around the crossing gates that lower before the train roars through.

Brightline has not been faulted for these deaths, nor should it be when people foolishly let their impatience exceed their common sense.

There is a solution, albeit it expensive, protecting people from their own stupidity:  quad gates.  At every grade crossing there would be two gates lowered on each side, blocking both lanes.  Of course, that doesn’t stop pedestrians or people on bicycles.  Sadly, there are also suicides.  But little can be done to prevent those.

A more expensive solution would be what’s called “grade separation”, in effect running the trains on an elevated track so that road traffic can pass underneath.  But that would be a multi-billion dollar expense.

On Brightline’s newest tracks to Orlando grade crossings are all but eliminated, allowing trains to speed along safely at 125 mph.  But along the older, densely populated east coast tracks the trains are limited to 79 mph.  Still, that’s way too fast to “outrun” if you’re in a car or truck.

Public education campaigns do not seem to have helped, either.  Signage at crossings now warns people of the dangers in English, Spanish and Creole.

What does this mean for our trains in Connecticut?  Well, the main line of Metro-North from NY to New Haven doesn’t have any level grade crossings, though there are plenty of them on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines.  Also on the Hartford line running north from New Haven to Springfield MA.

Most grade crossings are equipped with gates and flashing lights, but some lack both, equipped only with “cross buck” signs in the shape of a large X.  They read “stop, look and listen”.

Forgotten in all this discussion is the emotional effect on the railroad engineers involved in these crashes. They see the inevitable coming but can’t stop their trains and must know what’s about to happen.  It takes a long time for engineers to recover from the trauma.

So kudos to Brightline for running such a popular new train service.  But let’s remember that faster trains are also more dangerous.  And when it’s trains vs vehicles, the trains always “win”.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here.  You can contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.”

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