Lamenting “an epidemic” of deaths by people who jump in front of South Florida’s new fast-moving trains, Brightline President Patrick Goddard said the company is boosting its efforts to prevent suicides.
In an attempt to head off suicides by train, Brightline has installed infrared fences and warning signs along its tracks. The company also has hosted public-awareness events, Goddard said.
“In spite of this, the incidents are still occurring,“ Goddard said at a news conference Wednesday in Delray Beach. “It’s not enough. We need to look to do more.”
State Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, last month introduced a bill seeking $500,000 in state funding for efforts to reduce suicide by train. The money would support the 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast Helpline, a service for people suffering mental health issues.
Brightline said it would contribute $150,000 to 211.
“We want to look for a way to intercept people who are feeling low, are in a bad place, before they approach the train tracks,” Goddard said.
Brightline operates the deadliest train among the nation’s 821 railroads, according to an analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data by The Associated Press. Since the for-profit service began operating, it has experienced deaths at a rate of more than one a month — and about one for every 29,000 miles the trains have traveled.
None of Brightline’s deaths were caused by crew error or faulty equipment, according to law enforcement and federal reports. The majority have been suicides, while most others involved impatient motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists who misjudged the trains’ speed and ignored bells, gates or other warnings. Drugs, alcohol or both have been found in many victims’ systems.
The company is working with suicide prevention groups and will experiment with infrared motion detectors and drones to patrol tracks. The drones will have cameras to spot people lingering, as those contemplating suicide often do, and speakers through which drone monitors can speak with them. The monitors also will alert police and warn engineers.
Brightline also is erecting fences and plant barriers in problem areas, putting up four-way gates at major road crossings and talking with cities about eliminating side-street crossings. Signs advertising suicide prevention hotlines will be posted.
Suicides are devastating for Brightline’s crews, Goddard said. A moving train needs at least 1,500 feet to stop, and conductors have no hope of avoiding a collision with a suicidal person.
The trauma of driving a train used in a suicide leaves crews the “walking wounded,” Goddard said.
“We want the number to be zero, and we won’t rest until we get there,” Goddard said.
Brightline, which is rebranding as Virgin Trains USA in partnership with British billionaire Richard Branson, runs about 17 trains each way daily between Miami and West Palm Beach – 67 miles – and plans to expand another 170 miles to Orlando by 2022. On the new stretch, trains will reach speeds of 125 mph when they travel through less densely populated farmland.
Also in 2020, Virgin Trains plans to open a line connecting Southern California and Las Vegas, with top speeds of 150 mph. It hopes to add service in Texas and other states.
Brightline is a subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group LLC. New York-based Fortress has a management contract with Gannett Co., Inc., the ultimate parent of the publisher of The Palm Beach Post.