Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Black Lives Matter is coming to SunRail

This Friday afternoon (7/10) high school students will use SunRail for a Black Lives Matter march.

They will begin at the Meadow Woods SunRail station in south Orange County -- less than a mile from Cypress Creek High School.

After a rally and speeches at the train station, they plan to board a northbound SunRail train and ride to downtown Orlando. They will get off at Church Street station and march around the corner to Orlando City Hall for a rally with other activists. Then they will march to Orlando Police headquarters, which is about a mile from City Hall.

Marchers will return to the SunRail station at Church Street for the ride back to Meadow Woods at 3:50 p.m.

BLM protests have been held in Orlando for more than a month and they’ve been overwhelmingly peaceful.

SunRail provides an excellent way for students from all over Central Florida – from Poinciana to DeBary -- to join the movement that is being organized by the Cypress Creek High School chapter of Amnesty International.

The goal is for all the students to arrive at Orlando City Hall by 1:30 p.m. Friday.

“This event is family-friendly for all of those who want to show solidarity with the many lives lost due to police brutality and corruption of authoritative power,” said Shania Shahab, president of the Cypress Creek chapter.

Students from south Orange County are asked to arrive at the Meadow Woods SunRail station at noon on Friday to make posters for the rally. Organizers will provide art supplies. After opening comments, the marchers will prepare to catch a downtown train at 1:20 p.m. SunRail runs on a tight schedule, so don’t be late!

Organizers ask all participants to wear face masks and bring water to stay hydrated.

Participants will also have to buy roundtrip SunRail tickets. If you’re boarding at Meadow Woods, the roundtrip fare would be $4. (It’s easiest to buy SunRail tickets from a vending machine in the station with a debit or credit card). The fare could be more depending on where you board. For more information on the fares and train schedules, click here.

The BLM event is a won-won for SunRail because ridership has tanked due to the COVID-19 shutdowns and this is an opportunity for the younger generation to see how to incorporate public transit in their lives.

See you on The Rail!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Local takeover of SunRail is being delayed

Turns out that Central Florida’s local governments will not be taking control of SunRail next year, as originally planned.

When SunRail launched 6 years ago – May 2014 – the plan was for the Florida Department of Transportation to manage the commuter-rail system and pay for most of the operations until May 2021.

However, at Thursday’s quarterly meeting of the SunRail funding partners – Orlando, with Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Volusia counties – a consultant said the takeover would likely occur in May 2022.

Consultants are currently analyzing every facet of the SunRail operations to prepare the funding partners to take over the system. That process will take about 18 months.

SunRail depends on a host of contractors for services that include everything from ticket vending machines to train operators. All those functions would be managed by the local funding partners when FDOT steps back in the transition.

The biggest question about the timing of the transition was raised by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings. He wanted to know if the state would be willing to continue footing the bill for an additional year. SunRail’s annual capital and operating budget is $58 million.

Jared Perdue, the newly named FDOT district secretary for Central Florida, assured Demings and the other elected officials who serve on the SunRail Commission that the state was “very committed to SunRail’s future.”

Despite Perdue’s assurance the time extension is not a sure thing because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has never been a fan of commuter rail. It’s unclear how generous DeSantis and the Republican-dominated legislature will be next year in the wake of the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 shutdown.

In other news during the virtual meeting Mike Heffinger Jr, who serves as SunRail CEO, noted that on early on Wednesday afternoon (5/27) a vehicle was hit by a SunRail train at the Holden Avenue crossing in south Orange County. He said there were no injuries and only ONE passenger on the train at the time.

During the stay-at-home period of the pandemic SunRail’s ridership slid from nearly 7,000 daily in February down to 850. Ridership is slowly increasing up to 1,500.

See you on The Rail!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Stop blowing smoke SunRail, fix these problems

SunRail needs to stop blowing smoke when it comes to improving the passenger experience for its most loyal riders.

During the past 2 weeks we’ve attended meetings where we’ve heard frustrated riders complain about 2 major topics:

1.   Several morning and evening rush-hour trains are packed – many people are left standing. Unlike subway cars – SunRail trains are not equipped with hand holds for standing passengers.
Riders want a 3rd passenger car added to those packed trains.

2.   Passengers continue to have problems with their reloadable SunRail SunCards that they use to pay their fares. Due to these problems, some passengers have been “hotlisted.” That means the fare system shows that their pre-paid fare accounts have been overdrawn. Some riders have been kicked off trains because of this problem.

Yet SunRail has turned these issues around to somehow be the fault of riders.

On the crowded train issue, the SunRail managers say they’ll monitor the situation, but blame some riders who put their bags or feet on seats displacing fellow passengers.

OK, some of that does go on. But we’ve been on trains when dozens of people are standing – many more than the space occupied by seat hogs.

SunRail used to run a couple of rush-hour trains with a 3rd passenger. But then it stopped. At the time they said some passenger cars were temporarily taken out of service for maintenance.
OK that makes sense. They promised the 3rd cars would be returned to those rush-hour trains. That was more than a year ago, and the problem continues as SunRail ridership has gotten better than ever.

