Monday, September 29, 2014

Who inspected SunRail plumbing?

We assume the water fountain wasn't designed to work like this?

SunRail fountain at Orlando Health station

SunRail ticket vending machines, Chapter 2

We still don’t understand SunRail’s rationale for the placement of ticket vending machines that accept cash. It’s not like everybody has plastic, and considering some of the recent credit-card security problems it might not be wise to use credit cards on public vending machines. There are two platforms – northbound and southbound -- at every SunRail station. But SunRail only puts a cash machine on one platform (they claim financial reasons for this). So if the cash machine isn’t on the platform where you’re waiting you must cross to the other side – using the pedestrian crossing, of course -- to buy your ticket.

At almost all the stations the northbound and southbound platforms are directly opposite each other. The one exception is at Church Street in downtown Orlando. There platforms are a block away from each other with a busy street – South Street – between them. The cash machine is on the northbound platform, and get this, a rider on Monday told us that machine has been out of order for several day. So if you arrive at the southbound platform to buy a ticket with cash as the train is approaching you’re going to be SOL.  Thanks SunRail bosses, nice planning.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What grade does SunRail deserve?

How would you grade Central Florida’s SunRail commuter train system?

It’s hard to believe that SunRail will soon be 6 months old. It began service on May 1.
So how would you grade SunRail?

We think overall SunRail deserves high praise for the launch of commuter train service in our community, but there’s lots of room for improvement.

Now let’s get to specifics:

The stations are generally well designed. We particularly like aesthetic touches at stations, such as the metal sculpture wading birds at Sand Lake Road and the orange-crate art at DeBary.

Spaces are free and plentiful at most of the stations where parking is provided. However, the automatic ticket vending machines are slow and sometimes unreliable. There continue to be problems with a few crossing gates. But the worst problem is the poorly designed platform canopies that provide scant protection from the sun and rain. Whoever designed those canopies deserves a kick in the pants.

Grade: B minus

The SunRail trains are great. They’re comfortable and well designed. The train crews, especially the conductors, are fabulous.

Grade: A

The fare is an outstanding bargain. Try driving round trip from South Orange County to DeBary in Volusia County for $7.50. Can’t be done.

However, many riders are rightly pissed off with the labeling of tickets in the vending machines. One ticket selection is for a 7-day ticket, even though SunRail only runs Monday through Friday. Many riders feel they’re getting ripped off because you only get 5 days of rides on a 7-day ticket, and you must use the ticket on 5 consecutive days.  This untruthful labeling highlights just reminds people that SunRail doesn’t run on weekends. Labeling is equally deceptive for 30-day tickets.

Grade: C

 SunRail has an excellent on-time record. But when things go wrong, it’s time for Katie to bar the door. Most of SunRail problems are caused by people and vehicles trespassing on the tracks, despite a robust public-education program.

SunRail’s responses to these problems have been uneven. SunRail needs to be much better prepared for the unexpected because things are bound to go wrong. Riders depend on SunRail to get them to their destinations, regardless problems.

The biggest service deficiency is that SunRail does not provide service on the weekends or during late-night hours. SunRail remains stubbornly reluctant to expand service despite a petition signed by more than 2,000 people. Weekend service would mean a tremendous boost to businesses and cultural venues throughout Central Florida.

Grade: C minus

Customer service
We live in the hospitality capital of the world, yet SunRail doesn’t seem to have much aptitude for customer service. They're not rude, they're neglectful.

Getting rid of the SunRail Ambassadors who worked on the station platforms was a terrible idea. Even though they were hired as temps, they proved to be invaluable in answering questions, helping with balky ticket vending machines and reinforcing operating and safety rules. Riders really appreciated the assistance provided by the Ambassadors.

SunRail does a poor job of communicating with riders waiting on platforms when there are service interruptions. We’re happy SunRail is now working on a text messaging system to contact riders, but why wasn’t that done before SunRail started operations?

Based on what we’ve seen SunRail needs lessons in disaster planning and customer recovery. To improve they should reach out to the airlines and Disney -- businesses that have extensive experience and knowledge in those subjects.

Grade: D

SunRail’s overall grade: B minus

Lynx and Votran also deserve a B grade for providing the essential public bus service that connects many neighborhoods to SunRail stations.

