Sunday, August 31, 2014

SunRail Ambassadors 2.0

SunRail, please bring back the platform Ambassadors to assist riders.

Ambassadors were a great help when SunRail launched in May, and they are still needed.

Sure bringing back the Ambassadors will cost money, but they would have been worth their weight in gold last Friday when service SunRail suspended operations when a dead body was found on SunRail tracks in Sanford. No SunRail representatives were at stations to assist stranded riders.

SunRail needs to launch Ambassadors Program 2.0. SunRail probably doesn’t need to staff all 12 stations with Ambassadors. Just put Ambassadors at the 6 busiest stations, and move them around as necessary.

Also give Ambassadors equipment to communication with train-operations managers. The big weakness with the earlier version of Ambassadors is that they didn’t have a reliable way of knowing about problems in the systems because they were not issued  radios, tablets, or even cheap cell phones. Usually they didn't know any more about delays than the passengers at the station.

In addition to their value during emergencies, Ambassadors are needed to answer questions from riders. Most seasoned SunRail riders get it, but there are new people riding the system every day. People walk up to the station at Lynx Central Station and they don’t know if they need to be on the north or south platform to reach Lake Mary. Or they don’t understand the automated ticket-vending kiosk. The number of new riders continues to grow, and will likely get much larger when the massive Interstate 4 construction project begins next year.


Please bring back the Ambassadors.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

SunRail has one major responsibility: Provide safe, reliable mass transportation.

SunRail is top notch when it comes to safety.

SunRail also deserve very high marks for reliability. But sometimes things go wrong that are beyond its control, such as people and vehicles on the tracks -- where they’re not supposed to be.

Granted SunRail is only 4 months old, but the railroading is nearly 200 years old, so service interruptions aren’t new. That’s why SunRail’s response to a service interruption on Friday morning was so disappointing. Inadequate communications was the major problem.

Passengers arriving at SunRail stations at 6 a.m. were greeted with a number of confusing messages on the public address system. Initially riders were told all train service had been canceled for the morning. That proved to be incorrect. To SunRail’s credit, service resumed around 7 a.m.

Some will say SunRail was being cautious when it said train service was canceled for the morning. How many passengers heard that announcement, threw up their hands and went home, or called in sick.

It would have been better if SunRail was more forthcoming and said, “Service has been interrupted, but we’re working to restore it as quickly as possible.”

SunRail kept playing recorded messages so it was impossible to know if conditions had changed. During an emergency, people want real-time updates, so it would be better to have live announcements, and to let riders know the announcement is live. Begin it like this: “Good morning passengers, the time is 7:10 a.m. and we now have a southbound train approaching the Maitland station.”

You can’t communicate too much during an emergency.

SunRail also needs to do a better job keeping its transportation partners in the loop. Lynx drivers bringing passengers to the Sand Lake Road station had no idea SunRail service had been interrupted. There are 2-way radios on the buses. Let the bus drivers know so they can alert their passengers.

SunRail is an important part of the Central Florida community. We count on SunRail to take care of us.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday's SunFail

SunRail we still love you guys.

But Friday morning you dropped the ball --- big time.

Certainly it's tragic that someone was killed by a SunRail train late Thursday, but that's a sad reality that comes with running a railroad, and SunRail needs to be prepared to deal with it. If SunRail has a service-interruption plan, it didn't work Friday morning.

Alerted to the SunRail service interruption by one of our Twitter followers in Sanford we rushed to the Sand Lake Road station shortly after 6 a.m. Friday. Information at the station was limited and confusing.

People getting off Lynx buses at the station started walking toward the train platform while bystanders were yelling out that all trains had been canceled. Lynx bus drivers didn’t know that the trains weren’t running until they heard the announcements at the station.

