Brightline started test-running trains in 2017. That route now runs from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach.
Since then, more than 28 people have been struck and killed by Brightline trains. Federal Railroad Administration records go through the end of August. There have been more deaths this fall.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he is “deeply troubled” by the deaths. He has now asked the state's transportation secretary to work on better rail safety.
"Public safety is paramount, and we are deeply troubled by the recent tragic accidents on our railways," said DeSantis, in a written statement provided to WLRN by the governor’s office on Monday. "I have directed Secretary [Kevin] Thibault and his team at FDOT to work diligently on this issue. I am confident they will continue to work with their federal, local, and industry partners to implement any safety measures deemed appropriate."
WLRN spoke with Ben Porritt, Brightline’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, about rail safety earlier this fall, at the Fort Lauderdale train station. The private train company will soon be rebranded as Virgin Trains USA.
Have there been any changes to the safety measures that were first installed after several collisions with pedestrians happened?
All of them are tragic. And what makes them even more tragic is that so many of them are preventable. There's crossing guards, there's warning lights, there's bells, there's sounds. We just encourage everybody to follow those guidelines.
If you drive around those tracks, the intended items that are there to protect you and keep you safe, are no longer going to keep you safe. People need to treat railroad signs no different than they would a stop sign, no different than they would a red light.
The other thing is, that people just assume that our trains are going to take forever. We are through a crossing in less than 45 seconds. So if you can just wait for one minute longer, you'll be safe. You'll be on with your day.
Brightline recently stopped service on train lines to install a technology called Positive Train Control that automatically stops a train before accidents occur. This technology has been available for years. Why didn't Brightline have that installed when it first started operating?
We are required to have that put in place by the end of 2020, which means before we ever operate trains to Orlando at true higher speeds of 125 miles an hour - those will be put in place.
We're the only system in the state of Florida - and one of the only passenger rails in the country - to have automatic train control, which has almost 60 to 70 percent of the same features as PTC.
In many cases, you have to do tests on a mile by mile basis, which can take, you know, months, if not years. And so ... on a monthly basis, we continue to make those upgrades.
When an incident happens, who reports that?
We have a number of engineers. They're the ones that deal with the specific incident, call it in. We have a safety and security team that arrives on scene, and works with local first responders. But, one of the things that's not seen — and that's almost undiscussed as it relates to train incidents — is the impact that these have on our engineers.
Is there trauma counseling available for engineers?
Yep. We provide trauma counseling for all of our engineers. We've done that since the beginning. And it is a huge priority for us to make sure that the people on our team are taken care of when these incidents happen.
What do you see as the company's biggest hurdle?
We're the first private passenger railroad in this country in over 100 years. So there's not a lot of rule books, or guidelines in how to operate. There is based on the Federal Railroad Administration. And so there's been train education for decades — and unfortunately, people still take unnecessary risks with their life. So I think just in general, people making decisions that are unsafe is the biggest hurdle that we have. And unfortunately, we've seen that in South Florida.
What we would like to see and certainly our biggest challenges continuing to get the word out, continuing to educate people, working with local law enforcement. So just continuing to do this.
What does that look like to people?
One of the things that we do want to put added emphasis on is mental health. It's a well-known fact that people commit suicide in front of trains and on tracks. And we think that by communicating that there are organizations like 2-1-1 out there that we can we can work with and participate with, there's things that we can do in the community to raise levels of awareness for mental health, and certainly educate people on where they can get help if they're struggling with those issues.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. For the community help and crisis hotline for all South Florida counties, and the Keys, dial 2-1-1.
Now, that Brightline as we know it is set to become Virgin Trains USA, does any of this get changed?
We'll always continue to look at the latest and greatest technologies that are out there and see if there's additive safety measures that can be put in place.
And, I would just say to everybody who's listening is, we would just encourage you when the gates come down, and you hear the train warnings and the trains, the horns blowing to stop, treat it like a red light, treat it like a stop sign and wait for the train to pass.