NTSB investigating 2 Brightline crashes that killed 3 in Melbourne this week

2 crashes occurred days apart at same railroad crossing
Posted at 1:11 PM, Jan 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-13 15:41:10-05

MELBOURNE, Fla. — The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday it will investigate two crashes involving Brightline trains that killed three people at the same railroad crossing on the high-speed train's route between Miami and Orlando.

The crashes happened Wednesday and Friday at a crossing along the U.S. 1 corridor in Melbourne, on Florida's Atlantic coast, where the high-speed train passes through on its daily routes to and from South Florida. Since Brightline launched the 160-mile extension that links South Florida and Orlando in September on Sept. 22, there have been five deaths, according to an Associated Press database.

Friday's crash killed driver Lisa Ann Batchelder, 52, and passenger Michael Anthony Degasperi, 54, both of Melbourne. On Wednesday, 62-year-old Charles Julian Phillips was killed when the vehicle he was driving was hit by the train. Three passengers in that vehicle were injured, according to Melbourne police.

Brightline train

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Melbourne Mayor Paul Alfrey told reporters at the scene that the SUV tried to outrun the train. He said he's spoken to Brightline officials about doing another public safety campaign to warn drivers not to go around railroad crossings because the train is traveling at higher speeds.

"I start by saying if the arm is down don’t go around," Alfrey told Orlando television station WKMG. "There's no good outcome with a train. This is an unfortunate situation. We have the loss of life again. There's safety precautions for a reason, and people need to adhere to them."

The bright, neon yellow trains travel at speeds up to 125 mph in some locations. The 3.5-hour, 235-mile trip between Miami and Orlando takes about 30 minutes less than the average drive.

The NTSB team was expected to be at the scene for several days, beginning Saturday.

"Investigators will work to better understand the safety issues at this crossing and will examine opportunities to prevent or mitigate these crashes in the future," NTSB spokeswoman Sarah Taylor Sulick told The Associated Press.

She said a preliminary report will be released within 30 days, and a final report will be issued in 12 to 24 months.

Brightline did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, but the company has placed warning signs near crossings to alert drivers to the fast-moving trains.

The three deaths in Melbourne this week mark at least 108 since it began operations in July 2017. That’s one death for approximately every 38,000 miles its trains travel, the worst death rate among the nation’s more than 800 railroads, an ongoing Associated Press analysis that began in 2019 shows. Among U.S. railroads that log at least 100,000 train miles a year, the next-worst rate since 2017 belongs to California’s Caltrain commuter line. Caltrain has averaged one death for every 125,000 miles traveled during that period.

None of Brightline's previous deaths are the railroad's fault. Most have been suicides, pedestrians who tried to run across the tracks ahead of the train or drivers who maneuvered around crossing gates rather than wait.

On Dec. 19, a pedestrian was struck and killed by a Brightline train in downtown West Palm Beach.

The incident occurred across from the Palm Beach County Courthouse, a few blocks north of the West Palm Beach Brightline station.

West Palm Beach police spokesman Mike Jachles said Gary Millar, 69, was trying to cross the railroad tracks when he was struck by the northbound train, which had just left the station. Jachles said the crossing arms were down at the time.

Last month, Brightline announced it has increased service between Orlando and Miami, running 32 trains daily with 16 daily departures from Miami and Orlando. It used to be 15 each way. When the service debuted on Sept. 22 it was eight each way but two weeks later it nearly doubled.