The Palm Beach Post – Tequesta mayor sounds alarm after bridge breakdown

Posted on March 13, 2015

TEQUESTA — Mayor Abby Brennan is calling on Florida East Coast Railway to change its procedures after she said the company’s 90-year-old bridge over the Loxahatchee River malfunctioned Saturday, causing a southbound freight train to block all three of the village’s railroad crossings for more than 90 minutes.

In a two-page letter to Florida East Coast Railway’s Senior Vice President Robert Ledoux, the Tequesta mayor said the aging bridge and blocked rail crossings threatened public health, safety and welfare. The three crossings are the only way the public can access the village from the east.


When the eastern rail crossings are blocked, those on the west side of the tracks must used Island Way, a roundabout route to the north, to reach Indiantown Road or U.S. Route 1. Island Way is the only way out of the village to the west.


Florida East Coast Railway is an affiliate of All Aboard Florida’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries.


In the letter sent Monday, Brennan pointed to All Aboard Florida’s planned high speed rail project, which would add 32 trains a day to the FEC tracks. Brennan said the added train traffic would only “accelerate the faulty bridge mechanisms to their ultimate and complete failure.”


A spokeswoman for Florida East Coast Railway said Wednesday that Ledoux plans to respond to Brennan’s requests by Friday.


“Mr. Ledoux has spoken with Mayor Brennan and has committed to providing a letter to her by this Friday,” Florida East Coast Railway Spokeswoman Debra Phillips said.


Brennan pointed to a car accident in the village Saturday morning as the train was blocking the three rail crossings. One person was injured in the crash, which occurred west of the FEC tracks.


The accident victim was transported to Jupiter Medical Center, a trip that should have taken five minutes if first responders had been able to cross the train tracks at Riverside Drive, Brennan wrote in the letter.

Because the train was blocking the crossings, it took paramedics 47 minutes to get the victim to the hospital, she said.


“The transport time was exacerbated by the traffic congestion created when the grade crossings were all blocked and cars were stacked bumper-to-bumper for nearly three miles as drivers attempted to enter and leave Tequesta using the one and only westbound route,” Brennan wrote in the letter sent Monday. “…It is only a matter of time before this unacceptable, and avoidable scenario caused by your railroad will literally cost lives.”


In the letter, Brennan called on the company to change the “existing protocol for southbound trains,” which she said requires train engineers to block all three crossings when the company’s Loxahatchee River bascule bridge malfunctions. Brennan urged Florida East Coast Railway to change its protocol to ensure trains stop before blocking the village’s southern most rail crossing at Riverside Drive when the bridge is malfunctioning.


Brennan also asked the company to notify Tequesta’s public safety dispatch center if any of the crossings in the village are blocked by a train.


Also, the sheriffs of Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties on Tuesday said they have “sincere reservations” about All Aboard Florida’s plan to return passenger train serve to the FEC tracks.


In a letter to All Aboard Florida’s President and Chief Development Officer Michael Reininger, the three sheriffs urged the company to “remain cognizant of the certainty that this will adversely impact public safety.”


“Our jurisdictions have significant populated areas bifurcated by railroad tracks,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar wrote in the joint letter. “This presents a real-time dilemma. If rail traffic significantly increases, passing trains can and will prevent emergency first responders from expeditiously reaching points of need.”


“In an emergency response, a delay of seconds could mean the difference between life and death,” the three sheriffs wrote.


Lynn Martenstein, vice president for All Aboard Florida corporate communications, said the company is “committed to working with first responders and emergency personnel throughout the corridor.”


“All Aboard Florida’s passenger trains will clear all grade crossings in less than 60 seconds, which is significantly less than a typical traffic-signal cycle,” Martenstein said. “The company is making safety improvements at all grade crossings.”


All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 passenger trains a day between Miami and Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. Miami-to-West Palm Beach service is expected to begin in late 2016 with the Orlando leg starting in 2017.


In October, John Couris, president and chief executive of Jupiter Medical Center, expressed similar concerns that All Aboard’s trains could delay first responders’ efforts to get critically injured or sick patients to the hospital’s emergency room.


The FEC tracks are just east of Jupiter Medical Center, which serves as the main emergency center for Tequesta residents. Roughly 20 percent of emergency room patients reach the hospital by ambulance, officials have said.


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