Privately SunRail insiders say the problem is SunRail does not have enough rolling stock – passenger coaches. If that’s the case, admit it but don’t keep stringing passengers along.

Adding a third car to a couple of trains is probably an operational hassle, but passengers deserve better. No one wants to start or end the day standing and swaying in a sardine can.

On the reloadable SunCard problem, riders are fed up.

SunRail says if you have a problem with your SunCard (the plastic card, not the daily paper ticket) to call customer service so they can “investigate.”

The problem is that sometimes when people tap in with the validator device on the station platform, the validator doesn’t indicate there is a problem. If the validator doesn’t show you tapping off it will charge the rider to the furthest destination on the direction they’re traveling. (Say you were headed northbound to Winter Park it will charge your account as though you rode to DeBary.) Then the next thing you know the next time you try to tap on your account is overdrawn and your card is “hotlisted” – and you can’t use it.

It can take several days to investigate because they need to figure out which platform validator you’re using and if there’s something wrong with the device. Sounds like a hassle, but riders should not be penalized. All conductors need to show some restraint and grace.

To make matters worse SunRail is urging all regular riders to get a plastic SunCard.

Why encourage everybody to get a SunCard when you know the system is flawed?

Several said they used to have SunCards, but they stopped using them because of the problems. What a train wreck!

While we’re at it, the SunRail fare system has been jacked up since the beginning of revenue service in 2014. It’s been a mixture of problems with the ticket-vending machines to “hotlisting” SunCards.

And while we’re at it, SunRail never followed through on one of its original selling points. SunRail said if you used the train you could get a free transfer to the Lynx bus.

That only works however, if you are using a daily, paper ticket you buy from the vending machines. SunCard users can’t take advantage of that perk.

Seems upside down to us, shouldn’t your most loyal riders – SunCard users – have that benefit?

These issues should have been resolved long ago.

Don’t get “hotlisted”! See you on The Rail.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Gat Saturday SunRail NOW!

OK we have a plan to get some Saturday SunRail service, but we need YOUR help.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings proposed increasing the county sales tax by a penny to help pay for transportation improvements – including expanding SunRail service.

We strongly support his goal, but we know persuading voters to increase a tax will not be easy. It never is.

Even though SunRail drastically improved its ridership during the past year – some trains are standing-room-only, there remain, residents, who view SunRail as a boondoggle because it doesn’t run on the weekends or late at night.

SunRail was created as a commuter service – Monday to Friday mostly bankers’ hours – and it was funded as such by the Florida Department of Transportation, which is footing much of the bill.

Regular readers of this blog know that there is no transit system that is supported mostly by the farebox. Tax dollars are required to keep public transit running, the same way those dollars pay for fire, police and other essential services.

The state dollars for SunRail end next year, which adds some urgency to Mayor Demings’ penny-tax proposal.

So how do you encourage people – especially the doubters – to support the tax.

Show them what’s in it for them.

Here’s where it gets good!

What if enough money could be raised to run SunRail one Saturday every month from now until November when we expect the tax proposal will be on the ballot?

It costs about $90,000 to pay for a regular full day of SunRail service – 40 trains from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

But do we really need 40 SunRail trains on a Saturday?

A couple of years ago SunRail and some public-private partners funded service on a few Saturdays. It cost about $20,000, per Saturday.

So how much Saturday SunRail service can $20,000 buy today?

We envision a couple of early-morning Saturday trains to support caregivers at the hospitals on the SunRail corridor and airport workers (many people in Central Florida do not have a traditional Monday to Friday work schedule).

Then go to a more relaxed late morning and afternoon schedule for folks headed to farmers’ markets, museums, movies and such and then wrap it up with a few night trains.

OK, so here’s where it gets dicey – how to pay for this?

Together there are 8 stations serving Orange County and Orlando, so we need to appeal to those governments to help bankroll this effort. Winter Park is the most popular destination for leisure riders, so they should put some skin in the game – as they have in the past.

We know Kissimmee is not in Orange County, but we also know downtown Kissimmee merchants would benefit if the train service was available on a Saturday. So, it would be nice if Kissimmee chipped in. The same goes for merchants in Seminole County’s historic downtown Sanford.

Imagine everything we could do if SunRail service was available on the first Saturday of every month. That seems like a reasonable way to get more people excited about supporting SunRail and the transportation tax.

So Dear Reader, here’s where you come in:

Take a moment and send an email to the mayors asking them to support this plan.

See you on The Rail!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Use SunRail to entertain out-of-town Thanksgiving guests

Here’s an idea: How about using SunRail as an inexpensive way to entertain out-of-town guests who are visiting you for the Thanksgiving holiday?

You already know that SunRail isn’t running on Thanksgiving Day. But it is running on the Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving.

Put your guests on SunRail -- or be their SunRail guide. Riding SunRail and checking out points of interest along the way will easily eat up much of the day. It will be fun, too!

