Posted on January 20, 2016


Around 2 p.m. December 8, Jesús María Villalobos, a 16-year-old with a big frame and a bigger smile, pulled on his headphones and left his room in Delray Beach for a nearby gym. He walked north along the train tracks until he was near the intersection of Linton Boulevard and South Dixie Highway. Then a Florida East Coast Railway freight train came barreling from behind.

The engineer frantically blew the train's whistle. But Villalobos, who had come to South Florida from Colombia two years earlier to pursue his dream of becoming a pro baseball player, never heard it. The headphones blocked the sound. He was killed instantly.

"He was everything to me," his mother, Diana Lobos, later told the Colombian newspaper El Universal. "I want to die."

In Florida, train-pedestrian casualties have increased steadily the past four years and are likely to climb further. With both All Aboard Florida and Tri-Rail planning to run trains through downtown areas next year, more lives will likely be at risk.

"It's actually a major safety issue," says Dr. Allan Zarembski, a railroad engineering and safety professor at the University of Delaware. "What people still don't understand is that if a train engineer sees you, it's too late for him to stop, period."

The railroad enabled the settlement of Florida. Henry Flagler, a business partner of John D. Rockefeller's in Standard Oil, visited St. Augustine in 1883 and determined it was the next great vacation mecca. He built hotels and then bought the few existing railroads to form the Florida East Coast Railway, which by 1912 had tracks all the way to Key West.

"The only line of defense is to blow his horn, and even that warning is useless if it's not heard."

That rail link facilitated the population boom along the state's east coast, but it also meant a significant safety risk. In the mid-'70s, the oldest data available from the Federal Railroad Safety Association, 18 to 31 "trespassers" were killed by trains per year. (The term refers to nonemployee pedestrians on the tracks.)

That number remained steady despite increased awareness about the danger of rail crossings and congressional funding for rail safety improvements. But it has begun growing again in the past four years. There were 27 trespasser deaths in Florida in 2012, 28 in 2013, 36 in 2014, and 35 through just the first nine months of 2015 — higher figures than even those for New York.

Some recent examples:

• September 29, Michael Nesmith, a 55-year-old blind man, was struck from behind and killed by a Tri-Rail train while he walked along the tracks in Dania Beach.

• October 27, Thomas Kelly, age 51, was struck and killed in Melbourne while walking on a train bridge with a friend, who survived by jumping into the water below.

• November 6, 29-year-old David Lefever was fatally hit by an Amtrak train in downtown Orlando.

• November 12, a woman was struck and killed in Altamonte Springs.

Yet more trains are soon coming to Florida, which likely means even more deaths. In mid-2017, All Aboard Florida's much-heralded Brightline route linking Miami and Orlando will begin service. The new line will eventually expand to include ten trains that will travel at a top speed of 125 mph. The entire project, which also includes the refurbishing or building of four multimillion-dollar stations, will generate $6 billion in economic activity, the company promises.

There's more. Tri-Rail, the commuter service that serves Palm Beach and Broward counties and connects to Miami International Airport, also has plans to expand into downtown Miami in 2017 at an estimated cost of $70 million. The Tri-Rail trains will begin using the tracks in Miami east of I-95 — running 50 trains per weekday through the city's main population corridor. "It's going to happen," Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, told the Miami Herald last fall.

The most surefire way to keep people off the tracks is to erect fences. But doing so is costly and unrealistic for long distances, and potentially controversial: When Brightline began fencing the area around its new station in Fort Lauderdale, some advocates complained that the effort was effectively displacing the homeless, New Times reported.

Public relations campaigns can help reinforce the danger posed by walking along tracks, but ultimately there's only so much more the railroads can do: Trains simply take too long to stop to avoid a collision with a pedestrian who's walking on the tracks. "The only line of defense the engineer has is to blow his horn," Zarembski says. "And even that warning, of course, is useless if it's not heard."

Of all the recent train trespasser deaths, it's Jesús Villalobos' that best illustrates the particular danger facing South Florida, where a large segment of the population may simply not be aware of the peril.

Villalobos grew up in Cartagena, a baseball-crazy city on the Colombian coast, and fell in love with the game before he was out of elementary school. When he was 9, his team, Club Falcón, won a local junior title, and Villalobos, as catcher, was the most valuable player. "When I arrived at the Falcon school, nobody wanted to catch," he said after winning the title. "I stopped and said, 'I want to.' "

He told a reporter his dream was to make the big leagues, and five years later was on his way to Florida, to train at the Elev8 Sports Institute in Delray Beach, an academy with a host of international athletes. Initially he struggled. He was short and chubby, and also lacked the skills of most of his peers.

Soon after Villalobos' arrival, the program's head baseball coach, Todd Moser, remembers, he sent the youngster to the bullpen to catch for an older pitcher who was warming up. It was a disaster. Villalobos hadn't even put on his equipment properly. A curve ball caught him in an unprotected shin. The boy began jumping around in pain, cursing in Spanish. "It was that bad," Moser says. "Another guy had to finish warming [the pitcher] up."

But Villalobos soon emerged as the academy's most enthusiastic — and most improved — player. He stayed late, asked coaches for advice, and worked out as hard as anyone. He also advanced in the classroom, greatly improving his English, and benefited from a growth spurt, transforming in two years into a muscular, six-foot-two, 220-pound teen. In recent months, he had even attracted the attention of coaches from big-time programs, including Clemson, North Carolina State, and Florida Atlantic University.

"He was the hardest-working guy we have," Moser says. "This is the kind of guy — you wish you had 25 of them. It was surreal how much he changed into a player."

But just a few weeks ago, all of those dreams were shattered by a locomotive. In Cartagena, the tight-knit baseball community mourned the unexpected loss of a son who was on his way to the big time. In Delray, too, Villalobos' new family was left reeling. "We're just trying to make it through," says Moser, who adds that he isn't sure if better rail precautions might have saved the teenager's life.

"It's sadly a question where we're never going to get an answer."

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