So what’s your grade for SunRail?

Why do SunRail stations only have 1 cash machine?

Here is another one of those questions we get all the time from fellow riders. How come there is only a ticket machine on one SunRail platform that takes cash. 

We know one woman – a first time rider – who only had cash when she came to the station and didn’t realize the cash machine was on the other platform. So we put the question to a SunRail spokesman. Here’s his response:

“There is only one cash machine at every station due to the additional maintenance and costs associated with operating a cash machine (i.e. people try to jam bills into the receptacle, it requires an armored service to empty the machines, and a place to store and count the cash, etc.). More and more CRT properties (including Tri-Rail) are moving toward this system of fare collection. If there are more stations northbound, the cash machine is on the NB platform. If there are more stations SB, the cash machine is located on the SB platform. Rationale is, you are more likely to serve the most passengers where additional destinations are on the line.” 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This is SunRail customer service?

What follows is a note sent to us by a loyal SunRailRider. We’ll call her Alice from Altamonte Springs.

I miss the Ambassadors, too ... or, at least, I miss the good ones. When I started at Altamonte Station, we had a really good one who knew his stuff and was helpful. He disappeared. I don't know what happened. It could be he left because he knew it was just a "temp job" and he was offered something better. If so, I sure don't blame him. TEMP JOBS don't inspire loyalty.

Now I see folks with problems depending on the rest of us who may be able to help. We do our best. We are usually successful ... but is this the image SunRail wants to project? Well, I guess it's less expensive.

Further, when the equipment on the platform doesn't work and someone needs to get where they need to go, what are they supposed to do? Who can they talk to? How can they let you know they've made a good faith effort to purchase a ticket? Are all the rest of us supposed to line up behind him or her to assure you that we've witnessed his/her efforts? Not good.

Since you guys developed this scenario for your customers, I can only assume you have an answer. I'm eager to hear it so I can share it with these unfortunates and they can get to their destination. I personally have seen folks who could not purchase tickets or, if they had SunRail cards, the cards didn’t work (they didn’t have "auto load" which, as near as I can tell, is the ONLY failsafe measure to keep one's SunRail card going".)

So SunRail bosses, what's the answer?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Step lively, riders!

Much of the time we write about things SunRail can do to make the service better. There are also things we – SunRail riders – can do to make the trains run better.

One of the things that always amazes us is how people wait until the last minute to get off the train at their station. We watch some people on the upper level wait until the train comes to a complete stop and the doors open before gathering their belongings to get off.


What are they waiting for? 

Next stops are always announced in advance. What’s wrong with going downstairs so you’re ready to get off as soon as the train stops?

Riders who delay getting off the train interfere with passengers who are boarding, and that slows down the train’s arrival at the next station.

Step lively folks and let’s do our part to keep the trains on schedule.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Station House will offer life on the fast track at Lake Mary SunRail station

Imagine walking a few yards from the front door of your home to hop on SunRail for a quick train ride to downtown Orlando.

This isn’t a dream. This description is what life soon will be like for residents at Station House, the luxury-apartment community that is being completed adjacent to the Lake Mary SunRail station.

The 200-unit Station House community is being developed by Epoch Properties, a Winter Park-based firm that has developed 33,000 apartments in 57 cities. The Station House is a perfect example of transit-oriented development – a community that was planned and built to take maximum advantage of public transportation.

Convenience is the guiding principle behind the development of Station House, at 188 E. Crystal Lake Ave. Station House is just a 5-minute stroll to Lake Mary’s Fourth Street business district that offers a variety of dining, shopping, recreation and entertainment experiences.

Station House residents are in for a treat. The four-story mid-rise, private-access community features one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. The monthly rent ranges from $1,060 to $1,800.

Each apartment includes upscale finishes including granite counter-tops, wood-style flooring, wireless- device charging stations and energy-efficient stainless steel appliances.

Other features include a unique two-story amenities building housing a 24-hour fitness center; complete concierge services; business center; summer kitchen ;a patio and a sundeck.

In addition, Station House will have a resort style swimming pool with cook-out grills and fire pits. For dog lovers there is a dog park and a canine drinking station. There will also be a parking structure where residents can leave their cars while they’re riding SunRail.

