Florida’s Brightline Railroad Is Nation’s Deadliest Due to High Rate of Track Deaths

March 31, 2020 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
Florida’s Brightline Railroad Is Nation’s Deadliest Due to High Rate of Track Deaths

Brightline Railroad Deaths Top in the Country

Brightline trains give Florida commuters a faster, less stressful way to travel. They're a relaxing alternative to driving, as long as you don't think about the mounting death toll while on the train. It's not a passenger issue. Brightline, also known as Virgin Trains USA, keeps passengers safe in spacious, comfortable rail cars. Brightline also designs its trains to go fast, even as they travel through residential neighborhoods and densely-populated communities. Speed is one of the train system's biggest benefits, but it's also one of it's biggest dangers. The trains move so quickly that non-passengers don't have time to appreciate the trains' risk. Brightline's “higher-speed” trains eliminate some of the issues that most annoy commuters find on their daily drives. Passengers avoid traffic and don't have to navigate a crowded highway. They ride in luxury, relaxing in comfortable leather seats instead of enduring hot cars on congested roads. Passengers also save time, making the trip from Miami to West Palm Beach in just about an hour. Problems occur when non-passengers attempt to navigate Brightline's railroad grade crossings. In just two years, 40 people have died. These disparities leave families suffering and within their legal right to file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit with the assistance of a train accident attorneyContact Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA to learn more about your case and legal options. Speed is one of the new trains' most exciting features, but it's also a primary factor in the steady stream of fatalities. Brightline/Virgin trains travel faster than freight trains. Both freight and passenger train systems travel on lateral tracks and often run side-by-side. Motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians crossing from one side of a road to the other have no choice in how they make the trip. All of the fatalities have occurred at grade crossings, an old system that struggles to deal with newer, faster trains.

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA

Fortress Investment Group didn't set out to create the deadliest train line in the country. Rather, the company built the privately-owned train line to meet South Florida residents' commuting and local travel needs. In creating this fleet, the company went beyond traditional commuter train specifications. Rockwell Group interior designers and architects designed the sleek diesel-electric system, and Siemens, of Sacramento, California, built it. Each car exterior has bright colorful patterns with accents reminiscent of trendy art. The cars provide a comfortable commuter experience and include many luxury features, including:
  • Two riding classes with varying amenities
  • Travel speed averaging 79 miles per hour
  • Onboard WiFi
  • Full ADA compliance
  • Pet-friendly
  • Bicycle and luggage storage
  • USB ports and pull-down laptop-sized trays
  • Snacks, food, and beverages

The Virgin Trains USA Rebranding

Richard Branson began his financial and rebranding collaboration with Brightline in December 2018. He formally announced Brightline's rebranding to Virgin Trains USA in April 2019. This isn't Virgin's first train venture. In the UK, Virgin's UK Main Line transported over 38 million passengers during 2017. Branson explains that he'd spent over a decade looking for an opportunity “to change the face of American railways.” Ultimately, the line will run from Orlando to Miami.

The Nation's Deadliest Railroad

When the Associated Press (AP) analyzed Brightline's casualty statistics, the news organization determined that the rail line had one death per 29,000 miles traveled. AP then compared that to Tri-rail's death rate: one per 110,000 miles, and Florida East Coast freight line's rate: 1 every 160,000 miles. Brightline earned it's “deadliest” nickname because it has a higher death rate than these Florida lines, as well as higher than any other rail line in the country. Statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration indicate that railroad crossing casualties had been decreasing since 2016. However, Brightline had already begun to reverse that trend in Florida by the time the company hosted its January 2018 inaugural passenger run. The first victim died during a trial run approximately six months before the official opening. Since then, the casualty rate has remained consistent. Brightline/Virgin USA Trains have been involved in 40 deaths, a rate of approximately one death per month.

Why Have So Many Fatalities Occurred on the Florida Brightline?

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA fatalities involve railroad crossing incidents. The rail company stresses that these accidents did not occur due to any operational or employee errors. Rather, the company attributes the deaths to several causes, including the following:

Alleged Suicides on the Florida Brightline

The fatally injured victims are the only ones who could have explained why they chose to cross when a train was coming. Since the victims can't speak up for themselves, suicide has become a go-to answer to the question of why. Historical evidence backs up the existence of a death-by-train phenomenon. The FRA's 2019 suicide casualty statistics show 127 suicide-related fatalities and 18 injuries nationwide. Train suicides do happen, but no one has produced any suicide notes or other evidence to support recent Brightrail/Virgin suicide allegations. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) Volpe Center provides preventative information on its Rail Suicide Prevention Resource Page. The agency has documented railroad suicides since 2011. Its research generates suicide demographic, environment, and rail characteristic data. Brightline/Virgin Trains USA's victims don't often meet these and other FRA suicide profile elements.
  • Traditionally more men than women are involved in these accidents.
  • These accidents involve freight trains more often than passenger trains.
  • These incidents peak during the spring.
  • Such incidents increase in frequency between 4:00 and 8:00 pm.
NPR's Morning Edition addressed the rail company's suicide theory. Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Ben Porritt, explained that the company determined that 75 percent of the lines' fatalities involved suicides. However, a related NPR article explained that a DOT study found that suicides accounted for only 30 percent of train-related deaths nationwide. An activist with the Alliance for Safe Trains (AST) has challenged the 75 percent number inaccurate. AST suggests that safety features are a much bigger issue.

Drugs or Alcohol

TV12 reported that three of the first five victims tested positive for drugs. The victims' autopsy findings overshadowed the Brightline accident issue. The news coverage of the drug testing results temporarily transformed the train-related deaths into a drug addiction and mental illness conversation.

