The Sunshine Economy : Safety, Service and Selling Passenger Rail to South Floridians

Jan 22, 2018

Instead of trumpeting enviable travel times between downtown neighborhoods, promoting its high-end train service and asserting itself as part of the solution to untangling traffic, Brightline has had to focus on rail safety in its first week of service.

 

Three people were hit by Brightline passenger trains in the first week they started running trips between stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Two were killed and one person was injured in the three separate crashes at railway crossings.

 Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio want a federal review of the train lines safety protocols. Republican Congressman Brian Mast from North Palm Beach tweeted this after the second fatality in five days.

 And Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran said the Legislature would consider a bill providing state oversight of high-speed passenger trains.

This, likely, was not the week Brightline had hoped for -- the first week of bringing passenger rail service to the downtowns of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.


The trains started running with passengers, beginning with VIP trips on Jan. 12, hitting maximum speeds of 79 miles an hour during the scheduled 40-minute trips between the two stations.

 

A Brightline Rail Crossing

"You've got audible sirens going off. You've got lights going off. You've got the actual gate going down. You've got signs before the crossing. You've got signs after the crossing. There isn't a whole lot more you can do to communicate that it isn't a good time to cross the railroad," said Brightline President Patrick Goddard to  WLRN after the crash that killed a woman pedestrian on Jan. 12 but before two other crashes last week.

A group of boys trespass along railroad tracks next to a Brightline train station, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in West Palm Beach. The service's first week was marred by three separate rail crossing crashes. Two pedestrians were killed. One was injured. Brightline says its safety measures were working.
Credit AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

"Just like you wouldn't encourage anyone to go and walk across I-95, it's really an education thing. And we're doing everything we can to get that message out, " said Goddard. 

Brightline says it is not to blame for the deaths and injuries. By the end of its first week, the company held a news conference with regional transportation officials announcing it will expand a public safety campaign, put in more temporary signs at busy rail crossings and use safety ambassadors at some crossings in its effort to raise awareness about how to behave around railroad crossings.

WLRN spoke with Goddard about safety, service and selling high-speed passenger trail service to South Floridians.

Safety

GODDARD: What some people fail to appreciate is the railroads existed prior to a lot of the roads in this state and across the country. The Florida East Coast Railroad [whose tracks Brightline is using] has been there for over 100 years. And it's private property. And it's a railroad. They are moving objects and that's why we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars into new signaling equipment, new [crossing] arms, and all of that equipment is designed to prevent people from trying to trespass. From our perspective it really is an issue of communication and education throughout the community.

WLRN: Are there any safety reviews Brightline has undergone internally or through the Federal Railroad Administration because of these fatalities?

Brightline COO Patrick Goddard talks to the media in Boca Raton on Jan. 19, 2018. The company will expand its education campaign about rail safety in the wake of fatal crashes at rail crossings during its first week of operations.
Credit Peter Haden / WLRN

 Safety is our first priority. We've spent a lot of time, effort and money on making sure that the railroad meets the highest standards of safety in the country. We've got some of the most expert folks involved in our team from senior leadership down. And it's a core piece of our culture. We run a safe operation. We run an extremely safe operation and we intend to. 

You mentioned safety being No. 1. You've also mentioned that these railroad tracks date back to the days of Henry Flagler. The Federal Railroad Administration has found that there were 16 fatalities on the FEC tracks between Miami and Jacksonville in the past 12 months. In 2016, there were 20 fatalities -- the highest in a decade. If the highest safety precautions are being taken, what helps explain this?

Any sort of death or injury that happens as a result of a railroad is as tragic as anything that would happen on the highway. The frequency of incidents, I can't comment on. I want all of the listeners to understand that there are laws around railroads and there are guidelines around how to function around railroads. I mean, don't wear headphones around railroads. Don't try and beat a train. You're not going to win. The other thing I think is important is that our trains get through the crossings in seconds. From the time the crossing gate goes down to the time that it goes back up is about the same period of time as a regular traffic light cycle. It's not like a freight train that's going to be sitting there for seven to 10 to 15 minutes. 

Does Brightline have positive train control? Are you required to have technology in place?

Yes, all railroads are required to have that in place by the end of this year. We are well underway on our implementation.

Would Brightline activate this positive train control even if the December 2018 deadline is extended?

Yes, we're actively working on it. We're actively in the process of implementing it. We're already on a roll with that. 

Gene Sougstad, left, transportation manager, and engineer Chris Mosser sit in the cab of a Brightline train at the station, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in West Palm Beach. Round-trip introductory fares start at $20 between its Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations.
Credit AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Service

What is the update regarding beginning the service to the new MiamiCentral station?

It's progressing very nicely. Finishes are going in now. We're probably a couple of months away at most.

 A couple of months before the train comes in to MiamiCentral?

Yes.

What about the tracks in Miami-Dade County?

A lot of track work is done. It's really signaling work and testing. We're a couple of months away.

What about the second phase timeline for service to Orlando?

We're finalizing permits. We're working on financing. I think we are all expecting before the end of the first quarter that we will begin construction.

How long is that timeline?

It's about a 30-month build. The actual shell of our station exists already inside the new south terminal of the Orlando International Airport. We're going to add longer train sets. We will have the capacity of about 500 passengers on those versus 240 in our current configuration. 

Annual revenue and ridership forecasts for Brightline prepared by infrastructure consultant Louis Berger. These estimates are included in Fitch Ratings' analysis of the company's $600 million of private activity bonds used to help finance its South Florida service.
Credit Louis Berger via Fitch Ratings

Selling South Florida on Brightline

 The $10 and $15 one-way fares have been called introductory. How long is that going to last?

I don't think we know yet. I think that ultimately we're going to have some sort of dynamic pricing based on demand. We imagine that there's going to be some peak-time riders. So there'll be some level of dynamic pricing. But I don't think price is going to be an issue based on what we've experienced so far.

What do you mean?

I mean at $10 it's an absolute bargain. I feel comfortable based on the data and the research that we've done over the last several years we're well below what we think the tolerance could be.

Give us a sense of what do you think that is?

 I don't want to hamstring us into any sort of, you know, pricing parameters. Right now we're very happy to be able to offer these introductory fares. It's not going to get better, that I can say.