Publish Date: 
Thursday, May 21, 2015 - 5:30pm

By Phyllis Frey

Brevard County BOCC May 12, 2015

As a retired FAA Safety Check Airman, I would like to discuss safety issues with regard to AAF and Florida East Coast Railways as an appeal not to your sense of fear, but to your sense of good judgment and concern for the safety of the residents of IRC.  

AAF’s proposal to combine 32, 110 m.p.h. passenger trains per day to share the same tracks with FEC freight trains with closure rates of over 200 m.p.h. while transporting HAZMAT (hazardous materials) that will transit the centers of our 41 densely populated towns, over 340 crossings---that’s one crossing every 1.2 miles--- 56 times per day, increases the likelihood of accidents, deaths or environmental disasters by 370%.

None of the engineering changes proposed by AAF will make us SAFER. Adding 32 110 m.p.h. passenger trains that share tracks with a tripling of FEC HAZMAT freight trains makes us LESS safe.

The FEC’s website shows that it permits the transport of hazardous materials including anhydrous ammonium nitrate, sulfuric acid, chlorine gas, liquid natural gas or propane and ethanol, which is more explosive than petroleum. The FEC facility in Ft. Lauderdale is capable of loading 30,000 gallons of ethanol into just one tank car, yet FEC does not have to disclose to us what they are transporting through out back yards.   

In 2014 there were a total of 2,380 train collisions in the US resulting in 267 deaths. The DOT predicts 15 derailments in 2015. Since mid-February there have already been 9 derailments rupturing tank cars, spilling their contents, exploding into fireballs that travel as far as one mile, setting neighborhoods on fire, polluting waterways and igniting fires that burned for days as these pictures depict. The vulnerabilities of the 111 tank cars are well known by the DOT.

In the Lac Magantic catastrophe, 47 people died, and they weren’t even on the train, they were shopping, eating in restaurants, and carrying on daily life. Which of our Florida towns will become the next bomb train town? It isn’t a matter of “if.” It is a matter of “when.” 

20/20, FOX news and other media outlets including the WSJ, the NY Times and TC Palm continue to report on the escalating number of collisions and derailments which they say are now epidemic, such as the one that tragically occurred last week in Philadelphia killing 8, with another train derailment that same day. The following day, passengers narrowly escaped death when a train plowed into them in Atlanta, GA.   

In the past 15 years there have been 272 deaths along the Florida FEC corridor. According to the DOT, it is statistically the most dangerous corridor in the U.S. and that’s before we add 32, 110 m.p.h. trains and a tripling of HAZMAT and other freight for an initial number of 56 trains per day. It is an experiment that has never been attempted anywhere else in the world, and for good reason.

Exit gates, medians, pre-emption signals being touted are only Band Aids over this atrocity that will come at our expense. And if we want Quiet Zones, local governments will assume accident liability. So not only are we going to be living with this nightmare, we are going to be dying from it.

Commissioners of Indian River County, I want to thank you for your leadership in hiring safety and traffic specialists to study these issues. No other governing board has taken this initiative.    

Consider that a train traveling at 110 m.p.h. takes a minimum of 4,800’ to stop after applying the brakes. A freight train 2.5 miles long can take up to 2 miles to stop. Trains do not stop for objects on the tracks. They only apply the brakes. They hit the object and keep on moving

For a passenger vehicle approaching the crossing, the gates lower 20 seconds before the train arrives. From the time a train horn is sounded, it takes 8 seconds until impact. A mother trapped on the tracks in a car with a child in the back seat, a school bus filled with children, or a senior citizen trying to evacuate their vehicle—they have 8 seconds to die. By the way, I spoke to the school board. 335 school buses cross the tracks in Indian River County per day.

We have received letters from medical facilities, fire districts and the sheriff departments from all three TC counties expressing their concerns regarding the threat to safety All Aboard Florida poses.

With 56 trains per day, that is a gate closure every 20 minutes. If you are a patient having a heat attack or a stroke in an ambulance trying to get across the tracks to the hospital and are stopped by a train or trains, good luck on surviving when seconds count. 

