Feds give Brightline $20K to help keep its Orlando corridor safe

Brightline is receiving another $20,000 in federal money to help keep people alert to the dangers of its high-speed trains that will soon zip along the railroad’s new extension between West Palm Beach and Orlando.

“The grant award dollars will be used for an online campaign,” spokesman Ben Porritt said in an email. “The targeted digital ads will reach people that live within the Zip Codes directly adjacent to the corridor and people who may be interacting with the corridor daily.”

Porritt said that outreach to the public through digital media “has been proven to connect with individuals in an impactful way because they are personalized and can reach people through platforms they already use.”

The latest safety campaign will be aimed at people in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties.

The grant was awarded by Operation Lifesaver, a 50-year-old, nonprofit public safety education organization dedicated to reducing collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings and preventing trespassing around railroad tracks. The award was funded by the Federal Transit Administration, which provided grants totaling a combined $120,000 to seven other rail operators nationally, including SunRail in Central Florida.

Multiple initiatives

For the better part of two years, Brightline has been working with communities, government agencies and the news media in South and Central Florida to spread its safety messages over social media and through public service announcements.

Early this year, the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, turned its attention to rail safety in South Florida in the wake of multiple deaths involving pedestrians trespassing on private railroad property and motorists who tried and failed to beat trains across the tracks.

During a series of town hall meetings, the FRA invited government agencies, law enforcement and rail operators including Brightline, Tri-Rail, the Florida East Coast Railway and Sun Rail in Central Florida to collaborate on upgrading safety measures and apply for available federal dollars to help pay for them.

In August, Brightline received $25 million as part of a joint federal and state initiative for safety upgrades along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, which carries Brightline trains and FEC freight trains.

In preparation for the high-speed extension operation, Brightline says it has been making safety improvements at all 156 railroad crossings along the 129-mile portion of the extension between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, through Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties.

The line installed new crossing gates, signal systems, pedestrian gates, pavement markings and roadway profiles.

“Where trains will operate at 110 mph, all crossings have quad gates or medians to prevent motorists from driving around lowered crossing gates,” Brightline said in a recent statement.

Most residents of Florida’s Treasure and Space coasts are no strangers to the idea that someday, trains exceeding 100 mph would be speeding through their towns carrying tourists and other travelers between South and Central Florida. Some local governments and others sued to stop the project. They failed.

High speed tests under way

Now, the fast trains are a reality.

In mid-October, Brightline began testing trains at maximum speeds of 110 mph over an 11-mile section of track along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor in Martin and St. Lucie counties.

The company advised residents that they “should be alert and follow the law around active railroad tracks and railroad crossings.”

During the testing, flaggers and law enforcement appeared at crossings and people were warned to “stay off the tracks and never go around crossing gates.”

Drivers, pedestrians and cyclists were all advised to be aware that rail traffic occurs on both tracks along the corridor in both directions.

They were warned that violators could be fined, receive points on their driver licenses, or even be killed.

“If the crossing arms are down, don’t drive around,” said Joe Meade, Brightline’s director of safety said at the time. “This testing serves as a critical reminder to the public to be safe around active railroad tracks and obey all traffic laws. Never stop on the tracks, don’t drive around crossing gates and only cross tracks at a designated railroad crossing.”

Staff writer David Lyons can be reached at dvlyons@SunSentinel.com