On Dec. 5, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) announced a statewide rail safety initiative intended to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries on state railways. The announcement came just days after the Associated Press published an analysis of Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data revealing that Virgin Trains USA, the high-speed Florida rail line formerly known as Brightline, has the worst per-mile death rate of any of the nation’s 821 railroads.
The announcement also came just weeks after 58-year old Valery Jo Rintamaki and her two grandsons, 10 and 8-year olds Tristan and Skyler Prestano, were killed by a train near West Palm Beach while driving to a Cub Scouts camping trip. The area had no drop-down gates, lights or signal, and their vehicle was dragged by the train for a half-mile after Rintamaki unknowingly drove into the path of the oncoming train. Democratic State Rep. Matt Willhite, who lives in the same town as the family, said after the incident that he has plans to “look into why [they] don’t have more than just a yield sign at a rail crossing where a train is going [at high speeds].”
The new directive, put in place by FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault, will combine enhanced education and law enforcement deterrents with engineering countermeasures to prevent future tragedies. More specifically, the directive calls for engineering countermeasures to be immediately implemented at every FDOT road and state-owned land rail crossing and all future rail crossings.
The education component will come in the form of a data-driven rail safety operation called Operation STRIDE. In addition to partnering with rail lines to increase train safety education efforts, FDOT will work with both local and state law enforcement officials to more strictly enforce rail safety laws. The department will also continue partnerships with private rail organizations “through the sharing of rail safety design standards, frameworks, and encouragement of participation in safety efforts.”
Florida Railroads have a Poor Safety Track Record
During his announcement of the initiative, Thibault spoke of his determination to tackle the ongoing rail safety problem in Florida: “one fatality on [Florida] rail crossings is too many, and I am committed to doing everything I can as Secretary to prevent additional tragedies from occurring across [the] state. Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, FDOT has been empowered to implement bold ideas that will increase the safety of our transportation system, and I am very confident today’s directive not only exceeds industry safety standards, but also designated Florida as a nationwide leader in rail safety.”
This is an undoubtedly ambitious goal, as Florida consistently ranks poorly for rail safety. For example, a report published in June found that Florida ranked sixth in the US. for the number of rail crossing accidents between 2014 and 2018. On top of that, Florida’s rail fatality rate is 3.5 times higher than the national average. Furthermore, trespassing, or people entering private railroad property with permission, accounts for 27% of train accidents that lead to severe injury or death in the state. In comparison, trespassing is a factor in just 19% of national serious injury or fatality-causing train accidents.
Nonetheless, more education and rail safety engineering are desperately needed and much welcomed. Hopefully, the program will be successful in reducing the number of senseless deaths caused by trains in Florida each year.