Dollars against danger: Brightline gets grant money for safety improvements, expansion

Since the service's start in 2017, its trains have killed over 50 people, though many of them were suicides.

In this file photo, Brightline passengers use the MiamiCentral terminal to board for a trip from Miami to West Palm Beach on May 11, 2018 in Miami.

In this file photo, Brightline passengers use the MiamiCentral terminal to board for a trip from Miami to West Palm Beach on May 11, 2018 in Miami. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Brightline – South Florida’s “higher speed” passenger train that once had the worst per-mile death rate of the nation’s railroads – is getting money to improve safety on its tracks and at its crossings. The privately-run system recently announced it had received an award of $25 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) discretionary grant program.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in partnership with Brightline, was awarded the grant to enhance safety along the Florida East Coast Railway/Brightline corridor between Miami-Dade and Brevard counties. The money, combined with up to $20 million in matching funds from FDOT and Brightline itself, will mean a $45 million investment.

The project includes the construction of about 33 miles of pedestrian protection features and supplemental safety measures at 328 grade crossings. The work will include raised pavement markers, edge striping, fencing and additional safety signage in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties. Brightline currently operates between Miami and West Palm Beach and is building an extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando, hopefully ready by early 2023. It also plans to open two new stations in Boca Raton and Aventura before the end of 2022.

But in South Florida, it’s known as much for its death toll as it is for its speedy service. Since its start in 2017, Brightline trains have killed more than 50 people, according to a tally by Miami New Times. (Service stopped for 20 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, then resumed late last year.) Train speeds reach 79 mph – fast enough to call them "higher speed" rail, but not true "high speed rail," which averages 200 mph. According to a 2019 Associated Press story, “None of Brightline’s deaths were caused by crew error or faulty equipment … The majority have been suicides, while most others involved impatient motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists who misjudged the trains’ speed and ignored bells, gates or other warnings.” Moreover, “drugs, alcohol or both have been found in many victims’ systems.”

“We’re relentless about safety and are constantly seeking new ways to mitigate the behaviors we are seeing along the corridor,” Brightline president Patrick Goddard said in a statement. “The engineering solutions made possible by the RAISE grant combined with our ongoing education campaign will go a long way in promoting safety. This was a statewide push and we appreciate the Federal Railroad Administration, FDOT, elected officials and local stakeholders who amplified this effort.” 

To be sure, the grant application received a lot of political support: U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick signed on, and the application got backing from local governments along the corridor and Florida East Coast Railway, whose tracks Brightline uses.

Earlier this year, the Central Florida region received a grant of up to $15.8 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Grant Program. That funding will go toward Central Florida’s Sunshine Corridor and Brightline’s proposed Tampa to Orlando extension. That, combined with matching funds from Brightline, will bring a total of close to $31.8 million in total investment. 

The money will support the preliminary engineering activities and environmental approvals required to construct an intercity passenger rail system between Orlando International Airport and Tampa. The activities will include completing 15 percent and 30 percent of engineering design for a completely grade-separated, mostly double-tracked railway built within the right-of-way of the I-4 median and other transportation corridors.

Brightline CEO Michael Reininger said, “The Sunshine Corridor is a comprehensive, ambitious transportation solution for Central Florida. It represents the missing link in Brightline’s plan to connect Orlando and Tampa with modern, eco-friendly, intercity, passenger rail. New innovative transportation solutions will provide an economic boost to Central Florida and make the state even more attractive to businesses and future residents.”

Added U.S. Rep. Darren Soto: “Thrilled to see that Brightline’s proposed Tampa to Orlando intercity passenger rail project will receive funding … Central Floridians will be one step closer to easily accessing Orlando International Airport, our beautiful theme parks and Tampa.”

Looking ahead, there are plans brewing to extend South Florida’s existing commuter rail service, Tri-Rail, into downtown Miami along the southern portion of the corridor. And there are longer-term plans to create a new commuter rail service on just the Miami-Dade segment. Growth in passenger and freight traffic, however, could mean that segments of the rail line may have more than 60 trains a day by 2023. With continued deaths inevitable, even if reduced, it’s worth repeating one sobering statistic from the AP story: “A full-speed Brightline train takes a quarter-mile to stop.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255 (TALK) and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For other crisis support, click here

David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers local government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.

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