Periodically recordings played on the station’s PA system telling riders that all SunRail service had been canceled this morning “sorry for the inconvenience.” There were no SunRail representatives at the station to assist riders because, you may remember, SunRail laid off the station Ambassadors a couple of weeks back. Many passengers and SunRail conductors said getting rid of the Ambassadors was a big mistake. Friday morning they were proven right.

Lynx, the regional public bus system, was the hero of the day. Shortly before 7 a.m. a Lynx supervisor arrived at the Sand Lake station and brought a convoy of buses with him to start shuttling stranded SunRail riders to their destinations.

But of course there was still no SunRail rep on scene. Then there were confusing recorded announcements saying there would be no SunRail train other than train P308. Who knows what that means? 

Then the announcer said there was a southbound train coming from Lake Mary – but no estimated time of arrival.

The good news is the first SunRail train arrived in Sand Lake at about 7:30.

Now some will say: What could SunRail have done?

1.    Provide real-time updates on what was going on. That means SunRail should have had representatives at the stations to help riders. That responsibility belongs to SunRail, not Lynx. Please bring back the Ambassadors!

2.    Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. SunRail keeps all of its trains overnight in Sanford. That sets the stage for a disaster because if there’s a service interruption in or near Sanford, then the entire system comes to a halt. Why not store at least two trains on the southern end of the system in the Taft railroad yard south of the Sand Lake Road station? Those trains could have been running this morning to serve riders south of Sanford.

SunRail is not the Hogwarts Express theme park attraction ride. People depend on SunRail to get to work. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” just doesn’t cut it.

---- happens, everybody knows that. But we’re counting on SunRail bosses to be ready for it. Theme parks, hospitals, airlines and schools have plans to address emergency situations. Come on SunRail, we need you guys to step up your game.


Video shows Lynx riding to the rescue!





video

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

SunRail platforms suck

Wonder if the person who designed the platform canopies for the SunRail stations actually lives in Florida?
If that designer lived in Florida for at least two weeks in the summer he or she would know that the SunRail platform canopies are completely inadequate. The canopies are too narrow and offer zero protection from the sun and rain. You almost feel like passing out while waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a train.

Come on SunRail bosses, don’t you care about the riders?
Tri Rail in South Florida, which is identical to SunRail in many ways, has platform canopies that are wider and more substantial to protect riders from the elements.


The more we ride SunRail it becomes increasingly apparent that it was built on the cheap. And we deserve better.
Obviously it would be extremely costly to retrofit the existing platforms as plans are being made to extend service north to DeLand and south to Poinciana. But we expect SunRail planners to learn from their mistakes and design serious canopies for the five stations that will be built in the Phase 2 expansion.

And after that, they need to go back and replace the canopies that were installed during the SunRail’s Phase 1. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

One less eyesore for SunRail riders


SunRail riders will soon have one less eyesore to endure.

The city of Orlando just announced plans to rehabilitate the historic Orlando Amtrak station that is adjacent to the SunRail platforms at Orlando Regional Medical Center, just south of downtown Orlando.

Riders who use the ORMC and Sand Lake Road SunRail station know how rundown the exterior of the Amtrak station looks. We wrote about the conditions at the station back in June.
This grand building, constructed in 1928, has been neglected for years. As the accompanying photos show, the paint has been stripped by years of wind, rain and scorching sun. Roof leaks, mold and neglect have contributed to the sorry condition of this building, which is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation.
The city says that the $2.5 million project to rehabilitate the exterior will begin this September and it’s expected to be finished by Fall 2015. It would have been nice if someone thought to fix the Orlando Amtrak before SunRail started rolling this past May.

The Orlando Amtrak station has been in this sorry condition for nearly 10 years. It’s pitiful that it took so long to get around to fixing this train terminal, which is used every year by nearly 150,000 passengers. What a great welcome they’ve been getting to the world’s most popular tourist destination.

Don’t start dancing the streets yet, because the interior of the Orlando Amtrak station is only slightly better than the exterior, and there’s no money in the budget to fix to overhaul inside the station.

