The orange Brightline train is seen traveling through Boynton Beach on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Brightline trains can reach speeds of up to 79 mph south of West Palm Beach and up to 110 mph through the Treasure and Space coasts.
The speedy Brightline trains will present a unique hazard when they begin zipping through Treasure Coast communities.
But unless Florida East Coast Railway gets its act together, the fast trains could be even more perilous.
By the end of the year, Florida East Coast Railway — which owns and operates tracks between Miami and Jacksonville, including the main corridor through our region — is supposed to install important safety upgrades known as “positive train control.”
The technology, which uses GPS and other technologies to monitor train positions, can automatically slow or stop trains to prevent collisions. A 2015 congressional order instructed Florida East Coast and 40 other railroads to implement PTC by Dec. 31, 2018.
As of the last quarter of 2017 — the most recently available report — Florida East Coast reported that none of 69 trains had received PTC upgrades; no PTC track improvements had been completed; and only 24 of 347 employees had received PTC training.
Florida East Coast is hardly the only railroad that will struggle to meet the deadline. Transit officials in New Jersey, for instance, report PTC upgrades are only 11 percent complete; in New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is further along but revealed recent testing on the Long Island Rail Road line showed the system failed to stop trains in 16 of 52 tests.
Nationwide, so much work needs to be done that dozens of railroads might need to seek extensions. But to qualify, a railroad must have all hardware installed by the end of the year. Florida East Coast could struggle to do so.
If that’s the case, the rails won’t be as safe as they could be.
And with up to 32 Brightline trains slated to share the corridor with up to 24 Florida East Coast trains — which are powered by, and may ultimately transport liquefied natural gas — that simply isn’t acceptable.
Florida East Coast has not explained why the railroad is lagging on the safety improvements. The Federal Railroad Administration itself has expressed concerns, with officials writing in an April 24 letter to the company that the agency “considers safety, and the expeditious implementation of PTC technology, to be of paramount importance.”
Let’s be clear about what positive train control won’t do. According to testimony from FRA chief counsel Juan Reyes at a recent House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing, it will do nothing to prevent reckless motorists who try to cross at-grade crossings while the lights are flashing and the gates down from being hit.
It will do nothing to prevent accidents when a pedestrian consciously steps in front of a train.
And Florida East Coast’s corridor already features a key “automatic train control,” an older technology designed to prevent collisions.
Yet positive train control is more advanced. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it a “vital overlay” to existing automatic train control systems.
Brightline trains already are running from Miami to West Palm Beach without the technology. Opponents of the controversial project, including U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, agree with the Federal Railroad Administration that PTC is key to making the passenger rail project as safe as possible, and we concur.
Unfortunately for Brightline, this ball is in Florida East Coast Railway’s court. As the owner of the tracks, the railway is responsible for the upgrades — and ultimately will be culpable if the system isn’t implemented by the congressional deadline.
Florida East Coast needs to speed things up if Brightline is to offer service that’s both rapid and safe as possible.