It’s our bet is that Sand Lake Road will be one of the busiest SunRail stations because it’s a little more than a mile from fabulous Florida Mall – considered one of the most robust shopping malls in the nation. Riders can get a free transfer from SunRail to a Lynx bus that will take them to the mall.

At Sand Lake Road, riders can also transfer to the Lynx bus that will take them to Orlando International Airport – about a 10-minute ride. (This could spare you from having to drive a departing guest all the way to OIA and put up with the insane traffic.

Here’s a cheat sheet for points of interest near many of the SunRail stations.

·        DeBary – Gemini Springs Park is a leisurely bike ride from the SunRail station. You’ll need to bring your bikes with you on the train.
·        Sanford – At the train station there’s a free trolley that takes riders to downtown Sanford, which is filled with restaurants, craft breweries and a variety of shops. Sanford is situated on the St. Johns River and has a beautiful waterfront. This city also hosts the southern end of the Amtrak Auto Train service. People waiting for the train to leave can ride a free trolley from the Amtrak station to downtown Sanford.
·        Lake Mary – A restaurant and dining district is barely 2 blocks from the SunRail station. The town square at City Hall frequently hosts special public events.
·        Winter Park – This is Central Florida’s best-known boutique district. It’s filled with a wide variety of shops, restaurants and museums. Winter Park also hosts a golf course, several museums, tourist attractions, Rollins College and an Amtrak station. SunRail and Amtrak stop in the heart of Winter Park.
·        Advent Health/Florida Hospital – This station is down the street from Loch Haven Park, which is the home of the Orlando Science Center, the Mennello Museum of Folk Art; the Orlando Reparatory Theater; the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and the Orlando Museum of Art.
·        Orlando – Downtown Orlando hosts the downtown campus for the University of Central Florida and Valencia College; the FAMU law school; the Orange County History Center; the Orange County Main Library; the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts; Amway Center, the Orlando City Soccer stadium; and a wide variety of shops and restaurants. There are 2 stations in downtown Orlando – Lynx Central and Church Street. The Church Street stop is close to the entertainment venues.
·        Orlando Health – This station is around the corner from ORMC – Central Florida’s largest hospital. It is also an easy walk to the Pulse memorial on Orange Avenue.
·        Kissimmee – Once the capital of Florida’s booming cattle industry, you can still find frontier flourishes in Historic Downtown Kissimmee, which features shops and Central Florida’s largest district of independent restaurants offering everything from barbecue to Mediterranean fare. The train stops a half block from the Broadway business district. The train station is also only one block from Lake Toho (Tohopekaliga), one of the nation’s best-known largemouth bass lakes.
·        Poinciana – This is the southern end of SunRail service. There is a Home Depot (more Christmas shopping) and a really cool ice cream shop within a block of the station.

Happy Thanksgiving. See you on The Rail.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Southbound Magic game-night service returns

Beginning with the Orlando Magic regular-season opener Oct. 23 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, FDOT is again running a special late-night SunRail train that leaves from the southbound Church Street Station. 

FDOT has decided to fully fund this additional train, as it enhances service for its southern customers who embraced this expanded service last season. The FDOT funding only covers the 2019-2020 regular season.

The later train service will coincide with all Orlando Magic regular season 2019-2020 home games at the Amway Center played Monday through Friday. If passengers—attending the game or staying downtown late—wish to take the southbound train home those nights, they should make their way to the southbound platform at Church Street Station, where the train will stage and leave for points south at 10:30 p.m. Regular fares apply.

The northbound route, where the last train normally leaves the northern Church Street Station platform at 10:30 p.m., will stay the same.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

When you gotta go, you gotta go!

Have you ever been waiting 30 minutes or more for the SunRail train, and suddenly you have an urge to use the bathroom?

You are not alone.

We’ve all been there.

One of the biggest complaints many riders express is that SunRail did not include restrooms in their stations (though there is a restroom on the train).

That said, we understand and support that SunRail decision because public restrooms are costly to maintain and become a breeding ground for illegal and undesirable activities.

But that explanation doesn’t help you answer the call of nature. So, we’ve prepared this cheat sheet to help you find relief at some stations.

Winter Park: Restroom inside the Amtrak station.
Lynx Central Station: Restroom inside the Lynx bus station
Orlando Health/Amtrak station: Restroom inside the Amtrak station
Sand Lake Road: (This is the mother lode) There are public restrooms inside the nearby McDonald’s, Burger King and Denny’s restaurants, and across the street at the Wawa convenience store.
Kissimmee station: There are restrooms a block from the station at the Hart Memorial Public Library (you can see the library from the northbound platform), down the platform at the Amtrak station, and a couple of blocks away at Lakefront Park.
Poinciana station: Restrooms across the street at the Wawa convenience store and at the Home Depot.

If you know of restrooms at any other SunRail stations, please share that information with us.

See you on The Rail, not at the restroom.