The Price of Progress

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, January 29, 2013 No Comment(s)


The fatal crash of a Tri-Rail train into a car last week reminds us, as if we needed reminding, of the dangers of all the grade crossings on South Florida’s railroads. As we have noted before, this is a subject of particular importance as Florida East Coast Railway plans to initiate, on its own dime, passenger service between Miami and Orlando.

Through no fault of its own, the CSX line, which Tri-Rail uses, is much safer than the FEC. Most of the South Florida grade crossings were eliminated on the CSX when I-95 was built. Still it has had some terrible accidents on the relatively few which remain. That includes the inferno at Cypress Creek years back when a fuel truck was stuck in traffic, and the courageous driver died trying to get his vehicle out of the way of an Amtrak train.

The FEC has hundreds of crossings. In Fort Lauderdale alone there are at least 10 in a span of a few miles. With plans to run a fast passenger service on an hourly basis beginning two years from now, one can only grimly guess at the lurking dangers. These passenger trains will be in addition to the freight already using those tracks, and if Amtrak and Tri-Rail decide to move trains to the FEC, it will become a very busy rail line. The latter move makes total sense, for the trains would then serve the busy downtowns along the way. Both Tri-Rail and Amtrak are too far from business districts to realize their potential.

A move east to the FEC makes sense in every way but safety. To do the job properly those trains will have to go a lot faster through urban areas than the lumbering freights, which despite only moving at around 35 miles an hour, already have their share of accidents. One can only imagine the frustration of drivers being constantly stopped by crossing gates as all the new trains roll by. The temptation for cars to beat the train, which causes accidents now, will be much greater. And the outcry from those living near those crossings over the blaring horns of engines can only intensify.

One can hardly blame the railroads for this situation. The iron rails were there before the roads crossing them. But unlike most northern cities, which either elevated or lowered railroads more than a century ago, Florida just let crossing after crossing be constructed at grade level. In fact we can think of only a few bridges over the FEC all the way from Miami to Fort Pierce.

The FEC needs to be rebuilt, eliminating at least some crossings to permit trains to have sections of a few miles where they can get up to speed. That is expensive, especially in the downtowns where businesses would be most affected. It is safe to say the FEC knows this better than anybody, and probably knows it can’t go it alone.

Safe to say, but extremely unsafe to do nothing. There is a price of progress, but it should not be in human lives.

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