Tri-Rail to use drones to watch railways
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-
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.
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.