This Orlando Amtrak station is just one of many eyesore along the SunRail route. What other eyesores do you see while riding SunRail? Send us an email at info@sunrailriders.com



Sunday, August 17, 2014

SunRailRiders - soaring over

Here's a cool video that gives a bird's eye view of the SunRail commuter train racing northbound through downtown Orlando, Florida.
Get more SunRail news at www.sunrailriders.com
video

SunRailRiders - Packing heat

When SunRail launched in May rules prohibited firearms.

However, that’s no longer the case. An eagle-eyed SunRail rider noted that he saw the icon banning firearms had been covered over on signs in the stations.

We checked with SunRail and a spokesman responded: “Carrying weapons on SunRail trains is governed by Florida law and the provisions of such. We are deferring to Florida law.


In other words, you have to have a state-issued concealed weapons permit to carry a firearm. And yes, your gun has to be concealed.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stop panicking about federal agents patrolling SunRail

Every week somebody tweets about seeing armed Transportation Security Administration agents wearing body armor riding SunRail trains. Here's the straight scoop. The agents are members of TSA’s Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) team that works with transit systems throughout the country, including Lynx – our public bus system. (Click here for more details on VIPR)

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation told us that his agency “has been coordinating safety and security issues with the Department of Homeland Security (TSA is part of Homeland Security) and the VIPR team in particular for more than a year now. They have been a routine presence on trains, platforms and the (SunRail track corridor) since service began May 1 and will continue to do so.”


So like the T-shirt says, “Remain calm and carry on.”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

SunRailRiders - Orlando Amtrak station is a mess

At first glance the accompanying photo
 looks like it was taken in a bombed out village at the end of World War II. But no, the photo shows the eyesore SunRailRiders face every day at the Orlando Health/Amtrak station. The photo was taken May 2 and it was not altered in any way. The exterior decay at the Amtrak station is not just ugly, it’s unacceptable!
      Despite its current appearance this building -- constructed in 1926 as an Atlantic Coast Railroad station -- is a historical and architectural gem. For starters, this station needs to be pressure-washed and painted.
       SunRail has done its best and built new covered platforms immediately north of the Amtrak station. You think that would have shamed Amtrak into sprucing up? Well, you thought wrong! The Orlando Amtrak station has been in this condition for more than five years.
        To make matters worse, this is where Amtrak passengers arrive to visit the world’s most popular vacation destination. City Beautiful indeed! Just for the record, every year more than 150,000 Amtrak passengers board or get off trains at this station.
        Amtrak officials should be embarrassed. The exterior of this station needs urgent attention. Spare us the double talk about next fiscal year. The Orlando Amtrak station needs to be fixed next week. SunRail and Amtrak passengers deserve better.


       

Friday, August 8, 2014

SunRailRiders - Do our leaders lack vision?

OK, so here’s what we don’t get.

We don’t understand how our state and local leaders could launch SunRail commuter train without a plan to expand the schedule from 5 to 7 days.

Yet that’s what they apparently did because every time we mention expanding the service they whine about not having the money and needing to renegotiate track usage agreements with CSX. How come they didn’t plan this on the front end?

It’s not like our leaders had to reinvent the wheel. SunRail is almost identical to the Tri-Rail commuter line launched by the Florida Department of Transportation in 1989. Tri-Rail, which transports commuters in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, started with weekday service and expanded to 7 days within a year. Where’s the institutional memory?

We’re tired of watching our leaders drag their feet when we – the people – say SunRail needs to be expanded to weekend and late night service. SunRail was built and is being operated with a combination federal, state and local dollars and rider fares. You know who provided that money? We did! So it seems like what we say should make a big difference.

For the record, of 26 commuter train lines in the United States:
  • ·         20 have weekend service
  • ·         3 limit weekend service to Saturday


For heaven’s sake the Northstar Line commuter train in Minneapolis has a daily ridership of 2,500 and operates on 7-day schedule. By contrast SunRail has a daily ridership of 4,300 and we only run on weekdays.



