SunRail crash in Maitland raises safety questions

A SunRail train collided with a car in Maitland on Monday, May 19, the first day of paid commuter rail service.

A SunRail train collided with a car in Maitland on Monday, May 19, the first day of paid commuter rail service.

Sarah Wilson

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A 28-year-old woman who left her stalled car on the train tracks in Maitland was hit by debris flung from the car after a SunRail train struck it at around 2:15 p.m. Monday afternoon, according to Maitland Police.

On the first day of paid service on the commuter rail, the northbound SunRail train collided with the two-door black Infiniti at the intersection of Maitland and Packwood avenues.

Maitland Police Information Officer Louis Grindle said that at around 2:15 p.m. on Monday, the driver, Kristen L. Taylor of Orlando, was attempting to cross the intersection when her new stick-shift Infiniti stalled out on the tracks. Upon hearing the oncoming train horn, the woman got out of her car and left it on the tracks.

The train, he said, hit the car and sent it spinning, sending debris around the tracks. A piece of debris struck the woman, leaving her with non-life-threatening injuries.

There were no injuries to those on the SunRail train or damage to the tracks, and rail service returned to normal within the hour.

The crash came just weeks after Maitland City Council members discussed potential safety issues at the train track intersections in the city. Councilwoman Bev Reponen brought up the issue, mentioning that she found herself stranded on the tracks in traffic while trying to get through the intersection as an oncoming train horn sounded in the distance.

“It’s frightening … I’m sure there are other people like me, thinking they can make it through because traffic’s moving, but then it stops and you’re stuck,” she said. “It’s an unreal situation, and I’m afraid some people are going to sit there and panic.”

Luckily, she said, the woman in Monday’s accident was smart enough to get out of the car and run as soon as she realized the train was coming — sacrificing the car instead of her life. Others, she said, may not be so lucky.

The Maitland crash was the second SunRail collision since service started on May 1. A train clipped a lawn care service trailer after the truck failed to move far enough through a Longwood intersection on May 7.

Mayor Howard Schieferdecker said that since the service started, Maitland’s been working with the Florida Department of Transportation to sort out ways to make the intersections along the rails safer.

Maitland Transportation Engineer Noel Cooper said the city is working with FDOT to tweak the light times to help prevent potential backups of traffic on the tracks.

Cooper said the retiming is an ongoing process. The most recent timing reconfiguration went into effect last Tuesday. He said the city is also in talks with FDOT to install a pre-emption system in which an oncoming train triggers an alert to the traffic signals, instructing lights to go green to clear out any traffic potentially backed up on the tracks before the train arrives.

“We’re really working to make sure we can clear out the area so cars don’t get stuck there,” Schieferdecker said.

Right-on-red turns from westbound Horatio onto northbound Maitland Avenue have also been banned, and the city installed signage that orders drivers to keep the tracks clear.

“We’ve done what we can with signs, but people are still [making the illegal turns],” Schieferdecker said.

Cops can sit out there and give tickets, he said, but there are limits to the enforcement. “People are going to do what they want to do.”

Reponen said that if all else fails, drivers need to resort to the old “stop, look and listen” approach to make sure they can make it through the city and across the rails safely.

“Now that there’s been two accidents,” she said, “people need to understand many trains are coming through many times a day and they’re going fast, and they can’t stop fast enough not to hit you.”