Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Brightline to Address Deaths, and Delray Politics Stay Ugly

In December, the Associated Press reported that Brightline is the deadliest railroad in the country.

Since Brightline began operating in July 2017, its trains have killed nearly four dozen people between West Palm Beach and Miami. Investigators have determined that the company was not at fault in any of those deaths. Most were suicides. The others resulted from drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs and drivers or pedestrians going around gates to beat a train.

Yet the fatalities have presented a public relations problem for Brightline, soon to be known as Virgin Trains USA. The company still isn’t running its full complement of trains and plans to add service to Orlando. So Brightline is taking several steps.

Today in West Palm Beach, Brightline will roll out what the company called the Buzz Boxx. It’s a mobile barbershop that Brightline says will “promote rail safety and mental health awareness.” The vehicle will operate in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, offering  haircuts and asking people to take a rail safety pledge. Barbers will work in partnership with the 211 Helpline, the free service for people at risk of suicide.

Brightline first announced this campaign last month. State Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, said the effort will get a $500,000 state grant. A Brightline spokesman said the campaign would take its message to schools and homeless shelters. Last month, the Florida Department of Transportation announced a $60 million program to increase rail safety, with completion set for March 2022.

In a news release, Brightline summarized its outreach efforts over the past 18 months: 2,000 public service announcements on radio and television; training of more than 500 bus drivers; new signs at busy intersections; training sessions with first responders; 92,000 mailers to South Florida students and their families; training “lifesaver volunteers.”

In addition, Brightline participated—with the Federal Railway Administration and Florida Department of Transportation—in a review of all crossings on the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. A spokesman said, “Brightline incorporated the recommendations of the diagnostic team into its designs.”

A separate release listed other safety measures. Among them: Systems to determine whether gates are down as a train approaches and can detect malfunctions; four-way crossing gates, which allowed creation of a “quiet zone” along the corridor; wider sidewalks; new fencing “to address high-risk areas.” A spokeswoman said the company may use drones to monitor the tracks.

Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

Tri-Rail has taken many of the same steps. Executive Director Steven Abrams said prevention can be as complex as technology—Tri-Rail also is considering drones—or as simple as “trimming a bush” for more visibility at crossings. There is no quiet zone on the CSX corridor that Tri-Rail uses.

“You need to get at the root cause,” Abrams said, meaning depression and drug use. He noted that deaths involving Tri-Rail trains have come down with the decline in opioid-related deaths.

Some of Brightline’s critics—such as those who opposed the station in Boca Raton—have responded to the deaths with such unrealistic ideas as elevating the tracks or eliminating the service. In fact, even the most conscientious company can’t prevent someone determined to kill himself or herself from doing so.

A despondent Deerfield Beach High School graduate recently stepped in front of a freight train just before he was to leave for Georgia Tech on a football scholarship. Should Florida seek to ban freight trains?

Nor can any company prevent every reckless attempt to beat a train. There will be more Brightline deaths and Tri-Rail deaths. Brightline trains are faster and even more lethal. All the company can do is try to lower the toll.

“These incidents are tragic and all have been the result of deliberate, unlawful actions to ignore warning signs or safety barriers” the Brightline spokesman said. “We have and will continue to take a leadership role in raising awareness for rail safety and mental health issues in our community.

“Most importantly we implore people to stay off the tracks and to treat rail safety warnings no different than red lights or stop signs.”

Numbers fall short

Speaking of Brightline, the company touted the fact that it reached one million riders in 2019. Other numbers tell a different story.

The Palm Beach Post reminded us that in 2017 Brightline predicted 2.3 million riders and $112 million in revenue by 2019. Ridership wasn’t half that last year, and revenue was just $22 million.

A Brightline spokesman responded that the company finished the year strong and believes that it will hit those numbers when the Orlando station opens in 2022. The Boca Raton station and others in Aventura and at Port Miami are designed to further boost ridership.

Delray commissioners square off

The politics of last week’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting resumed as soon as this week’s meeting began.

As I reported Tuesday, Mayor Shelly Petrolia banged down the gavel to end an exchange with Commissioner Ryan Boylston and adjourned the meeting, walking out. Boylston had been criticizing Petrolia’s public campaign against commissioners Bill Bathurst and Shirley Johnson, who are seeking reelection on March 17.

With Petrolia absent, Johnson was running the meeting. She wondered if the previous meeting had ended outside city protocol. City Attorney Lynn Gelin responded, “I don’t know if I agree.” So the meeting proceeded.

During commissioner comments at the end, however, Boylston came back to the absent Petrolia, as he had announced that he would.

Noting that Monday had been the Martin Luther King holiday, Boylston said it had been a time for “reflection.” He then cited Petrolia’s “effort to replace the only minority” on the commission—Johnson—“with a white candidate” —meaning Chris Davey. The third candidate is Angela Burns, who also is African-American.

“We have to call this out,” Boylston said. “This should not be accepted.” He added, “I hope this individual will do the right thing,” meaning that Boylston wants Davey to drop out. “If not, I know Delray Beach will.”

I left a message seeking Davey’s response. I didn’t hear back by deadline for this post.

The jabbing at Petrolia wasn’t over. After all the comments, Bathurst said, “Let’s (end) this the right way.” Johnson said, “Meeting is adjourned— properly.”

Delray annexation

Earlier in the meeting, the commission approved the annexation into Delray Beach of roughly seven acres. The addition will be a 40-home development next to Banyan Creek Elementary School. Commissioners praised the developer for working with the city and residents to achieve what one of the developer’s representatives called “a good outcome.”

Golf course discussion


The new public golf course is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting between the Boca Raton City Council and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. But it may be a short discussion.

District board members already rejected the city’s proposed partnership for the course. They don’t seem willing to revisit that decision. Instead, they will come prepared to discuss other topics.

“We want to move forward from golf,” Steve Engel said. “The city’s ‘revised’ (proposal) merely rearranged a couple of deck chairs. To that end, our chosen agenda topics will entail projects that we can partner with the city on, like, for example, integrating Ocean Strand into the city’s waterfront development plan.”

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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