Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SunRail safety spotlight

Marcees Kilpatrick shouldn’t have been next to the SunRail tracks on Friday when he was hit and killed by the commuter train last week.

I shouldn’t have been playing at the water company’s abandoned pumping station when I was Marcees’ age.

The pumping station was cool. It had ladders, catwalks, rusty machinery and huge empty tanks. Me and Craig used to pretend the station was our secret headquarters for cops and robbers and spy adventures.

There were hundreds of ways we could have died in the pumping station. Craig and I were lucky and survived childhood. Marcees did not.

Boys will be boys and we sometimes behave recklessly. When you’re 13 you assume you’ll live forever. Now we know that’s not true. Kids need the protection and guidance of adults.

To their credit, SunRail has been running an aggressive safety campaign for years. We urge FDOT managers to redouble those efforts and seek out and fence off other cut-throughs to discourage kids from getting on the tracks.

Hopefully everyone is sending out prayers for Marcees’ family. While you’re at it, please send prayers for the engineer and conductor operating the SunRail train that killed Marcees. When I was a kid, a friend’s dad was the engineer of a train that killed a man. The tragedy haunted that father and he died prematurely.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Orlando continues to ignore crossing hazard at SunRail's Church Street station

Since the first week of SunRail operations 3 years ago, riders realized there was a big problem at the Church Street station. It is the worst-designed station in the SunRail system.

As the accompanying photo shows, people getting off the train in the morning wind up playing “dodge-a-car” when they get off at the station’s southbound station.  There’s no proper pedestrian crossing for southbound passengers who need to get across South Street to reach their workplaces.

We’ve written about this dangerous situation several times. Click here to see one of our past articles.

Everybody knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. However, city traffic engineers expect people to walk 2 blocks out of their way to the closest marked pedestrian crossing on South Street. The engineers give a bunch of complicated reasons why there is no safe, marked pedestrian crossing at the southbound platform on South Street where riders need it.

You would think Orlando would care more, since the southbound SunRail platform is in the heart of downtown and it's one of the busiest places every morning on SunRail.

But don’t worry say the engineers and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, all the problems will be remedied when Lincoln Properties builds a 25-story hotel/office high-rise in the vacant lot on Garland Avenue, next to Church Street Ballroom and the railroad tracks.

Both the northbound and southbound SunRail platforms are supposed to be incorporated in the Lincoln Properties office/hotel high-rise complex and eliminate the need to cross South Street.

The developers said two years that they were almost ready to start construction. You see any signs of construction on that site?

Talk is cheap. When will officials take this pedestrian crossing hazard seriously?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Happy birthday SunRail - what happened?

Happy birthday, SunRail!

We had such high expectations for you when passenger service started May 1, 2014.

Those first couple of weeks of free service were crazy.

The trains were absolutely packed. Operators had to add trains to satisfy the demand.

Even after SunRail started requiring riders to pay the usage remained high, as people throughout the region realized how they could use SunRail for day trips to Winter Park’s trendy Park Avenue.

But then reality set in, and ridership slumped.

Even though there have been some recent ridership upticks, small upticks SunRail has settled into life as a bit of a disappointment. Fewer than 2,000 people use the system daily, even though planners predicted 4,600 boardings daily.

We’re rabid SunRail fans, but we would be lying if we didn’t say the ridership remains disappointing despite a fortune spend on consultants who are supposed to be getting more riders. During a SunRail meeting about a year ago a consultant said there are roughly 25,000 people living along the track corridor who could be using the train.

Despite the nightmarish driving conditions on Interstate 4, it’s understandable that more people don’t use the train.

SunRail is the most inconvenient passenger train in the country.

If you live in Seminole or Volusia counties and you work Monday to Friday bankers’ hours in downtown Orlando, SunRail works great.

If you’re a caregiver at Florida Hospital or at Orlando Regional Medical Center – two of the region’s biggest employers – you’re out of gas. The train schedule, doesn’t align with the real-world work schedules for many hospital staffers.

If you’re in the hospitality or service industries with a non-traditional schedule that includes late-night hours and weekends – you’re out of gas.

If you want to take the train down from Winter Park to attend events at downtown Orlando’s Amway Center, the new soccer stadium, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or at Loch Haven Park cultural venues – you’re out of gas.

If you need to take the train to an appointment during the middle of the day – you’re out of gas. There are 2 ½-hour service gaps during the day.

We don’t know what our community’s leaders were thinking when they planned for a Monday to Friday public transit system. Worse yet, after three years they have no real plan of how to fix it.

We have got to improve the SunRail ridership with a sensible schedule or our train system will be out of gas.

Happy birthday!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Is there an app for that?

For years, riders asked SunRail bosses for an app to access SunRail train schedule information and to manage their SunCard fare accounts.

And for years SunRail bosses gave incomprehensible reasons for why SunRail didn’t have an app; didn’t need an app,
and wasn’t trying to create an app.

Mercifully that stupidity, and the management team that fostered that stupidity, is gone.

