Tri-Rail to use drones to watch rail­ways

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Mar­cia Her­oux Pounds

You may one day see drones fly­ing over rail­road tracks across South Florida: Tri-Rail plans to adopt this tech­nol­ogy to spot tres­passers and pre­vent sui­cides as well as ac­ci­dents on the rail­way.

The South Florida Re­gional Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity, which op­er­ates the Tri-Rail com­muter train, re­cently pur­chased the drones and hopes to start us­ing them within the year, ac­cord­ing to Allen Yoder, di­rec­tor of safety and se­cu­rity for the Pom­pano Beach­based com­muter train.

Peo­ple tres­pass­ing on tracks, try­ing to cross them un­safely in a car or by foot, or at­tempt­ing to end their life are on­go­ing is­sues for Tri-Rail, as well as the new higher-speed train Bright­line, Am­trak and other trains that op­er­ate on South Florida’s coastal and west­ern train tracks.

A new way some train sys­tems are ad­dress­ing the is­sue is with drones or high-def­i­ni­tion cam­eras, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Rail­roads in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Yoder said he couldn’t say how many drones Tri-Rail has pur­chased, for se­cu­rity rea­sons. He also de­clined to say how much they cost.

But Tri-Rail says there’s a need. “We’ve been get­ting five or six no­ti­fi­ca­tions a day of tres­passers on the tracks. But un­der cur­rent pro­ce­dures, the tres­passer is fre­quently gone by the time the of­fi­cer ar­rives,” said Bon­nie Arnold, spokes­woman for Tri-Rail.

The pi­lot pro­gram has the po­ten­tial to achieve a

15-minute-or-less re­sponse time of the rail cor­ri­dor, com­pared to

40 to 60 min­utes cur­rently, ac­cord­ing to a pro­gram de­scrip­tion in the trans­porta­tion au­thor­ity’s cap­i­tal bud­get for 2018-2019.

He said the drones are be­ing tested in co­or­di­na­tion with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties but they can’t be flown un­til Tri-Rail has guide­lines for their use from the state Leg­is­la­ture. Sev­eral bills that pro­pose ex­panded use of un­manned air­craft are in the early stages in the Flor-

ida Leg­is­la­ture.

Last year, there were 12 deaths re­lated to Tri-Rail track cross­ings and tres­pass­ing in the tri-county re­gion, ac­cord­ing to the South Florida Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity. That was al­most as bad as in 2017, when deaths to­taled 14. Tri-Rail said it doesn’t have a count on how many were sui­cides, as the coro­ner de­ter­mines that, and it of­ten takes a year.

Scott Adams, whose Boca Ra­ton-based Strax In­tel­li­gence Group pro­vides safety sys­tems that in­clude drones, said drones might be most use­ful to in­ves­ti­gate a rail­way ac­ci­dent. But drones would have lim­i­ta­tions in pa­trolling tracks, he said.

“Most have a limited flight time of less than one

hour,” Adams said.

Still, drones do have cost ben­e­fits. Us­ing a drone to take video of an rail­way ac­ci­dent, for ex­am­ple, would be less costly than a he­li­copter and pi­lot.

Tri-Rail sees the drones as one more so­lu­tion for track safety in South Florida.

In re­cent years, train sys­tems have re­lied mostly on com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion and

men­tal health out­reach to help pre­vent ac­ci­dents and thwart sui­cides.

Last year, Tri-Rail part­nered with the re­gional 211 cri­sis line to get life-sav­ing mes­sages out on signs along the south­ern rail cor­ri­dor. The posted signs say: “In cri­sis or de­pressed? Dial

2-1-1” and “Help is here for you 24 hours a day! Live is worth liv­ing!”

Bright­line also has been work­ing with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to curb deaths and in­juries on its tracks.

Bright­line, which can reach a max­i­mum speed of

79 mph, has seen about 16 deaths since it be­gan test runs in July 2017. The lat­est death hap­pened Thurs­day night in Hol­ly­wood, where po­lice said a pedes­trian lost his race with a train and was killed while try­ing to cross rail­road tracks.

Of the prior deaths, more than 75 per­cent were ruled or are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated as sui­cides, ac­cord­ing to Bright­line spokes­woman Ali Soule. While she couldn’t say whether drones were be­ing con­sid­ered, she said Bright­line, which op­er­ates on a dif­fer­ent track than Tri-Rail, is look­ing at the lat­est equip­ment and best prac­tices for safety.

Soule said Bright­line is cur­rently work­ing with men­tal health ex­perts at Palm Beach At­lantic Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Florida to de­velop a men­tal health and sui­cide-pre­ven­tion cam­paign.

CSX and Am­trak, which also op­er­ate in South Florida, both par­tic­i­pate in “Op­er­a­tion Life­saver,” which makes com­mu­nity pre­sen­ta­tions to help end col­li­sions, deaths and in­juries at high­way and rail­way cross­ings.

Am­trak tries to re­lay the mes­sage about deadly dan­gers through its site, stay­off­thetracks.org, which has sober­ing statis­tics: 853 peo­ple are killed each year from tres­pass­ing, 122 from sui­cide, and 1,540 cars are de­stroyed each year at rail­road cross­ings.

CARLINE JEAN/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SEN­TINEL

Broward sher­iff's deputies in­ves­ti­gate last year after a pedes­trian was killed by a Tri-Rail train south of Hal­lan­dale Beach Boule­vard in Hal­lan­dale Beach.

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