In this community we’ve gone through great effort and expense to build a world class international airport, a world-class public university, a world-class convention center, a world-class basketball and events arena, a world-class performing arts center, yet we the people are expected to settle for a half-ass commuter train that runs only on weekdays.

We deserve better.

SunRailRiders - Kissimmee SunRail passengers have a sweet deal

Kissimmee SunRail riders have a really sweet deal.

Even though SunRail doesn’t run to Kissimee yet, Kissimmee residents are already taking advantage of SunRail. They’re riding an express bus from downtown Kissimmee to the Sand Lake Road SunRail station in south Orange County.

Actually, it’s a little more than your average express bus, Lynx 208 is a luxury motor coach and we checked it out recently.

We picked it up at the Kissimmee Intermodal Station – that’s just fancy talk for a mini terminal where most of the buses serving Osceola County come together. And man, is it busy in the morning. This intermodal station is adjacent to the Kissimmee Amtrak station where SunRail is scheduled to begin service in 2016.








Lynx 208 is actually a big orange Mears motor coach – you know the type with the high-back reclining chairs. It even has free Wi-Fi, a feature they need on regular Lynx buses.
The ride on Lynx 208 costs $3.50 -- a little more than the regular Lynx bus, but you also get a free transfer to SunRail.

Though the motor coach we rode only had a handful of riders, everybody enjoyed it. We chatted with a couple of ladies who said this new Lynx service and SunRail has really changed their lives by relieving them of the stress of driving to Orlando every morning. And they’re saving a fortune. They explained that their employer is paying their SunRail fare (employers get a tax incentive for this) and all they have to pay for is the express bus service.

One woman said she used to spend $75 per week for gasoline. But now it’s only costing her $40 per month for the express bus. Cha-ching!

After leaving the intermodal station the express bus makes one more stop at a park and ride lot on  Shady lane in Kissimmee before hopping on Florida’s Turnpike and zipping over to Sand Lake Road.

The ride took about 30 minutes and there was a SunRail train waiting in the station.
The coordination and cooperation between Lynx and SunRail is great to see. Here’s hoping that more people will get onboard so we can keep it running.



SunRailRiders - Transportation boss tells riders to take a chill pill

Noranne Downs is a name you should know if you ride SunRail.
Downs is the Florida Department of Transportation district secretary for Central Florida. In that capacity, SunRail is one of many major projects Downs oversees.
Last week our friends at the Orlando Business Journal interviewed Downs. Some of her comments regarding calls to expand SunRail service to the weekends and late-night hours were very disappointing.
During the interview, Downs called weekend and late-night SunRail service “extras.”
SunRail, Downs explained, “was never set for weekends because it was primarily for the majority, which would be Monday through Friday, and we have tried to have our schedules – 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoons – work around hospitals… we’re (SunRail) going through 2 hospital areas … so we need to kind of work around that schedule.”
Thanks Ms. Downs, you made a compelling case for running SunRail 7 days a week.
Those mega-hospitals operate 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. In addition to hospital staff, hundreds of other SunRail riders don’t work traditional Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedules. They depend on mass transit – buses and rail -- to get them to work. For them, night and weekend SunRail service is not an “extra”. It’s essential!
We’ve met Downs. Professionally she is very accomplished and deserves a standing ovation for launching SunRail. Yet we’re disappointed because the attitude Downs projected in the interview (click here to see for yourself) seemed almost condescending to the thousands of people who signed the petition calling for service to be expanded.
Maybe the problem is that Downs works for a road-building agency and doesn’t care about mass transportation. Regardless, Downs is a state employee. She works for us -- the taxpayers and voters. Loudly and clearly we have said SunRail service needs to be expanded – sooner rather than later.

Consider dropping Downs a line to let her know how you feel about expanding SunRail service. Write to her at Noranne.downs@dot.state.fl.us. Please be concise and respectful.

