On November 15, 2019, we wrote that Verónica Martinez Vorano died on November 15th 2019 in Aventura after a Brightline train hit her Mercedes SUV and that her family wants to know what happened.
On March 4, 2020 VIA CERTIFIED MAIL we wrote to Elaine Chao, Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation concerning Ms. Vorano’s death, other Brightline fatalities and the USDOT’s guidelines for investigations.
On November 30, 2020, we received this reply from Karl Alexy, Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety Chief Safety Officer
November 30, 2020
Mr. Thomas T. Hardy
Dear Mr. Hardy:
I have been asked to reply to your letter dated March 6, 2020, regarding fatal accidents involving Virgin/Brightline trains and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) guidelines for conducting accident investigations. In your letter you posed a number of questions regarding specific details of the accident, FRA’s policy for investigating accidents, and highway-rail grade crossing safety related to the Virgin/Brightline railroad.
After a fatal highway-rail grade crossing accident, a railroad is required to immediately notify the National Response Center (NRC). At a minimum local authority investigates the accident and the railroad is required to submit reports about the accident in accordance with FRA regulations. Depending on the severity and other circumstances, FRA may mobilize to investigate the incident.
In response to the accident referenced in your letter which resulted in the death of Ms. Veronica L. Martinez Vorano, FRA collected and reviewed the NRC notification of the accident (Incident Report # 1264047) as reported by the Florida East Coast Railway Company (FEC); the State of Florida Traffic Crash Report completed by the Miami-Dade Police Department; the FRA Form 6180.57 Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Accident/Incident Report and the FRA Form 6180.55 Railroad Injury and Illness Summary submitted by Virgin/Brightline; and the USDOT National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory record for the NE 203rd Street crossing in Aventura, Florida (USDOT Crossing Inventory #272596P), and crossing equipment malfunction log from the railroad.
By way of our investigation FRA learned that on November 15, 2019, at 3:24 pm Eastern Standard Time, Ms. Martinez Vorano entered the grade crossing from the east on NE 203rd street, a one-way westbound street that crosses at grade with the double mainline railroad tracks. At this crossing, which is equipped with a single crossing gate that reaches to the median, Ms. Martinez Vorano stopped on the tracks and was struck by southbound Virgin/Brightline train #606 at a recorded speed of 55 mph on the west main track. FRA’s Signal and Train Control Division has verified that there is no record of a reported equipment malfunction at this crossing at the time of the accident. If there had been a failure of the traffic signal preemption system it would be the responsibility of the City, County or State to fix or maintain. The Railroad only provides an electrical connection with the track signaling equipment.
You stated in your letter that you “would like to have access to the data from these event recorders for examination and have access to a professional who can evaluate them. It is critical to proving the timing for the events.” However, grade crossing event recorders are generally the property of the railroad that owns the grade crossing (FEC) and locomotive event recorders generally belong to the railroad that owns the locomotive involved in the accident (Virgin/Brightline). Due to ongoing litigation. FRA is not in possession of this data. You will need to contact the railroads to request access to the event recorder data you are seeking.
Appended to and referenced in your letter was an FRA On-Site Engineering Field Report, dated March 20, 2014, which identifies certain grade crossings as potential candidates for closure by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). As clarification, the only Aventura grade crossing identified in the report as a candidate for closure was the 179th Street crossing (USDOT Crossing Inventory #272602R). The crossing where Ms. Martinez Vorano’s accident occurred is at NE 203rd Street (USDOT Crossing Inventory #272596P), a different crossing located approximately 1.5 miles away.
FRA’s Accident Investigation Policy
As noted in your letter, FRA generally does not conduct a formal investigation of each grade crossing accident. However, FRA investigates grade crossing accidents that involve 3 or more fatalities, and based on the available information, indicate a unique cause, contributing factor, or insight that can be gleaned. FRA also investigates all grade crossing accidents where there is credible evidence of a malfunction or failure of an active grade crossing warning device that may have contributed to or caused the accident. These factors were not present in Ms. Martinez Vorano’s accident.
Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety
FRA monitors daily reports of highway-rail grade crossing accidents and analyzes the data to provide insight regarding the physical attributes of grade crossings or conditions related to accidents that would inform strategies for future safety improvements and accident prevention. In the last 10 years in the United States (2009-2019), there were 2,174 fatal highway-rail grade crossing accidents, resulting in 2,554 fatalities at grade crossings. Within this group of 2,174 fatal highway-rail grade crossing accidents, 1,597 (73%) involved a roadway user who either went around or through the gates or who did not stop at the crossing. Additionally, in the last 20 years, there have been 5,296 fatalities nationwide as a result of grade crossing accidents. Of these, only 6 were the result of malfunctioning equipment or inappropriate pre-emption of a highway traffic signal.
Virgin/Brightline Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Efforts
As noted in your letter, tragically, there have been 42 deaths involving Virgin/Brightline trains in the last two years. FRA’s data indicates that these incidents were grade crossing accidents (16), suicides (6), and collisions with trespassers (20). Of the 16 grade crossing accidents all of them were single fatality. In these cases, it was determined not be Railroad equipment failure. If it was determined that Railroad equipment failure occurred, then an investigation may be initiated.
FRA continues to work with Virgin/Brightline and FDOT to promote grade crossing safety and trespasser prevention. Virgin/Brightline participated in FRA’s October 2018 Trespass and Grade Crossing Safety Summit, FRA’s 2019 listening sessions on grade crossing safety, and FRA’s November 2019 Grade Crossing and Trespass Prevention Symposium. Virgin/Brightline asserts they have implemented several grade crossing safety enhancements along their rail corridor as a result of these workshops.
Further, FRA has provided Virgin/Brightline more than $2 million in federal funding to enhance 48 grade crossing locations under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program. According to Virgin/Brightline, they have prioritized specific safety measures throughout the corridor by evaluating the risk profile of each grade crossing using the USDOT’s Accident Prediction Model. This model calculates the statistical frequency of a train-vehicle collision occurring over a given period.
Please let me extend my deepest sympathy for the loss of Ms. Veronica L. Martinez Vorano. Like all fatalities that occur at grade crossings, Ms. Verano’s was tragic and preventable. Any death is one too many, and FRA will continue to work tirelessly with all relevant stakeholders to prevent such accidents in the future.
Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety Chief Safety Officer
You will need to contact the railroads to request access to the event recorder data you are seeking.