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It was supposed to be Brightline’s triumphant return to providing train service to South Florida after a 19-month hiatus during the pandemic. Instead, one of the inaugural rides was marred by a wreck Monday when a train smashed into a car that had a 1-year-old baby and a 71-year-old grandmother on board.
The intense crash left the grandmother’s car a crumpled mess but the woman and child survived in what officials considered a fortunate outcome. The crash led to delays in service, frustrating some riders. It became a reminder of the safety concerns the high-speed rail service has faced in its years of operation — and all of it unfolding on its very first day back in service.
“It’s a miracle,” said Sandra King, a spokeswoman for Pompano Beach Fire Rescue, of the grandma and child. “It’s absolutely spine-chilling.”
“She was very lucky,” said Hassan Abid, the owner Pure Smoke Vape & CBD, a shop just footsteps away and whose surveillance camera recorded the violent collision.
The grandmother only suffered one, or possibly more broken bones while the grandchild did not appear to be injured. Both were taken to Broward Health North to be evaluated.
Abid said he sees wrecks happening at the crossing from time to time, recalling two fatal crashes occurring near his shop in the past 18 months or so. “It’s crazy,” he said of the collisions.
Patrick Goddard, the Brightline president, who was aboard the train Monday, asserted the accident was symptomatic of a broader problem: Many drivers and other members of the public are still not mindful of the dangers around railroads.
“We unfortunately had a tragic reminder that we really need to continue to implore the public to be careful and safe around railroad tracks,” he said.
After a 19-month hiatus a Brightline train carrying the company’s president strikes a vehicle on the first day of resuming service on Monday, November 8, 2021.
The Brightline train was southbound from West Palm Beach when the collision happened about 10:20 a.m., a company spokesperson said.
The grandmother appeared to be attempting to reverse the car off the tracks, to head east on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But she didn’t drive off in time: The train, company president and all, came barreling down toward the car on the tracks. The impact crumpled the rear of the car.
The train was headed to Fort Lauderdale and then Miami on a trip designed to mark the resumption of the railroad’s service, which was suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19.
The morning crash delayed north and southbound Brightline trains for a little more than 90 minutes. Over station public address systems, the company informed passengers of what had happened.
Addressing reporters after his arrival after 1 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station, Goddard said that all of the elements of the Pompano Beach crossing’s warning system worked properly.
“Everything operated as it was supposed to at our grade crossing,” he said. “The gates were down, the bells were ringing, the lights were on.”
Goddard referred questions about the accident to authorities in Pompano Beach.
Brightline trains travel up to 79 mph through populated areas and can reach speeds of 125 mph in more rural expanses. The eventual travel time from Miami to Orlando will be three hours.
From 2018 to 2019, during its first two years of service, more than 40 people died due to strikes from Brightline trains. That translated into an average of more than one person a month being killed while walking along tracks, driving a car or riding a bike, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Authorities have said several deaths were the result of suicide on the tracks.
Goddard said Monday the company has invested as much money in safety as other critical facets of the rail operation.
“Here at Brightline since its inception we have taken this layered approach to creating a safe environment for the public around our railroad tracks,” he said. “We have invested millions of dollars in upgraded signaling, gates, bells, lights and signage.”
In addition, the company stationed safety ambassadors and placed digital signage at the grade crossings, and mounted a public awareness and education campaign in conjunction with other community agencies.
“This railroad has been here for over 100 years,” Goddard told reporters. “This is a problem that’s endemic to the railroad industry, where people don’t behave as they should. They don’t obey the laws that are around our grade crossings.”
The collision happened as Brightline trains started carrying its first paying passengers in more than a year on Monday. The company holds high hopes that South Floridians and visitors will again use the rails for commuting and leisure travel.
Passengers aboard the train, who got off at Fort Lauderdale after a two-hour delay, said they did not feel anything unusual upon impact. Some riders asserted the company fell short with its post-crash communications with customers whose trips on other trains were delayed.
Fort Lauderdale resident Dr. Denise Levine said she was seated on a train at the Fort Lauderdale station, hoping to visit friends in West Palm Beach, when she and other passengers were asked to disembark.
“There was nothing about why the delay — [why] I’m being told to get off the train,” she said.
There was an approximate 10-minute gap between the time she was asked to leave the train to the time Brightline announced over the PA system that there had been a vehicle strike. Prior to the incident, Levine said she was an avid supporter of Brightline.
“It’ll be a long time before I take the Brightline again,” she said Monday.
The rail line had conducted a weeklong “soft opening” during the past week, reopening its downtown stations in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami, and road-testing its new ride service designed to carry customers between the trains and their homes, offices and entertainment destinations.
Goddard said the company operated its daily service last week without any incidents.
The executive had been scheduled to join Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis and Broward County Vice Mayor Michael Udine on Monday morning at the station to mark the reopening. But the crash scratched those plans.
The rail line’s resumption coincided Monday with the lifting of federal COVID restrictions on international travel. The action applies to Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe, where foreign nationals have been eager to resume making trips to the U.S. after a layoff of more than 18 months.
The reopening of the international travel window is expected to yield benefits to Brightline, whose service reflects the style and speed of many rail networks in Western Europe, and is likely to appeal to visitors accustomed to frequent train travel in their home countries.
The company is offering a first ride for free through Dec. 31.
If there were doubts that the public is warming up to train travel again, observers can look to Tri-Rail, the longtime commuter line that runs along the CSX rail line to the west of I-95 between Palm Beach County and Miami International Airport.
The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates the publicly subsidized line, announced the return of its full schedule late last month, one year after it was reduced due to ridership declines of 80% in March 2020. But Tri-Rail never halted service, and the line is back to a 50-train-per-day, 30-train-per-weekend schedule.
“Tri-Rail has had one of the best recoveries among commuter railroads in the country,” said Steven Abrams, the executive director.
It remains unclear what type of challenge faces Brightline as it tries to recoup the business it lost during the pandemic.
The company has spent heavily on a new local ride service and new amenities at its stations.
On Sunday, uniformed chauffeurs and iPad-toting “mobile ambassadors” roamed outside the front of Brightline’s Fort Lauderdale station slightly north of Broward Boulevard.
Depending on the vehicle type, passengers can get rides to and from destinations within a three- to five-mile radius of the station.
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Those with longer distances to travel can rent a car at an Avis office inside a building that also houses a public parking garage on the station’s west side.
Last Friday, the company unveiled a new sitdown bar called Mary Mary, which will serve riders at all three stations. The place is named for Mary Lily Kenan and Mary Harkness Flagler, who were both wives of Henry Flagler, founder of the Florida East Coast Railway, whose tracks are used by Brightline.
The bar will serve an all-day breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.
The line has also installed an autonomous market dubbed MRKT at the stations, where customers can pick up snacks.
At the MiamiCentral station in Miami, riders will be greeted with a broad cross-section of restaurants.
A cluster of eating spots dubbed as Citizens MiamiCentral include EllaMia, Umami Burger, Krispy Rice, Sam’s Crispy Chicken, Cicci di Carne, Sa’Moto by Chef Morimoto, La Estacion, Rosetta Bakery, Patagonia, Art de Vivre, and 800 Woodfired Kitchen.