Trying to Beat a Train

Some of the 40 Brightline/Virgin Trains USA fatalities occurred when drivers navigated around the safety gate to beat an oncoming train. ABC/WWSB reported that a 46-year-old man died after making it halfway across the tracks. He beat a southbound lower-speed freight train but failed to notice the higher-speed Brightrail train headed north on the adjacent track. A Brightline/Virgin video obtained by the Palm Beach Post shows a 51-year-old bicyclist, Jeffrey King, sustaining fatal injuries when an oncoming train struck him. From the victim's demeanor just before the crash, he was clearly surprised that the train was moving quickly enough to overtake him. The bicyclist's actions demonstrate the idea that individuals crossing railroad tracks struggle to determine the speed of the oncoming higher-speed train.

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA Doesn't Talk About Some of the Critical Issues


Brightline/Virgin Trains USA trains are “higher-speed” rail systems, which move faster than trains that previously traveled on the same tracks. The safety issues concern Florida AST advocates. Those individuals want residents to understand that state laws haven't kept pace with trains that run through residential and urban areas at increased speeds. The group refers to a Florida Passenger Rail System Study conducted by CPCS Transcom. The study reported several key findings, including:
  • During its first 6 months of operation, Brightline had a casualty rate that was 89 percent higher than other U.S. city passenger rail systems.
  • Florida has no increased safety guidelines for trains designated as higher-speed.
  • Higher-speed trains customarily travel faster than 80 miles per hour.
  • Both FRA and FDOT have laws governing trains with speeds up to 80 miles per hour and classifies high-speed trains as those that travel 126 to 220 miles per hour.
  • Higher-speed trains fall within a gap that has no specifically applicable FRA or FDOT safety regulations.

Infrastructure: The Problem With Railway-Highway Grade Crossings

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA press the issue of safety. The company doesn't discuss its business model, which places higher-speed trains in highly-populated urban and suburban areas. This raises an issue that train companies often fail to address. If pedestrians, vehicle operators, and bicyclists had a safer way to cross, they would never have to confront train-related life and death dilemmas. A Caltrain Design Criteria manual chapter on grade crossings explains it best, stating that “ideally, highway-rail grade crossings should not exist.” People have been using grade crossings to navigate train tracks since the 1800s. Railroads have implemented unique safety systems to guide these crossings, but those systems have changed very little over the years. That's important because rail companies like Brightline/Virgin Trains USA have increased the stakes by bringing higher-speed trains within feet of the places where families live, work, and play. The dangers have increased significantly, but the safety systems are essentially the same as nearly a century ago. Hugh Kendall of the General Sign Company demonstrates this in his Purdue Road School article, “History and Review of Railway-Highway Grade Crossing and Warning Systems.” Beginning in the 1800s, early efforts included signage, manually-operated gates, wavelight signals (humans waving a light), and automatically-activated bell signals. Eventually, railroads installed track circuits that generated a signal to activate flashing lights. By 1936, grade crossings included a system of automatic gates and flashing lights. Railroad companies improved the technology, but these systems have not changed to accommodate the new reality of people having to deal with higher-speed trains. Today, some urban train systems incorporate overhead walkways, underpasses, and other systems. Some trains travel on elevated or underground rails. When railroads implement these systems, at-risk pedestrians and bicyclists don't have to put their lives on the line every time they head home and need to cross train tracks. Impatient drivers don't feel compelled to go around a safety gate to get across the tracks faster. It's an infrastructure versus cost problem that train companies largely ignore.

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA Address Train Safety

Brightline/Virgin Trains USA officials and local law enforcement authorities addressed safety issues during a news conference. Pattrick Goddard, Brighline/Virgin Trains USA President/CEO, and other executives wore lapel badges with the message/warning: “Stay Off Train Tracks.” Each speaker relayed safety measures that sometimes came across as clichés.
  • Obey the bells, lights, and gates, and never try to beat a train.
  • Trains move faster than they appear.
  • Respect the gates.
  • Look, listen, and live.
The speakers didn't discuss train speed as a factor in causing fatalities. Rather, the speakers focused on preventative measures for pedestrians, vehicle operators, and other people at risk. In addition to warnings, the speakers discussed future safety initiatives, including:
  • Collaborate with Operation Lifesaver: Bilingual safety campaign, volunteer efforts, education programs
  • Enhance existing crossing signage and warnings
  • Expand public service announcement campaign
  • Safety street teams that spread the word about rail safety
  • Safety ambassadors at the busiest intersections

Positive Train Control

WLRN Miami reported that Brightline/Virgin Trains USA suspended some of its operations to implement positive train control (PTC) on its tracks. PTC is collision- avoidance technology that stops a train before it strikes an object on the tracks. For several years, the National Transportation Safety Board has advocated full compliance by all rail companies. In 2008, Congress and federal regulators mandated the technology, but they have pushed back the deadline several times. There is a new pending deadline in 2020. The technology may ultimately prevent railroad crossing deaths. The benefits are questionable for higher-speed rail systems, however. Even with advanced warning, faster moving trains require significant stopping distances.

Consult a Personal Injury Attorney Immediately

If you or a loved one sustained injuries due to a train-related accident, you should consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Brightline/Virgin Trains USA trains cause fatal and catastrophic injuries frequently, but proving liability may prove complicated. Personal injury attorneys understand the legal issues. They understand how to evaluate the evidence and assess liability for their clients' injuries. Attorneys deal with at-fault parties, insurance companies, and court systems, and attorneys protect their clients' rights to file claims by helping you comply with Florida's statute of limitations guidelines. When you schedule a consultation, you have an opportunity to share your story. During your consultation, a legal representative will discuss your legal options with you, so that you may choose the most prudent course of action. You can contact our Clearwater office at (727) 451-6900 or online.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 800 N Belcher Rd Clearwater, FL 33765 (727) 451-6900


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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