Bells clang and lights flash 15 seconds before the high-speed train zips through the crossing where Jeffrey King died. Five seconds later, Florida’s new Brightline train is gone.
On Wednesday, King became the fourth person killed by a Brightline train since Florida’s new high-speed passenger service began conducting test runs early last year. His death was the first since the train began taking paying passengers Saturday, but just barely: Melissa Ann Lavell was hit and killed by a train carrying VIPs on a demonstration run Friday night.
The deaths have some, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, questioning Brightline’s safety, but others aren’t sure what the company could do differently.
Police say King and Lavell ignored the bells and lights, went around the gates and were hit as they tried to beat approaching Brightline trains, which travel at more than 70 mph through Boynton Beach.
One death was ruled a suicide: An 18-year-old woman jumped in front of a Brightline train making a test run through Boca Raton in July. In November, the death of a woman hit on tracks near Fort Lauderdale was ruled an accident.
Boynton Beach, Florida police say a new high-speed train struck and killed a bicyclist on Wednesday. The train hit and killed a woman last week during a preview run. Two people were struck and died last year. It began service on Saturday. (Jan. 18)
“It’s shocking that someone actually was killed here,” retired movie artistic director Thomas Robinson said Thursday, not long after one of Brightline’s 22 daily trains sped through Boynton Beach’s quiet downtown. He said he walks across the tracks at least once daily and always looks both ways, not trusting the bells and lights. “My mom always told me to.”
Safety on American train tracks is an issue for established passenger and freight companies across the country. During the first 10 months of 2017, 831 people died when accidentally struck by trains — 69 of them in Florida — the Federal Railroad Administration says. Another 143 died by suicide during that period. Accidental deaths jumped from 2016, when there were 736 the entire year and 266 by suicide. Most accidents happen when people ignore bells and gates, or while cutting across tracks between crossings.
The deaths have darkened the debut of Brightline, the state’s first high-speed rail. The privately held company began carrying paying passengers Saturday on a limited 40-mile route between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Later this year, service is scheduled to expand to Miami and to Orlando in 2020. The company is set to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to help build the spur that will connect West Palm Beach and Orlando.
Brightline had to overcome safety, congestion and noise concerns to get approval for that spur, with several cities along the line filing objections. Brightline has run TV, radio and print ads for the past year and held community events emphasizing the need for pedestrians and drivers to be alert, to not cross at unguarded spots and not to go around gates.
“The safety systems are designed to prevent and protect people from incidents like those that occurred in recent days. Those systems functioned as intended,” the company said in a statement Thursday, referring to the crossing gates and alarms.
Nelson sent a letter Wednesday night to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao calling for a federal investigation of the accidents and for recommendations on preventing them. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican whose district includes part of the planned Orlando-West Palm spur, called for Brightline to be shutdown pending a safety investigation.
He wrote Thursday on Twitter, “stop victim blaming and take responsibility for the fact that your trains are killing people. Trains should stop running until massive safety flaws are resolved.”
Police say King, a 51-year-old restaurant worker, rode his bicycle around the lowered gates. His family’s attorney, Zedrick Barber II said more precautions may be needed.
“With all the technological advances we’ve made as a society, there’s no excuse for a person riding a bicycle to have full access to a railway crossing with a locomotive approaching at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour,” Barber said. “Brightline cannot be the high speed rail of the future operating under the safeguards of the past.”
But police spokeswoman Stephanie Slater said pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists need to obey the bells, lights and gates.
“There is never any reason to try to beat a train,” she said.