Can Treasure Coast expect more rail fatalities with All Aboard Florida?

Posted on March 4, 2016

A Jensen Beach resident was struck and killed Monday night by a southbound Florida East Coast train.

Martin County Fire Rescue personnel responded to the scene and found the body of Robert Walroth, 63, about 500 feet south of the rail crossing at Northeast Jensen Beach Boulevard and Pineapple Avenue, according to a sheriff's report. The victim had been reported missing by his wife, Carol Walroth.

When someone is killed by a train on the Treasure Coast, it shocks our sensibilities because it is a tragic — and relatively rare — event. As a region, we don't have a lot of experience with rail fatalities.

Our future may hold a different, and grimmer, reality.

All Aboard Florida, which has rebranded itself as Brightline, plans to begin running up to 32 daily passenger trains between Miami and Orlando in late 2017. In combination with more than a dozen freight trains, the Treasure Coast will be intersected daily by almost 50 trains — with the passenger trains traveling upwards of 90 mph.

The threat to public safety is real.

An examination of rail fatality data for the Sunshine State provides a glimpse into what may be coming down the pike.

The Federal Railroad Administration maintains a clearinghouse for railroad data. A search of the agency's website shows that rail fatalities have steadily increased in Florida in recent years — from 30 in 2012 to 46 in 2015.

A majority of the fatalities involve pedestrians struck by trains.

What does the data show with respect to rail fatalities on the Treasure Coast? Since 2000, our region has averaged 1.4 fatalities a year.

What becomes apparent when viewing rail reports — especially from 2008 to the present — is the relatively small number of fatalities in our region. Including the fatality Monday night, we've had five during the past eight years.

We need only look to the south to see what may be coming our way.

Of the 46 statewide rail fatalities in 2015, more than half — 24 — occurred in Palm Beach (10), Broward (9) and Miami-Dade (5) counties. This is a region with a concentration of both freight and passenger rail — what the Treasure Coast will become in late 2017.

For the record, there is one mitigating factor for our region: The Treasure Coast is less densely populated (575,000) than Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have a combined population of about 5.5 million.

There are fewer of us driving and walking across train tracks.

Will more and faster trains necessarily translate into more rail fatalities?

"No," said Brightline/All Aboard Florida president Michael Reininger, who visited the Stuart News on Thursday. Reininger told me "the entirety of the revisions and upgrades to the safety profile ... are specifically being put in place to mitigate any additional exposure as it relates to public safety."

Reininger said it would be unfair to automatically draw the conclusion that more trains will lead to more fatalities.

A July, report commissioned by Indian River County reached a similar conclusion.

The "Rail Crossing Safety Evaluation for Indian River County" - prepared by the Railroad Consultant Group of Mount Dora - found "no decrease in grade-crossing safety with the advent of All Aboard Florida."

In fact, the report concluded that several safety improvements, including upgraded crossing warning devices, fencing, pavement markings, installation of quiet zones and additional capacity improvements will make the system safer than it is today.

"If the proposed upgrades actually occur, they will improve and update the safety factors that exist today," the report states.

Reininger also cited increased awareness through education programs, such as Operation Lifesaver, as a way to "mitigate exposures."

I asked Reininger if he'd be surprised if our rail fatalities doubled in five or 10 years.

"I would be (surprised)," he said.

We shall see.

Treasure Coast residents may find it hard to accept the statement our rail corridor will pose no additional safety risks — despite the advent of 32 daily passenger trains.

I share their skepticism.

Click here to view original article