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Riding the rails: A view of the future from a locomotive


ABOARD LOCOMOTIVE 101 – As our freight train rumbled down the Florida East Coast Railways track last Tuesday, up ahead I watched a bicyclist ignore the flashing lights, zig zag around the closed crossing gates, and pedal across in front of us.

How many will try this, I wondered, when instead of a freight lumbering down the track at 45 miles an hour, it’s a Virgin Trains USA passenger locomotive racing toward them at 110 mph?

An hour or so later, we came upon a white SUV stopped on the wrong side of the downed gate at the Main Street crossing in Sebastian, a couple of feet away from our passing locomotive.   How had that happened? A vehicle collided with a train at that crossing on Feb. 8.

Those were the major safety concerns I observed on a run south from Jacksonville to Miami September 10th aboard a red and yellow FECR locomotive.  But this was just one trip!

I rode the rails to get a sense of what it will look like from the cab of a Virgin Trains USA locomotive as high-speed passenger trains race through Indian River County a couple of dozen times a day, starting in 2022, if the train company’s plans stay on track.

Along the way, I learned that engineers driving these freights through small cities like Vero Beach and Sebastian at 45 mph need more than a mile to bring their train to a controlled stop in an emergency.

In Vero Beach, the long braking distance means if a southbound engineer approaching Aviation Boulevard got word of a car stalled on the tracks where Route 60 crosses the railroad right-of-way, he would not be able to stop before plowing into the vehicle.

The 101 – built in 2006 and weighing more than 100 tons – left Jacksonville shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 and arrived in the Hialeah railyard, near Miami International Airport, shortly after 9:30 p.m.

The train traveled at speeds of up to 60 mph through heavily wooded sections of the corridor in northern and central Florida, slowing down to 45 mph while rolling through cities and towns.

When a train dispatcher warned the engineer that a trespasser had been reported on the tracks at milepost 166 in Brevard County, he throttled down the locomotive at milepost 164 to allow more time to stop, if necessary.

There was no sign of anyone at milepost 166, but several people walked or gathered along the train tracks on the Space and Treasure Coasts as the 101 rolled past, apparently unfazed by the danger.

In an ominous reminder of the hazards trains present, a flock of vultures fed on the remains of a large alligator which had ambled onto the track and been run over by an earlier train near Otis Stone Hunter Road in Palm Bay. As the 101 closed in, the scavengers flew to the side of the track to wait.

The highlight of the trip was the ride across the 1,625-foot-long St. Sebastian River Railroad Bridge, which links Micco to Roseland. The span offers panoramic views of the river and shoreline.

The 93-year-old steel bridge is to be replaced with two new single-track bridges as part of the Virgin Trains project and eventually demolished, Federal Railroad Administration records show.

Ancient bridges across the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee rivers also provided panoramic views of scenic rivers and waterfront homes and businesses.

But the picturesque towns and cities along the FECR tracks are frequently obscured from view by dense vegetation or industrial buildings.

Considering that the landscape seemed to fly past while traveling 45 mph on a freight train, Virgin Trains passengers will likely see little more than blurry background images while whizzing through the Space and Treasure coasts at speeds of up to 110 mph.

It took about a minute for the 101 to barrel through the seven downtown Vero Beach railroad crossings between 26th Street and 16th/17th Street about 6 p.m., Sept. 10. There were no apparent backups on U.S. 1 or the side streets leading to the crossings as the freight train passed.

Virgin Trains is to start construction early next year in Indian River County on a second set of rails and railroad crossing improvements as part of the link between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Virgin Trains has offered service between Miami and West Palm Beach since 2018.

Meanwhile, Indian River County is still fighting the rail project in court, and state Sens. Debbie Mayfield and Gayle Harrell, Republicans who represent the Space and Treasure coasts, held a news briefing Sept. 10 to call for a variety of state regulations and railroad track improvements to ensure the safety of motorists and pedestrians.

Virgin Trains issued a statement in response to the press briefing saying: “Safety is the top priority at Virgin Trains. We meet and exceed the highest standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration.”

Safety does seem to be baked into the FECR’s operation with safety reminders posted ubiquitously throughout facilities and locomotives.

A bulletin board at the Bowden Yard dispatch center in Jacksonville serves as a safety Hall of Fame featuring the names of workers who retired injury-free and employees who provided decades of service without getting hurt.

Virgin Trains will have to build a new set of tracks from Cocoa to Orlando International Airport to achieve its goal of Miami to Orlando passenger service, but there was no sign of construction activity for the new tracks as the 101 passed through Cocoa, where the tracks lay close to U.S. 1

While the freight trains disrupt traffic and create a racket whenever they rumble through a town or city, some people look forward to their passage.

Engineers know the locations where train buffs are likely to be waiting to wave and shoot photos and videos.

They like to wave back at “Caboose Mikey,” who stands on his front lawn on Old Dixie Highway, St. Lucie Village, shooting videos of the passing FECR trains and posting them on YouTube.