SunRailRiders - Petition drive to expand service to weekends and late night

SunRail is perfect, except for two things: It doesn’t run on the weekends, or late at night.
The most common SunRail question we hear is: Why can’t SunRail service be expanded to weekends and late-night hours?

The Florida Department of Transportation officials who manage SunRail say they don’t have the money to expand the service. That’s a shame. It seems odd to create a public transit system that only runs on weekdays. That’s like buying a new pair of sneakers, but only providing shoe laces for the right sneaker. Sure, you can walk in those sneakers, but it’s not easy.

Many people don’t work a traditional Monday-to-Friday schedule. Two of SunRail’s major stations are at Metro Orlando’s main hospitals – Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Medical Center. How many people would go to a hospital where doctors, nurses, other health-care professionals and support staff, only work Monday through Friday?

The current weekday-only schedule prevents SunRail from reaching its full potential. Weekend service would encourage more people to keep their cars at home on the weekend while enjoying cultural and recreational events from DeBary to Lake Eola; visiting a sick friend at Florida Hospital, or having dinner with relatives in Altamonte Springs and Longwood.

Let’s also remember that we have many senior citizen residents who really shouldn’t drive long distances. Weekend service on SunRail would be a godsend to seniors.

Late-night trains offer a transportation alternative to people who have been enjoying “adult beverages” at restaurants and clubs on Orange Avenue.

Every car left parked on the weekends saves energy and helps protect the environment.
Expecting SunRail to run 7 days a week doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Just last month St. Paul, Minn. began service on its Metro Green Line train system. It runs 7 days a week.  Closer to home Tri Rail in South Florida – almost identical to SunRail – operates 7 days a week. Metrorail in Miami runs 7 days a week. The Metromover people-mover rail system in downtown Miami runs 7 days a week. The Jacksonville Skyway people-mover runs 7 days a week. Even the Hogwarts Express at Universal runs 7 days a week!

SunRail fans shouldn’t have to settle for “can’t.” The United States is a can-do nation. We’ve cured dreaded diseases and put men on the moon. Surely we can find a way to run SunRail 7 days a week.

We think expanded service is worth trying. If you agree, please sign the attached Change.Org online petition to expand SunRail service hours to the weekends and later at night.

Click here to sign the SunRail petition



SunRailRiders -- The Party Train

     So one day in early June we were talking to a Seminole County business owner who remarked: “I don’t know about this SunRail thing. I don’t think it’s going to be successful.”
     I wish that naysayer could have been with us on June 25, 2014 when we boarded the Party Train.
      The Party Train is the second passenger coach of northbound SunRail train departing Sand Lake Road at 6:45 a.m.
      While there’s no disco ball hanging from the ceiling, it’s definitely a party. The eclectic group of passengers who ride in that coach every work day are lots of fun and laughs.
    In a little less than 2 months of riding together, the Party Train passengers, have formed their own community. There are about 20 of them. Most board at Sand Lake Road, but a few get on a little further up the line at Church Street and Lynx Central Station.
     They know each other by name, and look out to see who’s missing and who is running to get aboard. But it’s much more than that.
     They laugh and joke with each other and their favorite SunRail conductor. One recent morning the subject was the U.S. victory over Ghana in the World Cup. About half the riders explained the soccer rules and team standings to the other half who were still learning about the game.
       On another morning they discussed ideas for one rider’s upcoming wedding – color of the dress, cake design and music. And they’re even planning an onboard baby shower for another rider.
        Sometimes the discussions are just among seatmates. One rider confided that he is in recovery and sometimes discusses that issue with another rider who is facing similar challenges.
       The folks on the party train are much more than a group of strangers. They’re close friends, almost family. What a way to start the work day!
        It just goes to show you that SunRail is much more than a means of transportation. It’s become a way of life.
Formed any interesting groups during your SunRail ride? Send us a note at info@sunrailriders.com.