According to a report from the Associated Press, Brightline and its higher-speed Florida trains have the highest U.S. grade crossing collision/trespasser death rate.
Brightline—recently acquired by Virgin Group—trains travel at speeds upwards of 79 mph through some of Florida’s most densely populated cities; a full-speed Brightline train takes a quarter-mile to stop. The first death occurred in July 2017 during test runs. Since then, 40 more people have been killed—a rate of more than one death per month, or one death per 29,000 miles traveled, according to the AP, making it the worst per-mile death rate of the 821 U.S. railroads. Brightline trains officially launched in January 2018.
Brightline President Patrick Goddard said crew members get three days off after a fatality—more if requested—and can receive immediate counseling. Therapists are also being placed at worksites to make them readily available, and group therapy sessions are being considered.
The AP report noted that none of Brightline’s deaths were caused by crew error or faulty equipment—the majority were suicides, and others involved impatient motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists. Drugs, alcohol or both were found in many victims’ systems, the AP said.
“Even though it is not [the train crew’s] fault, they feel like it is … and a lot of them suffer,” Goddard said. The company declined to make an engineer available for comment.
Goddard said that although the deaths were not the company’s fault, Brightline needs to get the number under control.
“This is something we obsess about … It’s tragic,” said Goddard. “There is nothing we would want more than for that number to go to zero.”
Brightline said it’s working with suicide prevention groups and will experiment with infrared motion detectors and drones to patrol tracks. The drones will have cameras and speakers through which drone monitors can speak with people lingering near the tracks, which is a sign that they are suicidal. The monitors also will alert police and warn engineers.
The company is also erecting fences and plant barriers in problem areas, putting up four-way gates at major road crossings and talking with cities about eliminating side-street crossings. Signs advertising suicide prevention hotlines will be posted.
“There are few railroads you will find who have done more to mitigate these types of issues,” Goddard said.
Brightline runs about 17 trains each way daily between Miami and West Palm Beach—67 miles—and plans to expand another 170 miles to Orlando by 2022. On this new segment, trains will reach speeds of 125 mph when they travel through less densely populated farmland. That same year it plans to open a line connecting Southern California and Las Vegas, with top speeds of 150 mph. It hopes to add service in Texas and other states.
It’s unclear why Brightline has so many deaths, especially when other area railroads haven’t had nearly as many. The railroad shares tracks with Florida East Coast, which had one death for every 160,000 miles during the past two years, compared to Brightline’s one per 29,000 miles.
The Tri-Rail commuter service that runs nearby had one death about every 110,000 miles. Most other urban passenger lines nationwide average at least 100,000 miles per fatality, some many times that.
Psychologist Lanny Berman, who studies train suicides, said it’s likely the velocity of Brightline’s trains, their bright color and newness that attracts the suicidal.
“It would be noticed that it has faster speeds and that it is more lethal,” said Berman, a former executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
Even if suicides could be curtailed, it would do little to stop drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists who dash across the tracks trying to beat the train. Brightline wants tougher state penalties for driving around gates, hoping that will give pause.
“These people weren’t thinking,” Goddard said. “To save a couple of seconds, they died.”
The FRA had no direct comment on Brightline, saying in a statement that its “top priority is safety” and that it works closely with railroads to reduce fatalities. U.S. trains fatally strike more than 800 people annually, an average of about 2.5 daily. About 500 are suspected suicides.