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Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor   
October 2018

Train blasts continue to rile Brightline’s neighbors

TTrains_1he horn on the Brightline train lets out a jarring brass belch as it crosses the intersection near Ives Dairy Road and Biscayne Boulevard. The time: 2:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday.

Mark Robson is jolted from his sleep by the blast.

“Here is the perfect example of why I’m so frustrated,” says Robson, an activist in the Ojus neighborhood of unincorporated north Miami-Dade. “The silver lining of all these intersection closings during Brightline’s construction was that we would at least get some peace and quiet when all these improvements were completed.”

Based on numerous conversations and e-mails he’s had with Brightline officials, Robson says he expected the fast-moving trains to adhere to a federal no-horn policy when the company began running its service in Miami-Dade this past May. Five months later, he and thousands of county residents along the Biscayne Corridor near Brightline’s tracks are still waiting for that implementation of the policy.

Specifically, Robson and his neighbors at the Skylake and Highland Lake condominium complex have been waiting on Miami-Dade County to apply for a “Quiet Zone” exemption from the federal Train Horn Rule that would prohibit the use of horns from NE 79th Street to NE 215th Street.

For that to happen, Brightline had to finish adding safety equipment and infrastructure improvements to every street intersection its trains cross. And even though company officials insist those improvements have been completed, it will be at least another month before Miami-Dade can begin the application process for the quiet zone.

“Once all the crossings pass inspection, then the county will be able to submit the paperwork to the Florida Railroad Administration for the establishment of the quiet zone,” says Karla Damien, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works Department. “There’s one crossing that’s currently in the vicinity of an active construction project, which Miami-Dade County will need to re-inspect once construction has concluded. Construction is scheduled to end in November.”

Trains_2The delay in implementing the quiet zone has exasperated northeast Miami-Dade residents beyond Robson’s neighborhood, according to Frank Rollason, a resident of Miami’s Belle Meade neighborhood. Rollason played a key role in getting the City of Miami and Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), Brightline’s owner, to obtain federal approval for a quiet zone between NE 71st Street and PortMiami for freight trains.

“People I know in Miami Shores and El Portal complain all the time about it,” Rollason says. “Nobody’s happy about the noise. It’s more frequent and it’s an issue, no doubt about it. I didn’t think it would take this long.”

Rollason, who was named assistant director of the Miami-Dade County Emergency Management Department in June, says he brought up the quiet zone when he spoke with Brightline executives in early September about the capability of its trains for hurricane evacuations. “They felt [the quiet zone] wouldn’t be in place until the end of the year,” he says. “There was still some work that had to be done at the intersections.”

The mandated safety improvements include the installation of four-quadrant gates that completely block the roadway at railroad crossings. Miami-Dade has tapped $1.5 million in federal grants to install new equipment and infrastructure, such as medians, new railroad signals, and 50 signposts alerting train conductors that they’re entering a quiet zone. FECI claims it has invested around $60 million on safety measures for cross streets between Miami and West Palm Beach.

Ensuring the safety of motorists and pedestrians has become a thorny issue for Brightline, and has taken precedence over the quiet zone. Between July 2017 and April 2018, Brightline trains hit eight people, killing six, during test runs and regular trips. Five of the deaths were in Palm Beach County.

Since then, there have been three more accidents, two involving cars that were mangled by oncoming trains. No one was injured in those incidents, although an individual walking along the tracks September 18 in West Palm Beach was grazed by a train and sustained minor injuries.

In an e-mail statement, Brightline spokeswoman Ali Soule writes, “Brightline’s top priority is safety. We continue our outreach and are focused on educating the public about how to stay safe around railroad tracks.”

Trains_3Robson says he’s certainly sensitive to safety issues, but he also blames company officials for failing to keep their word on the timetable for implementing the quiet zone. He also notes that he has previously suggested Brightline and Miami-Dade at least apply for a partial quiet zone running from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., which the federal government also allows.

“A single death would outweigh the competing community desire for quiet, but I am only seeking a partial quiet zone,” Robson says. “The fact they can’t even get that done is pretty disappointing. There are a lot of residential developments along the tracks. I can’t imagine people are excited about these trains passing at all hours.”

What’s more, he adds, the quiet zone between NE 71st Street and PortMiami appears to be loosely applied to Brightline. “I noticed some of the ‘no horns’ signs are down in that area,” he says. “When Brightline started running its service, they took those signs down.”

Indeed, Brightline trains blast the horns at the intersection of NE 54th Street and NE 4th Court, near the BT office, on a regular basis.

Soule declined to comment on the criticisms. Instead, she referred the BT to a June 7 letter Brightline executive vice president Adrian Share sent to officials with the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization and the Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works Department overseeing the quiet zone implementation.

In the letter, Share explains that Brightline has completed the construction of the quiet zone safety measures between 215th Street and 79th Street, as well as building additional safety measures for the quiet zone between 71st Street and PortMiami. He notes that the county is responsible for taking the next steps, which include filing a notice of establishment, or NOE, with the Federal Railroad Administration, and verifying that infrastructure improvements are in place with a field visit.

“Once Brightline and the Florida East Coast Railway receive the NOE, they will unbag the ‘no train horns’ signs and issue the appropriate internal operating bulletins,” Share writes in the letter. “Quiet zones are quality-of-life improvements that can only be applied for by the cities or counties with jurisdiction over the adjacent railway.”

Transportation Department spokeswoman Damien says inspections of the safety measures at the railroad crossings were conducted in July 2018 as scheduled.

However, Robson says Soule told him months ago that the quiet zone would be implemented once train service began in Miami-Dade in May. He showed BT subsequent e-mail exchanges between himself and Soule in which she explains that delays in the construction of the safety measures pushed back the schedule.

“I wish she would have sent me Share’s memo in June and I would have moved on to county people,” Robson says. “It is really up to the people who are affected by the noise to do something. Hopefully, in two months, the quiet zone will be in place just in time, when the weather gets nicer and people open their windows.”



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