Construction teams are still working on Station House so the community won’t be open for tours until late October 2014. Prospective residents can call 855-229-5085 or email to make a reservation for a tour and request rental applications. For more information, visit the website at

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why SunRail ridership declined?

The SunRail bosses are at a loss to explain why there was a ridership decline in August.

Wish we had a good answer, but we noticed that the ridership decline corresponds with SunRail’s decision to layoff the platform Ambassadors who were hired to answer questions and assist SunRail riders. In addition, Ambassadors helped ensure safety and enforce rules – such as no-smoking on platforms -- at SunRail stations.

All the riders we know say the Ambassadors -- who wore black monogrammed golf shirts -- were extremely helpful. SunRail bosses don’t think Ambassadors were needed anymore. Now riders are on their own.

Unsure which platform to wait on to catch the train to Longwood?

Too bad.

Having problems getting a SunRail ticket from a vending machine?

So sorry.

Who knows, maybe a SunRail boss will drop by to answer your questions. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

SunRail needs a better boss

Central Florida’s Lynx public bus system should be running SunRail.

That notion may seem off the wall, but it makes sense because Lynx is in the mass transit business, and the Florida Department of Transportation – which built and oversees SunRail – is in the road-building business. Those are two completely different disciplines.

FDOT is top notch when it comes to building roads. They’re engineers. They care about things, but they’re not exactly warm and fuzzy when it comes to caring about living and breathing people.

A couple of weeks ago there was a tragic situation at SunRail when a dead body was found early in the morning on the tracks near the Sanford station. The public address systems at SunRail stations announced that SunRail service was canceled for the morning. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” the announcer added.

We were flabbergasted. SunRail announced service was canceled as though it was no big deal.

Lynx would have never done that, regardless of the tragic circumstances. They know people are counting on them to get to work. To their credit, SunRail did resume service that morning. But why did SunRail think canceling service was an option?

Customer service at SunRail is a joke. When SunRail launched they had station Ambassadors to answer questions from riders. But they got rid of the Ambassadors so there’s no one to talk to face to face when you have a question.

At Lynx Central Station in downtown Orlando there is a Lynx representative who answers questions and sells bus passes. Oh, and did we mention that customer service booth is in the bus system’s air-conditioned passenger lobby. That’s right, air-conditioned – something to think about next time you’re standing under the skimpy canopy on a SunRail platform in the blazing sun, or in driving rain.

In addition, Lynx has a platoon of supervisors in marked cars who patrol the bus routes checking on drivers and answering rider questions. When SunRail failed a few weeks ago and announced service was canceled for the morning, it was the Lynx supervisors who led a convoy of buses to rescue stranded SunRail riders.

Lynx runs 7 days a week, albeit abbreviated service on the weekends. SunRail provides 4,200 rides daily. Lynx provides 105,000 rides daily. And as we all know, SunRail doesn't run on weekends, or much during the middle of the day.

SunRail is new and sexy. Lynx is not.

The overwhelming majority of people on Lynx ride because they don’t have a choice. They can’t afford a car, or for one reason or another, they can’t drive. It takes a long time to get from Point A to Point B on Lynx because of traffic congestion and the Lynx bus fleet is too small. Lynx has 299 buses to serve Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. Lynx really needs about 700 buses to provide more convenient service. The problem is that Lynx doesn’t get enough funding, but that’s a story for another day.

Central Florida won’t get the mass transit it deserves until bus and rail service is being managed under one roof. Clearly Lynx knows more and cares more about mass transit than our friends at FDOT.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Anybody home at SunRail?

Early Monday morning one of our favorite riders tweeted that there was a broken sprinkler head at the Sanford SunRail station spewing water like a geyser. She reported this on our Twitter feed, and on SunRail's official Twitter feed. Not a biggie, right? Read on.

Just for the heck of it, we rode up on the train and shot a photo of the geyser, which is right next to the sidewalk that riders use to reach the bus stops and parking lot. We posted the photo on our Twitter feed.

Monday night, the same young lady, on her way home 12 hours after she first reported the problem, tweeted that the sprinkler head was still spewing.

But wait, it gets better! This morning another gentleman reported the same broken sprinkler head was still spewing. Imagine how much water has been wasted. And who pays that water bill?

There's a much bigger issue. Does anybody at SunRail, or the Florida Department of Transportation, even care? Do they care about the concerns of riders? Do they care what's happening at the SunRail stations? We don't see much evidence of their concerns.

