Debbie Mayfield, Tyler Sirois set town hall on rail safety bills

Their bills would increase state oversight of rail in Florida

State Sen. Debbie Mayfield and state Rep. Tyler Sirois are planning a town hall meeting Wednesday in Melbourne to air their proposal to increase state requirements for high-speed rail safety.

Mayfield’s Senate Bill 676 and Sirois’ House Bill 465 would expand the Florida Department of Transportation’s regulation and safety oversight of passenger trains in Florida.

While the bills sound broad in focus, they are explicitly about Virgin Trains U.S.A.’s project to extend the Brightline private passenger train railroad from South Florida up through Mayfield’s and Sirois’s districts along the East Coast and then westward into Orlando, connecting Orlando and Miami with trains that can go as fast as 120 mph in some places.

Mayfield, a Rockledge Republican, and Sirois, a Merritt Island Republican, are planning a town hall at Melbourne City Hall starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Virgin Trains has maintained safety is its top priority and it is working closely with both federal and state regulators, as well as with local officials, to assure safety. However, the company has shown little interest in the kind of increased state oversight that Mayfield has pursued with this and her previous bills.

Mayfield, a Republican from Rockledge, has been a longtime critic of Brightline and Virgin Trains, an annual fighter for additional safety measures, and an ally of staunch opponents of the train. The opponents had sought, unsuccessfully, for more than five years to derail the proposal.

It is the third time she has filed such a measure. The previous bills have gone nowhere.

This year Sirois is sponsoring the House version. He said he is hearing from numerous constituents who are raising concerns about the tracks running close to schools, neighborhoods and historic downtowns, which he would like to see addressed by the state.

“It’s not my intention here to create burdensome regulation. But high-speed rail is something that is new to this area, and we need to be cautious in our approach and make sure all safety measures that can be taken are taken,” Sirois said.

Virgin Trains now is building out its railroad corridor from Orlando International Airport to Cocoa in Brevard County and upgrading tracks from there to West Palm Beach in the south. Virgin Trains currently runs trains between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The company hopes to provide service from there to Orlando by mid-2022.

Virgin Trains also has longer-term plans to extend the railway from Orlando to Tampa.

“As we begin to explore various options for transportation throughout our state, our priority should be to ensure the safety of not only the passengers but also of the citizens of the communities that will be impacted by these trains as they travel through our neighborhoods,” Mayfield stated in a news release.

The bills draw on recommendations identified in a study commissioned by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability last fall. The study, titled the Florida Passenger Rail System Study, examined all existing and planned passenger rail systems in the state of Florida and identified critical safety deficiencies within Florida’s passenger rail system.

Among the bills’ provisions: the Florida Department of Transportation would exert authority over the Federal Railroad Administration where necessary to make certain that rail corridors and equipment are safe and well maintained; require that pedestrian and road crossings are gated; require that high-risk corridors are fenced; provide that local emergency service providers are properly trained for risks specific to high-speed train accidents; and require that railroad operators would report accidents to the state.

Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline and before that as All Aboard Florida, issued a statement in October regarding the bills, stating, “Safety is our top priority, which is why our team works closely with the FRA, FDOT and local officials to ensure that we utilize best practices and meet regulations that are already in place. Because nearly all rail safety incidents involve people intentionally ignoring warning signs, our collective focus must be on education, mental health awareness and suicide prevention efforts.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].

One comment

  • S Mehiel

    December 3, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Senator Mayfield is not trying to stop the project nor is our organization, Alliance for Safe Trains. We just want the trains to run safely and save lives. It’s obvious from the death toll, which now everyone is aware of because of the latest AP story, that something is terribly wrong with trains going ONLY 70+ mph. The senator is correct in her concerns for residents’ safety when they will go 100+ mph. All areas of the country have mentally ill or addicted people, but they don’t have so many rail deaths and we know why. Brightline refuses to install needed safety features like fencing and pedestrian bridges.

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