Florida’s High-Speed Rail, Virgin Trains USA, Has the Highest Death Rate in Nation

On Dec. 2, 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 United States’ 821 railroads. Since test runs of Brightline’s rail service began in 2017, 41 people have been killed in accidents involving its trains, which is “a rate of more than one a month and about one [fatality] for every 29,000 miles the trains have traveled.”

In comparison, the Florida East Coast Railway, which shares tracks with Virgin Trains, had one death for every 160,000 miles; this means that based on the miles traveled, Virgin Trains causes around 5.5 deaths for every one death caused by East Coast. The Tri-Rail commuter line, which runs nearby, had one death per every 110,000 miles; in other words, based on miles traveled, Virgin Trains causes roughly 3.8 deaths for every one death caused by Tri-Rail.

Overall, Florida’s rail fatality rate is 3.5 times higher than the national average. Trespassing, or people entering private railroad property without permission, accounts for 27% of train accidents leading to severe injury or death. Comparatively, trespassing is a factor in 19% of national serious injury or fatal train accidents. These statistics reveal a greater need more public education regarding rail safety in Florida - with a focus on the increased hazards that come with high-speed rails like Virgin Trains.

Operation Lifesaver Funding, More Public Education Initiatives Needed

Virgin Trains has conducted an “Operation Lifesaver Florida” program to attempt to curb the number of deaths on its tracks. Operation Lifesaver includes safety efforts such as first responder training on train crashes, the installation of warning signs, fence and barrier construction, four-way crossing gates, and donations to suicide prevention efforts (suicides account for around 75% of the deaths associated with Virgin Trains).

Also as part of Operation Lifesaver, Virgin has claimed to have “distributed or mailed tens of thousands of pieces of literature about rail safety to schoolchildren and families in three counties the railroad serves.” But with a September Safe Kids Worldwide research report finding that there are very few conversations being had at home about train safety, it is clear that this is not enough. More funding for initiatives like Operation Lifesaver and other educational resources is desperately needed to maximize rail safety in Florida.

A major factor behind why parents are not talking to their children about train safety is that they, too, are unaware of how dangerous it is to walk on tracks. This points toward a long-term trend of railroads failing to prioritize public education as part of their safety efforts. For example, 70% of over 1,000 surveyed parents did not recognize “walking on, near, or along train tracks” as trespassing, when it is actually the most common form of trespassing and contributes to a disproportionate number of preventable train deaths.

Rail companies must ensure they are doing their part to promote safe train behavior, and cannot expect parents to talk to their children about train safety if they themselves were never properly educated on risks associated with trespassing. Additional funding for programs like Operation Lifesaver are critical at a time when more education is desperately needed, especially as Virgin Trains USA’s high-speed South Florida passenger rail line, which is set to open for service in 2022, chugs closer to becoming a reality.