On Tuesday at SunRail’s Technical Advisory Committee meeting Nicola Liquori, SunRail’s new CEO, announced that the commuter rail line is currently developing an app and hoped to launch it soon.

While we’re on the topic of technology, Ms. Liquori also announced that earlier this month SunRail launched a free text service riders can subscribe to for text alerts when there are service interruptions. Just text “Sunrail” to 31996 for this very useful service.

Riders have been asking for that for more than a year.

Our hats off to Ms. Liquori for providing effective leadership and decisive action to improve the rider experience.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Goodbye to ticket machines?

Everybody we know hates those SunRail ticket vending machines because they are so slow and unreliable. But there may be good news right around the corner.

SunRail CEO Nicola Liquori told us that her team is exploring on a mobile payment app that would let people bypass the vending machines and pay for their tickets through their smart phones.

What makes this news particularly sweet is that SunRail is working on this project in conjunction with Lynx – our local public bus service.

Last year our sister blog www.LynxedTogether.com reported that Lynx was working on a high-tech solution for passengers to pay their fares. Click here to see that report.

We’re particularly happy to see SunRail and Lynx working together because public transportation needs to be a seamless system.

Hopefully one day Lynx and SunRail will be merged into one transportation agency. Meanwhile we’re hoping SunRail will learn some important customer service lessons from Lynx. Lynx isn’t perfect, but it tends to be more customer oriented than SunRail.

On a daily basis, Lynx carries 100,000 more people than SunRail.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

DeLand SunRail looks like it's DOA

Hate to write this, but it looks like DeLand SunRail extension is dead. Or least it’s probably dead for the next 4 to 8 years.

Artist mock-up of  DeLand SunRail
We have strongly advocated for that rail extension to the Volusia County seat as that train service was promised as a key part of the SunRail project. The problem has been getting the money needed for the extension.

The Florida Department of Transportation that runs SunRail hoped to get about half of the $70 million it would cost to extend the train service through Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants offered through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Competition for those grants is very tough. So far SunRail hasn’t landed the money it needs.

As you can imagine, Volusia County leaders have been very frustrated by the delays. Currently DeBary hosts the only SunRail station in Volusia.

Now comes word through TransitWire that the Trump Administration plans to cut $449 million from the TIGER grant program. Ouch!

Without the money, the DeLand extension is out of gas. That’s a shame because DeLand SunRail not only improves Central Florida’s transportation network but it also expands economic, educational, employment, cultural and recreation opportunities for thousands of people living along the track corridor.

If we can’t extend SunRail to DeLand, you can forget about riding SunRail to Daytona Beach.

Guess we won't be seeing you on The Rail in DeLand.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

SunRail shows us what urban rail is like

On Saturday, March 18th, SunRail made history.

For that one day SunRail operated like a big-city urban train service, just like they have in South Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago and other vibrant metropolitan areas across the nation.

Crowded SunRail coach
Many of us have grown frustrated with SunRail’s inconvenient Monday to Friday bankers’-hours schedule that has nearly 3-hour gaps between some trains in the middle of the day.

On this past Saturday – thanks to special funding by a public-private partnership – SunRail ran on an hourly basis from 10 a.m. through 11 p.m. Service wrapped up in DeBary at 1:15 on Sunday morning.

There was so much happening in cities along the rail corridor on Saturday, it was a blessing that SunRail service was provided.

And trains were packed.

The FDOT officials who manage SunRail reported there were 12,842 boardings. Most SunRail passengers ride roundtrip so you should divide the number of boardings by 2 to see the actual number of riders.

The number of people who rode on Saturday is nearly 4 times the number who ride on a regular weekday.

And check this out!

During the week SunRail runs 36 trains. On Saturday, SunRail ran 28 trains. In other words, they ran 8 fewer trains and carried 4 times the number of riders.


It just goes to show: Run the train on a convenient schedule and people will ride.

This is the kind of train service Central Floridians have been begging for since SunRail launched in 2014.

Admittedly for the past few months we’ve been pessimistic about SunRail’s chance of long-term survival. Saturday gave us hope.

Many folks we encountered on the train were riding for the first time. They were impressed and glad they didn’t have to worry about driving on I-4 or finding parking at their destination in Winter Park, or downtown Orlando.

Regrettably, Saturday was a one-time deal that was privately funded. SunRail doesn’t have money in its budget for weekends or late-night service. In other words, don’t look for a SunRail train this coming weekend.

The elected officials who serve on the SunRail Commission say after SunRail completes its rail connection to Orlando International Airport they’ll have to offer 7-day service.

That airport connection is not happening anytime soon.

The airport link hasn’t been designed, approved or funded.

The most non-partisan way we can say this is: At this point, no one can predict what federal dollars might be available from the Trump administration for the airport link. (Thank goodness there already is Lynx bus service between the airport and the Sand Lake Road SunRail station.)

And oh, yeah, state dollars to operate SunRail will run out in 2021.

So, friends, what do you want our local leaders to do to keep the good times rolling on SunRail?