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Fatalities Mount from Brightline, South Florida's New Higher-Speed Train Service

A 51-year-old bicyclist became the second fatality in the first week of revenue service. It was the fourth fatality since the summer for the diesel train, which operates from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale.
January 19, 2018, 10am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Both of the recent fatalities, the earlier one being a 32-year-old pedestrian, resulted from attempts to "beat the train" through grade crossings in Boynton BeachPalm Beach County. Brightline, which began service on Saturday, can travel at speeds up to 125 mph, but the average speed is 80 mph through the current route

"On Wednesday, Jeffrey D. King, 51, was riding his bicycle when he was struck at 4:26 p.m. in the 100 block of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks on Ocean Avenue," said a spokeswoman for the Boynton Beach Police Department spokeswoman, reports Tonya Alanez fir Sun Sentinel on Jan. 17.

Investigators determined he pedaled around the gates, which were down, in an attempt to beat the approaching train.

The circumstances were remarkable similar five days earlier on Friday night, only the mode was different, as the victim was on foot.

"Witnesses told Boynton police it appeared that Melissa Lavell was on the tracks after the gates were in the down position as she tried to make it across before the train approached," reported Alanez and Wayne K. Roustan for the Sentinel on Jan. 13. The Friday night train was the inaugural run carrying business leaders from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Revenue service began Saturday, Jan. 14.

A Brightline employee informed the passengers there had been a “trespasser incident” during their two-hour wait on the tracks.

Suicide by train

The term is a familiar one to Caltrain riders on the San Francisco peninsula, which suffered its first fatality of 2018 on Wednesday night in Mountain View after experiencing nine deaths last year. However, the majority of these incidents turn out to be suicides rather than pedestrians and cyclists ducking under crossing gates or motorists stopping on the tracks while stuck in traffic. In fact, Caltrain has installed pedestrian crossing gates alongside the street gates to prevent the type of incidents tragically seen in Boynton Beach this week, although determined people can simple open adjacent pedestrian doors and walk across the tracks, risking a $271 fine.

"Another woman died in July after she was hit in Boca Raton," add Alanez and Roustan. "Her death was investigated as a suicide."

"In November, a second woman was on the tracks in Deerfield Beach [Broward County] when she was struck." While no cause has been assigned, it appeared that it may have been intentional.

A federal issue?

"In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatality, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, asking whether enough has been done to boost safety," adds Alanez. He requested "additional information on what actions the Department has taken to address highway-rail grade crossing safety."

[See 2016 post, "Top Priority for Federal Railroad Administration: Reducing Crossing Crashes."]

Nelson might also wish to refer the matter to the Florida Department of Transportation which considered using automated traffic enforcement to ticket motorists who drove around downed SunRail gates at intersections in Orlando in 2015. Whether the cameras would ticket pedestrians and cyclists, though, would need to be addressed.

Speaking of Orlando, Brightline received federal approval last month to expand from West Palm Beach to Orlando. In part of this stretch, it will it operate at its top speed of 125 mph, according to Jennifer Sorentrue of the Palm Beach Post on Nov. 14, 2017.

The company’s trains are expected to reach speeds of up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach; 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach [Brevard County]; and 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.

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Published on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 in Sun Sentinel
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