The president of our IRC Firefighters Association cites that they are understaffed and woefully unprepared to deal with derailments and catastrophic events due to collisions and the kinds of fires caused by chemical explosions and environmental disasters. Evacuating passengers from train wrecks requires special equipment and training they do not have due to costs that will be too expensive to implement.

Federal and state officials should be working with FEMA to prepare for train collisions, derailments and explosions. For the first time, FEMA is one of the first efforts by the U.S. Government to start mapping out a plan to deal with catastrophic rail disasters through training and preparation. FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said a planning exercise is scheduled in June in a suburban area of Wisconsin. I strongly suggest that they focus on Florida’s FEC railway corridor where tragedy will meet the tracks.

Once again, the experiment All Aboard Florida is proposing has never been attempted anywhere else in the world and for good reason. 

Three major freight companies including CSX and Conrail are on record as fighting the addition speed train passenger service to their tracks including Conrail that stated HSR and freight operations are incompatible.  Union Pacific spokesman Brock Nelson stated quote, “If high speed rail is something that the public wants to pursue, we would coach you to find a different right of way.” End quote.

FDOT only has jurisdiction over trains that travel at a maximum speed of 79 m.p.h. There are no regulations for Florida intrastate rail travel at 110 m.p.h. In the On-Site Engineering Field Report, Part 1, All Aboard Florida stated that they do not have to comply with FRA Guidelines for safety because quote, “these are guidelines, not regulations,” and as per p. 3, quote, “They are not obligated to incorporate any of the described crossing treatments as illustrated in the document.” End quote. Field engineer for the FRA concluded that AAF is not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed rail.

By the way, if municipalities incorporate quiet zones, this shifts the liability for accidents to the municipalities, not the railroad companies.

In the past 15 years there have been 201 random crossing deaths in the FEC corridor, which the DOT calls quote, “epidemic in our area.” By adding quiet zones, the horns will be sounded only at road crossings. People crossing on foot between the crossings will not hear a horn warning.   

Sealed corridors basically include only a 9” wall of concrete dividing a street approaching the tracks, and funnels traffic to the gate. Also included are four gates, not two, but these gates are as breach-able as existing gates, and many of the streets are not wide enough to accommodate the concrete barrier.   

If vehicle detections systems are incorporated, they are only designed to prevent closure of the exit gate if a vehicle is on the track, and they do not work 100% of the time. On October 28, 2014, a road accident in Sebastian caused a traffic jam with the rail crossing gates locked in the down position. According to the report, three cars abreast were trapped on the tracks inside the gates for 15 – 20 minutes.

Reports by the American Association for Railroads state that failure points and failure modes for Positive Train Control which automatically applies the brakes have yet to be identified and corrected. PTC has not been addressed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and according to the FDOT, use of PTC in Florida has not been discussed. According to the FRA, the implementation of PCT is not feasible. This experimental equipment has not been proven in practice and according to the FRA, is not economically justified. Its main purpose is not to protect the public but to protect the train company’s personnel and equipment.

In conclusion, it is clear that All Aboard Florida is placing profit above lives. They do not care about the concerns of our communities, including safety. They have not responded to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted by 12,000 governmental, legal and private sources that addresses safety.  When Michael Reininger signed the application for the Private Activity Bonds and was asked if he had reason to believe there were any objections to the All Aboard Florida project, he checked the NO box.

When John Winkle, FRA transportation industry analyst was asked why safety was not addressed at any of the EIS events, he said quote, “We wanted to make that a separate issue.” So in other words, let’s just sidestep the sticky issue of safety, shall we?

All Aboard Florida and FEC can continue to ignore the issue of safety as they are choosing to do. If history and statistics are any measure of the future, there will be more blood on their hands--- a lot more. But make no mistake they have proven again and again that they do not care about the concerns of the people of the Treasure Coast. Our government agencies need to intervene and prevent these catastrophic accidents before they begin. It is their job to protect the residents of Florida.