No gates. No lights. No stop sign.
That might work for a railroad crossing in the middle of a desert or the open plains, where visibility is clear for miles.
But for an area like northwestern Palm Beach County, full of foliage that limits the line of sight and growing rapidly in residents, visitors and vehicles on the roads, a railroad crossing that lacks so much as a stop sign is beyond unacceptable.
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A beloved West Palm Beach woman and her two grandsons — Valery Jo Rintamaki, 58; and Tristan Prestano, 10, and Skyler Prestano, 8, of Wellington — lost their lives to such irresponsibility last weekend as they neared the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Center on a country road 25 yards off the Beeline Highway.
They were on their way to an overnight camping trip with the Boy Scouts when their SUV collided with an Amtrak train bound for New York City, smashing their vehicle into twisted wreckage, camping gear strewn in its wake.
Though the deadliest, it was not the only collision on that unprotected meeting of road and tracks.
“Everybody’s been saying for years we need some sort of crossing gate,” said Earl Megonigal, a check station operator at the wildlife management area. “It’s dangerous there. Trains go flying by.”
Railroad gates aren’t required in rural areas. But with Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast developing as fast as they are, this crossing and three others along the Beeline Highway are in dire need of upgrades.
Most of us, after all, expect that a rail crossing will have a gate — and if there’s no gate in front of us and no lights flashing, we’ll assume that the way is clear. What works on a country road can be fatally misread by drivers used to city or suburban streets.
True, gates and flashing lights are no absolute guarantee of safety. Witness the 19 deaths this year involving Brightline trains in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties — fatalities that have prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to implore the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to look into the issue.
(Brightline refers to these as “trespasser” incidents, all of them “the result of deliberate unlawful actions to ignore warning signs or safety barriers.” We hope that FDOT takes a less self-interested view of the situation and identifies ways that Brightline and government officials can make the situation safer.)
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There’s a reason for gates and lights at railroad crossings.
Over the last 40 years, fatalities have gone down as many crossings, once as bare as those along Beeline Highway, have added safety features — gates, lights, timed traffic signals — and public education efforts have stepped up.
Train/motor vehicle collisions nationwide dropped from roughly 12,000 in 1972 to 2,100 in 2017, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit dedicated to railroad crossing safety.
And that decline in accidents has occurred despite an increase in rail traffic. Between 1970 and 2018, freight train mileage has grown 11.4% and Amtrak passenger train miles have grown 46%, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
So those who’ve yearned for crossing gates at that entrance to J.W. Corbett have a point. It’s especially absurd to think that a crossing with only a “Yield” sign — no lights, no gate — is doing anything of value. Does anyone actually need to be told to yield if a train is coming? What else would you do in the face of an advancing train? It’s either yield or die.
At the very least, that crossing should say “Stop.” Anything less violates the most basic tenet of railroad safety that everyone learns as a child: Stop, look and listen.
Some who defend the status quo at that rail crossing, and put the onus for the tragedy on the motorist, point out that there’s an open line of sight for 75 feet until landscaping gets in the way. That’s not much. That’s shorter than the first base path on a major league ball field. A train going 55 mph covers 75 feet in less than a second.
And don’t expect the train engineer to stop in time. A freight train going 55 mph needs a mile or more to stop after the engineer applies the brake, according to Operation Lifesaver. And, of course, that engineer can’t swerve out of the way.
The only responsible way to avoid collisions is to do everything possible to keep vehicles off the tracks when a train is coming.
So far, state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, state Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, and Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche have stepped up with legislation or calls to investigate.
Other public officials should join them, and quickly. A car is no match for a speeding train. We need to give drivers better odds of staying alive.