Railroad quiet zones two years away in north county

Faster Brightline trains raise specter of more deaths even as quiet zones two years away.

Railroad quiet zones are coming to Palm Beach Gardens and north county. 

But not until 2023, at the earliest. And not without some risk.

The sounds of silence won’t break out over north county any earlier than 2023, officials say, even though the $2.2 million needed to pay for more gates and other safety features at 26 crossings is in hand. 

That’s because the final testing of safety measures can’t start until the Brightline passenger service completes construction on a second set of tracks, not just in Palm Beach County but all the way to Orlando. That $2.7 billion job is not scheduled to be done until the final months of 2022. 

Only then can Brightline put in place the final safety measures needed to seal off crossings on the Florida East Coast Railway between 23rd Street in West Palm Beach and County Line Road in Tequesta.

Freight trains will continue blasting their horns as they approach crossings until the safety measures are approved by federal railway officials. 

But even with the enhanced security required to achieve quiet zones, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep people from dying on the tracks, local officials acknowledged at an April 15 meeting of the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency. 

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When Brightline began service in January 2018, deaths began rising. Drivers and pedestrians unaccustomed to the speedy, stealthy passenger trains disobeyed warning gates or followed familiar paths between crossings and were hit. Some people used the trains to commit suicide.

“Certainly we don’t want to repeat the tragic history that we all watched as Brightline was initially started,” said County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, the transportation board’s vice chairman. “We’ve had suicide by train and we’ve also had people … who are used to slow moving freights and all of a sudden these (Brightline trains) come whizzing by and unfortunately train vs. person — it’s not a good combination.”

Gates rise at Burns Road.

South county has been quieted

Still, cities in southern Palm Beach County, working with transportation officials, established quiet zones. By summer 2018, horns that used to haunt neighborhoods from Boca to West Palm were silenced. A public relations campaign helped raise awareness of the new dangers at and in between crossings. 

But people continued to die at a pace of about one per month, with 41 deaths involving Brightline trains, according to a December 2019 analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data by The Associated Press. The AP calculated the death rate of one per every 29,000 miles of train travel to be the worst per-mile death rate of the nation’s 821 railroads.

The majority of the Brightline deaths were suicides, The AP reported, while most others involved impatient motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists who misjudged the trains’ speed and ignored bells, gates or other warnings. 

Deaths have dropped off since Brightline stopped its Miami-to-West Palm Beach service in March 2020 because of the coronavirus. Service from West Palm Beach south is expected to begin again in the fourth quarter of 2021.

A sign at RCA Boulevard at the FEC Railway tracks in Palm Beach Gardens warns about the speed of Brightline trains. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

But safety measures may not be enough, said Jupiter Councilman Jim Kuretski, a transportation planning agency board member. He pointed to signs posted along the FEC tracks saying “trains may exceed 80 mph.” 

That’s misleading, he said, because when 32 Brightline trains a day start rolling through north county, they can go up to 109 mph.

“I want our public to know how fast it’s going to go. I want people to be scared to get up on the tracks,” he said at the April 15 meeting.

Still, members expressed few doubts about moving forward with quiet zones. 

Calculating safety

Quiet zones still two years away in Gardens
Plastic wrap enshrouds newly installed warning lights at the RCA Boulevard-FEC Railway crossing. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Without quiet zones, trains must sound their horns — two long bursts, then one short and one long — as they approach a crossing. But that federal rule can be waived if the crossing meets a threshold based on a mathematical equation. 

Federal rail officials have created a website that calculates the risk without the horn vs. the risk with one. Apply enough safety measures and the benefits outweigh the risk and horns can be banned, except in emergencies.

The safety measures, which must be in place at each crossing, include adding so-called “four quadrant” gates, which block all traffic and pedestrian paths on both sides of the tracks. The goal is to stop, say, an eastbound car from entering the westbound lane to get around the gate. Another fix is to add concrete medians to keep cars in line.

Upgrading the rail crossings

Some of that work is happening now, while Brightline rebuilds the corridor. The money for the safety measures comes from the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which gets it from federal gas taxes.

The agency, which helps determine how state and federal grants are spent locally, is overseen by 21 elected officials from throughout the county, including north county Commissioner Maria Marino and Palm Beach Gardens Councilwoman Chelsea Reed.

In Palm Beach Gardens, $232,000 is set aside to upgrade Kyoto Gardens Drive and $100,000 is planned for RCA Boulevard, in estimates provided by transportation planners. No money is set aside for the other three crossings — Hood Road, Burns Road and Lighthouse Drive — because no additional safety measures are expected to be needed.

CHART: The cost of safety at all 26 north county crossings

The crossing has been closed at Kyoto Gardens Drive since April 25 as Brightline installs a second set of tracks, the last of the city’s five crossings to close for double-tracking. Workers installed new gates during the recent shutdown at RCA Boulevard.

Three other north county crossings are in line for $232,000: Indiantown Road and Donald Ross Road in Jupiter and 45th Street in West Palm Beach.

West Palm Beach and Jupiter, with six crossings, would have the most, with five in Gardens, four in Riviera Beach, three in Lake Park and two in Tequesta.

Brightline track work in Palm Beach Gardens
Railway workers at quitting time May 3 at the Kyoto Gardens Drive-FEC Railway crossing in Palm Beach Gardens. The road is closed as Brightline adds a second set of tracks. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

This story was updated on Tuesday May 4, 2021, to add additional information about construction timing and payment for railroad safety measures.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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