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Snakes And Trains: Two Threats To Peace In Palm Beach County

The same page in a recent issue of the Palm Beach Post reported on the two greatest threats to the area's peace and tranquility—the high-speed Virgin Trains, aka Brightline, and the high appetite giant pythons. Both problems have been caused by human action, or inaction.

The pythons are a threat because almost 100,000 were imported to this country over 10 years, and some were illegally released in the Everglades where they have thrived in increasingly large numbers. This was reported by Frank Cerabino, the Post's entertaining columnist.

The train problem is a result of various government agencies permitting so many grade crossings on the FEC Railway corridor, never anticipating those tracks might host fast passenger trains. On the same page as Cerabino's column, the paper reported on a meeting in Jupiter in which citizens objected to the high-speed train on safety and other grounds.

First the snakes. Cerabino wrote that they worry him more than climate change. They have already destroyed much of the native wildlife in the Glades. They even duel with alligators, but not always with success. Cerabino noted the pythons are good swimmers. They have been found in Biscayne Bay, well inland from the Everglades.

What if, in their quest for food, the snakes start swimming through canals into civilized territory? It is a scary thought that owners of waterfront property might find a huge snake lounging on their back porches or lurking inside boats. They could be a threat to pets or children. On the other hand, the snakes like to sun on roads, and some might make the mistake of lounging on railroad tracks and not moving fast enough when a Brightline train roars by.

Snakes were not part of the conversation when residents objected to the expansion of Brightline through Jupiter en route to Orlando. Construction commotion and safety were, however. Nobody can argue that trains going 79 miles per hour or faster are not a concern in areas where the tracks are on the same grade as auto traffic.

The FEC gave up its long-distance trains in the 1960s, and little thought was given to the possibility that the same tracks might again be used for passenger trains. The railroad is positioned to serve a booming South Florida population. Indeed, much of that population lives in communities developed along the railroad before major roads came through. Much of the Treasure Coast growth came after the FEC ceased passenger service and numerous grade crossings were built to accommodate the new residents. There are only a few places where roads bridge the tracks.

This rail corridor is not like the northeast where the high-speed Acela train runs on tracks that either are recessed or elevated at road intersections. That railroad was rebuilt for safety many years ago, about the time cars replaced horse drawn buggies. So were the numerous commuter railroads serving the major cities. It is too late to say Florida might have had the foresight to follow that example.

It is not too late, however, to consider a partial rebuild of the FEC tracks, closing some grade crossings or bridging major intersections. This was done on the CSX tracks when Interstate 95 was built. More recently, the New River in Fort Lauderdale has a span rising high over the water. It is used by Tri-Rail trains capable of easily making the climb, while the slow and less agile freight traffic continues to use the old drawbridge. It greatly reduces the number of bridge openings that interfere with boat traffic. There are crossings on the FEC tracks where elevating Brightline might be the cheapest way to go.

There are also several sections along the FEC where closing a crossing would open up stretches of track where trains could safely hit high speeds.

The fact is Brightline is here to stay and opposition from residents of Jupiter and other Treasure Coast communities would disappear if a few stations (and this is planned) are added along the 135 miles from West Palm to Cocoa Beach. The new service gets rave reviews from those who ride the current route from West Palm to Miami. Nothing promotes acceptance of this fast train like riding it.