They got rid of the platform Ambassadors. They blow off riders pleas for weekend and night service. They downplay complaints about malfunctioning ticket machines. They sell us 7-day tickets, but only provide 5-day-service.Now they're ignoring maintenance requests. "If you see something say something." Yeah, right!

Other than the outside contractors who sweep up at stations, and the train crews, does any SunRail or FDOT official even visit stations on a daily basis?

Mind you, the Sanford station is within a mile or two of SunRail's maintenance and operations base. Yet over a 24-hour period an obvious maintenance problem wasn't addressed. Do they need a pipe wrench? They can borrow ours.

And if they don't care now, just five months since SunRail was launched, what will the stations and trains be like 5 months, or 5 years from today?

Please, would somebody at SunRail or FDOT act like you care and fix the friggin' sprinkler!

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 9, SunRail posted this message on Twitter:
"SunRail operations is working to fix the problem in Sanford immediately. In the future, use our customer hotline 1-855-RAIL-411."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Free SunRail train-tracker app

When you step on a SunRail platform the first question likely to cross your mind is: When is the train coming?

Honestly, SunRail has an excellent on-time record, but sometimes stuff happens. If you’re like us you want to be sure the train is coming on time.

Last month SunRail introduced a train tracker on its website that shows where the train is. That tracker is great if you’re using a desktop, laptop or a tablet. But that tracker is not so good if you’re standing on the platform using your smartphone. The official SunRail tracker has not been optimized for the smaller screen of a smartphone. (Duh!)

Ideally SunRail should have provided a mobile app (one of those cool icons) you can download to the screen of your smartphone.

Not to worry, though, Ben Gohlke has created an app called Sol Train 2.0 (Sol = Sun, get it) that you can download from the Apple App Store. The app is free and you can also download it to your smartphone by clicking here.

Ben, an Orlando native and a Lake Mary resident, is an app developer who works for a digital publishing company in south Orlando near the Mall of Millenia. Even though Ben doesn’t take SunRail to work because it doesn’t stop near his office, he is a big fan of the commuter train and has ridden it for fun with some friends.

Like the rest of us, Ben is perplexed that SunRail isn’t providing an app, so without any compensation he decided to create one. He worked on this project nights and weekends with the help us his Mom and some friends.

As you might imagine creating an app -- a self-contained program that is designed to execute specific functions – and receiving approval to distribute it through the Apple App Store is painstaking work. We absolutely love the fruit of Ben’s labor.

The Sol Train app can quickly help riders answers the two most important questions: Where is the train I need? How long before it gets to this station?

In addition, if you’re not at a station, the app will show you how far you are from the closest station, and how long it will take you to drive to that station. What’s more, there’s also a Spanish language version of the Sol Train app. And Ben is already considering upgrades for his app. This app only works on Apple devices, but Ben is planning to develop an Android version.

We think Ben (who can be reached through his website) deserves a standing ovation.

In the interest of full disclosure there is another SunRail app called Orlando Transit. Choose the one that works best for you and enjoy.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Feel shortchanged on your SunRail fare?

People frequently tell us that they feel as though they get shortchanged by SunRail when they buy a 7-day SunCard because SunRail only runs Monday through Friday.

We put that question to SunRail, and here’s a written response from a spokesman: “The weekly passes are good for seven consecutive days from the time you first tap on for our regular riders. We also offer a stored value card (with a 10 percent bonus), that operates exactly like your SunPass (toll transponder on cars EDITOR'S NOTE). You are only debited when you use it, plus you get the 10 percent bonus. That means if you put $100 on your card, for example, you get $10 worth of additional free rides.”

Are you satisfied by this response?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rough day on the rails

On Thursday SunRail had another rough day on the rails.

A freight train derailed near Sanford blocking one of the two tracks used by SunRail, so operations had to be slowed down to let northbound and southbound commuter trains share one set of tracks.

We think SunRail did a much better job this time than they did last Friday. They pushed out messages much faster and more frequently to let riders know what was going on. Good job guys.

Service interruptions, such  as the one on Thursday morning are going to happen. Much of the time they are beyond the control of SunRail. What is in SunRail's control and responsibility is to let riders know what's going on.