How a fence could derail a new Miami-Orlando train

Executives of the company building Brightline, a Miami-Orlando passenger train service, are deeply concerned about a bill wending its way through the Florida Legislature that contains rail-crossing requirements that could disrupt the project’s West Palm Beach-to-Orlando segment.

Michael Reininger, one of the firm’s principal executives, has said the Miami-West Palm Beach leg was on track to start service late this summer, even though the West Palm Beach-Orlando stretch would no longer launch in 2018.

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Now, Reininger — in a telephone conference call last week with members of the editorial boards of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald — said that if the bill in Tallahassee were to become law, it could not only further delay the project’s West Palm Beach-Orlando stretch but evens derail it.

“We are on track to initiate the new business of Brightline and begin carrying passengers between Miami and West Palm Beach with new trains and new stations in the very near future, in a matter of days from now,” said Reinenger, executive director of Florida East Coast Industries, Brightline’s parent company. “And we’re concurrently continuing to work on the second phase, the extension of the business” to Orlando International Airport. “But we’re here today to talk about the latest tactic that [a] group of opponents has chosen to take in order to see the project fail.”

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Reininger said the opponents are people who live primarily in the Treasure Coast counties of Martin, Indian River and St. Lucie, many grouped under an organization called Citizens Against Rail Expansion, or CARE.

“They are supporters and backers of a bill that is presently being considered in the Senate of the current legislative session,” Reininger said. “We actually believe it is a very thinly veiled attempt to put up yet another roadblock, or another attempt, to create a challenge that could be detrimental not only to our own pursuit of passenger rail in Florida, but that we believe will have negative consequences, if not fatal consequences, to any place in Florida that has a vision of the future where moving people by train is a part of a long-term solution.”

Reininger said the bill would compel the company to duplicate or add unneeded features to rail crossings that federal and state transportation agencies already require and with which Brightline has complied.

“We’ve lived up to every commitment that we’ve made along the way,” Reininger said. “The result is a commitment to construct the improvements to the railroad that actually exceed and go well beyond the existing regulations that are in place for railroads.”

Among key requirements of the Florida High Speed Passenger Rail Safety bill, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, is to build fencing around Brightline’s tracks.

Company executives said fencing doesn’t add safety on tracks, despite popular perception.

“Once folks trespass and enter onto the right-of-way, they’re trapped inside the right-of-way as the train is coming,” said Myles Tobin, Brightline’s general counsel. “This is the Federal Railroad Administration which has concluded that fencing doesn’t work.”

CARE, for its part, published a statement on its website recently, praising the Mayfield bill.

“The unanimous support the bill received in committee,” said CARE chairman Brent Hanlon, “highlights the importance of ensuring that all Floridians are protected from accidents and injuries at dangerous high speed rail crossings across the state.”

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County commissioners unanimously passed a motion last Tuesday opposing the Senate bill CARE backs.

Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, also Miami-Dade County’s representative on the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority board, offered the motion, which directed the county’s lobbyists to oppose the bill.

“Brightline has already created hundreds of jobs and spurred significant economic impact in our county,” Barreiro said in a statement. “This private express passenger rail service is set to connect Miami-Dade with central Florida in an unprecedented way, bringing with it new tourism opportunities, less congestion on our roads and a new affordable way to travel.”

Brightline, a private subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, plans to begin service from a downtown Miami train station downtown to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach late this summer. Brightline showed off the first of its five train sets in January. Each Brightline train set features one Select coach, with wider seats, and three Smart coaches, all with drop-down task trays, large windows and complimentary Wi-Fi.