PALM BEACH POST
For the second time in six months, Tequesta officials are calling onFlorida East Coast Railway to change its procedures, after the village said the company’s aging rail bridge over the Loxahatchee River malfunctioned, preventing fire rescue workers from reaching the scene of a serious car crash.
In a three-page letter to FEC officials, Mayor Abby Brennan said the 90-year-old Loxahatchee River Bridge and its “rapidly deteriorating operating mechanism” must be immediately addressed.
The drawbridge has been a sore spot for opponents of the All Aboard Floridaproject, which is expected to add 32 trains a day to the FEC tracks. The railway is an affiliate of All Aboard Florida’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries.
“The members of this community and the protectors of their health, safety and welfare must have reasonable access to both sides of the FEC tracks,” Brennan wrote in the Aug. 31 letter. “We cannot wait and risk an occurrence of a truly catastrophic event that your railroad could have prevented.”
On Aug. 22, Palm Beach County asked the village’s Fire Rescue officials to help respond to a car crash with traumatic injuries. The accident occurred at about 10 p.m. along U.S. Route 1 in Jupiter. Although the crash occurred outside Tequesta, the village has agreements with surrounding communities to provide aid in the event of a serious incident.
When officials at Tequesta’s Fire Rescue station on Tequesta Drive, which is west of the FEC tracks, tried to respond to the Aug. 22 crash, they found a southbound train blocking all three of the rail crossing leading to U.S. 1. After trying to cross the tracks at all three intersections, Tequesta was forced to tell Palm Beach County’s Fire Rescue Command Center that its rescue workers could not respond.
According to Tequesta officials, the railroad crossings at Tequesta Drive, Riverside Drive and County Line Road were blocked for at least 21 minutes because the malfunction with the bridge prevented the train from moving. It was the second time in six months that a train has delayed the village’s first responders.
“I am worried, and I am concerned, and I am afraid that we are hearing the warning bells, but I don’t know that they are listening,” Brennan said Friday.
In March, FEC said it would change its procedures to prevent a similar incident after a train blocked all three crossings for more than 90 minutes. A car crash occurred as the train blocked all three railcrossings. One person was injured. The victim was taken to Jupiter Medical Center — but a trip that should have lasted just five minutes, took 47 minutes because of the train.
FEC’s rule changes require all southbound trains to stop before Riverside Drive if they do not receive a clear signal that the bridge is down, leaving the southernmost crossing in the village open to traffic.FEC said it would notify Tequesta officials of any blocked crossings within the village.
But that didn’t happen.
“I thought we had taken care of the issue,” Florida East Coast Railway spokesman Bob Ledoux said. In the Aug. 22 incident, the engineer did not get a clear signal that the bridge was down and was forced to stop the train and walk to the bridge to make sure it was in the closed position.
Ledoux said the engineer was following an old procedure — which allowed the driver to stop the train closer to the bridge. The procedure still was listed in the engineer’s rule book. The book was updated this week as a result of the most recent incident, Ledoux said.
“Clearly, I found out the hard way that we did not delete the old rule,” Ledoux said. “It has now been updated.”
Ledoux said engineers who don’t follow the procedure could be found in violation of company rules.
All Aboard Florida did not respond to a request for comment Friday. The company has maintained that its plan will pour tens of millions of dollars into upgrading the FEC tracks, safety equipment, crossing mechanisms and drawbridges.
But Brennan said the community can’t wait for those upgrades.
“This has to stop,” Brennan said. “Simply doing routine maintenance is obviously not enough.”