Investigation: Private crossings for All Aboard Florida, other trains lack oversight

Posted on July 27, 2016

By Lucas Daprile of TCPalm

By the time Charn Kuon saw the train coming, it was too late.

Having recently moved to Port St. Lucie from South Carolina, he was taking his wife and visiting mother-in-law to see the Lao Buddhist temple in Indiantown. He stopped their Honda SUV at the Amaryllis Avenue railroad crossing in Martin County. He couldn't see around a Brazilian pepper tree, but he didn't hear a train, so he proceeded to cross the tracks.

An Amtrak passenger train barrelled toward them at 79 mph. Charn floored it, but didn't get out of the way in time. The southbound train clipped the back of their car, throwing his mother-in-law out the window from the back seat.

Khunly Khun, 70, died at the scene. Charn and his wife, Rattana Khun, were hospitalized in serious condition, but survived.

"It never goes away," Rattana said of the 2010 crash. "The person that happened to ... they have to deal with that every day. ... You know, sometimes on special occasions, you think about it. I mean, it's painful."

Theirs was the third and latest crash, and the only fatal one, at that crossing since 1980. Yet today, there's only the same stop sign and crossbucks — a white and black X-shaped sign that reads "railroad crossing" — to warn drivers of the nine trains that pass through each day. The two crossings north of it and the seven crossings south of it have the standard gates and lights.

Rattana said, with a touch of a Cambodian accent, it "would be nice if they all had (it) gated with the light on."

The Amaryllis Avenue crossing is among 25 in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties that are exempt from nearly all government regulation and oversight because they are on private property, even though some have public access, a Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.

Rail companies, which own the tracks and 50 feet on both sides, typically hold whoever they grant a crossing easement to responsible for requesting and funding warning devices, leaves public safety in the hands of the unaccountable.

For decades, the federal government has known private crossings present a danger and has considered taking action, but pressure from the rail industry and jurisdictional disputes have kept regulations at bay.

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