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High-speed rail to make crossings more dangerous


Virgin Trains’ high-speed passenger rail service is expected to increase risks for motorists and pedestrians alike at most railroad crossings in the county, Public Works Director Rich Szpyrka told county commissioners on June 18.

Virgin Trains plans to start construction this year in Indian River County on a second set of tracks, upgrades to the current tracks and improvements at railroad crossings.

The company’s goal is to operate 16 round-trip passenger trains between West Palm Beach and Orlando starting in 2022. Virgin Trains has provided service between West Palm and Miami since May 2018.

Several crossings in Indian River County are expected to become more dangerous as a result of the second track and the two-way higher-speed rail service, Szpyrka said at the County Commission meeting.

The Sebastian Boulevard/County Road 512 crossing is likely to be trouble because of the complicated configuration of the nearby intersection with U.S. 1, Szpyrka said. Pedestrian safety is also an issue there.

“We don’t really see in the design plans where they took pedestrian safety seriously, in our opinion,” Szpyrka said.

Another hot spot for vehicles getting stuck on the tracks in traffic is the Roseland Road crossing near the U.S. Post Office, Szpyrka said.

Railroad signal failures at the Aviation Boulevard crossing in recent weeks have caused backups, Szpyrka said. But the emergency phone number on the signal box did not work.

“It was a fiasco,” Szpyrka said. “So, we’re working on having that fixed.”

The added trains are expected to worsen daily traffic jams as motorists line up on the streets leading to the crossings, particularly on U.S. 1, Szpyrka said.

The traffic and safety issues are complicated by the proximity of the railroad right-of-way to U.S. 1, the county’s most heavily traveled road.

Just north of the 26th Street crossing, the distance from the railroad right-of-way to the curb of U.S. 1 is just 6 feet, a Vero Beach 32963 survey found. The distance from the right-of-way to the curb ranges from 16 to 18 feet at other crossings in downtown Vero Beach.

Because tracks are close to U.S. 1, there is little room for cars turning off the highway to queue at a crossing, which causes traffic to back up onto the highway.

Traffic signals beyond the tracks compound the problem. If a light just beyond the tracks turns red as backed-up traffic is crossing the tracks after a train goes by, cars sometimes get stuck on the tracks.

“When an additional track is there, what are we going to do with the queuing of the traffic?” Szpyrka asked. “This is something we need to get addressed prior to anything going on with Bright Line and Virgin Trains at our intersections.”

As an example of how problems can occur at crossings, Szpyrka mentioned a car-carrier vehicle that got stuck on the slightly elevated crossing on 26th Street in downtown Vero Beach last month, blocking the tracks while the driver unloaded the vehicles so the trailer could clear the hump.

The May 2 incident illustrates the heightened danger facing motorists if slow-moving freight trains are joined on the tracks by Virgin Trains’ two-way passenger rail traffic at 110 mph, Szpyrka said.

“What if this had been Brightline (Virgin Trains’ previous brand)?” Szpyrka asked rhetorically during the June 18 Indian River County Commission meeting. “Would there have been ample warning?

“We don’t know because at this point in time, construction plans don’t really say.”

County public works officials have provided comments to Virgin Trains about crossing construction plans, but have not heard back, Szpyrka said.

“Brightline (Virgin Trains) did reach out to us to set up a meeting to discuss construction in the county, but that meeting has been pushed off to July,” Szpyrka told the commissioners.

Virgin Trains USA Vice President Rusty Roberts discussed some of the company’s safety initiatives during a presentation to The Republican Club of Indian River County on June 6.

“Operational safety is very important as we know,” he told the audience at Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club.

Virgin Trains, tracks and crossings will be equipped with many of the safety measures cited by Szpyrka, including Positive Train Control, Vehicle Presence Detection and Traffic Control Pre-emption, Roberts said.

Positive Train Control systems are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments and switch-related mishaps. The systems also enable the dispatch center to halt a train in case of a potential conflict on the tracks.

Vehicle Presence Detection “tells the train as it’s coming that there is something stuck on the track and ... it’s an automatic stop,” Roberts said.

Traffic Control Preemption manages the traffic signals near a crossing to allow vehicles to get off the tracks before a train comes through, Roberts added.

“We also have diagnostic monitoring of the signals, so that if there is a malfunction, a gate is not working quite right, the cab driver and the engineer in the engine of the train is automatically notified electronically,” Roberts said. “He notifies dispatch in Jacksonville and the trains are ordered to slow down until that is fixed.”

Most railroad crossings in Indian River County are going to have “quad gates” and a center median so cars cannot get around the gates when a train is coming, Roberts said.