Brightline ramps up: Crews to conduct test runs on trains between West Palm Beach and Cocoa

A launch of passenger train travel along Florida’s central coast and on to Orlando becomes one step closer to reality next week when Brightline, the high-speed railroad, starts crew training along its expansion route to Cocoa.

The tests, which will start during the week of Jan. 17, will see engineers and conductors operating trains without passengers, and under the tutelage of supervisors, between West Palm Beach and Cocoa. The trains will travel no faster than 60 mph along the existing Florida East Coast rail line.

The program unfolds as the railroad copes with another round of South Florida crossing deaths involving motorists who tried to beat trains across the tracks despite the presence of gates, flashing lights and warning bells.

The training period is designed to give crews a chance to familiarize themselves with crossings, signals, landmarks, speed zones and other characteristics of a 130-mile stretch of the corridor.

Lasting for the duration of the year, the test runs are an important step for Brightline, whose chief goal in Florida has been to operate a high-speed regional rail link for leisure travelers between Miami and Orlando. The company has carried passengers between the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach since 2018, while also positioning itself as a convenient commuter option for business travelers among the three cities.

“Operating a train requires engineers and conductors to be intimately familiar with the rail corridor, including road crossings, signals, curves and speed restrictions,” the company said in a statement. “During qualifying runs, Brightline train crews will work with a manager already qualified on the territory who will provide oversight and instruction.”

Each test run will consist of one round-trip a day. A Brightline train with two locomotives at each end and four passenger cars will follow a northbound Florida East Coast Railway train by 10 to 15 minutes from West Palm Beach, to a point north of Cocoa. On the return trip, the Brightline train will follow a southbound FEC train back to Palm Beach County.

Brightline plans to conduct test runs of its high speed trains starting Jan. 17 between West Palm Beach to Cocoa. The idea is to familiarize crews with the north-south leg of its new segment to Orlando, which is expected to be completed by year's end.

Brightline plans to conduct test runs of its high speed trains starting Jan. 17 between West Palm Beach to Cocoa. The idea is to familiarize crews with the north-south leg of its new segment to Orlando, which is expected to be completed by year’s end. (Kevin Spear)

Brightline’s service was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the company to halt operations between March 2020 and early November 2021. Despite the interruption, construction on a $2.7 billion expansion to Orlando via Cocoa has continued.

The company expects the extension, which is 70% built, to be completed by the end of this year, Ben Porritt, senior vice president of corporate affairs, said by phone on Monday.

Porritt said public officials up and down the line have been notified that the test trains will be coming through their communities. Though their speeds will be limited to 60 mph, the company envisions the trains running at speeds of 79 to 110 mph when the extension becomes fully operational.

Brightline trains will sound horns at all rail crossings and during emergencies.

“We have an aggressive outreach campaign which has been ongoing throughout construction,” Porritt said.

Since resuming operations in South Florida last Nov. 8, at least four accidents with five deaths have occurred on the rail line. Trains have collided with vehicles at crossings as drivers sought to beat the trains across the tracks even after gates were lowered and warning bells and lights were activated. Two deaths involved individuals who walked on the tracks. One was an apparent suicide.

The incidents brought the total fatalities to 53 since January 2018, including one during a test run before the trains started carrying paying passengers.

Recently, the company deployed cameras at two crossing sites in North Miami. During a six-week period, they caught more than 600 motorists driving around crossing gates that were lowering or were lowered. The company sent them all warning letters.

In advance of the test runs to Central Florida, the company is taking to local media to tell motorists to watch out for the trains and to obey laws that require them to stop and wait until the crossings are clear.

  • Public service announcements on radio and in local newspapers
  • Variable message boards at multiple crossings throughout each county to convey safety reminders
  • News interviews
  • Contacts with local government officials, police and fire rescue departments and school districts.
  • Announcements on Brightline’s social media channels

Tom Rutkowski, Brightlines’s vice president for engineering and chief mechanical officer, inspects the layout of a locomotive in late 2021. The trains are made by Siemens Mobility near Sacramento, California.

Tom Rutkowski, Brightlines’s vice president for engineering and chief mechanical officer, inspects the layout of a locomotive in late 2021. The trains are made by Siemens Mobility near Sacramento, California. (Kevin Spear)

Porritt said that while Brightline is hiring new train crews, the more experienced ones already on the job will be the first to receive the training.

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“Our existing crews will be the first to be trained and we will continue to hire in the lead-up to launching Orlando, and continue to train those new engineers and conductors,” Porritt said. “Our existing crews have between three and 30 years of experience, giving our locomotive engineers an average of 17 years of experience.

New hires are expected to have “at least 3 years of experience” and must be certified as engineers, he said.

Since last September, Brightline has been taking delivery of new train sets from the German conglomerate Siemens, which has been manufacturing them in northern California.

When the tests start next week, residents along the Treasure and Space coasts will see some of them pass through their towns and cities. Brightline currently has six train sets in operation with another four on the way.

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