Sunday, December 28, 2014

Next SunRail commission meeting will be BIG!

Mark down Jan. 9 on your calendar.

That’s the date when the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission will hold its next meeting. 

Commission members in November
That commission of locally elected government officials oversees the management of SunRail. The commission’s members include Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Volusia County Council Chairman Jason Davis and Osceola Commissioner Viviana Janer.
In our opinion the upcoming meeting will be the most important one that has been held since SunRail began operations last May.

Four hot topics that are sure to be discussed include:

1.    The SunRail #NightTrain. This new late-night train, which we have campaigned for since July, wasn’t even on the agenda the last time the rail commission met in November. You can be sure commission members will pay close attention to ridership of the train that begins its last southbound run in DeBary at 9:05 p.m., and its last northbound trip from Sand Lake Road at 10:20 p.m.

#NightTrain in Winter Park

Up to this point the #NightTrain is an experiment. If it gets strong ridership it will help us make a stronger argument to expand SunRail service to the weekends. That’s why it’s absolutely critical for each and every one of us use  #NightTrain during the next two weeks to explore and enjoy Central Florida in the evenings during the holidays and after work hours. Don’t procrastinate, ride this week.

2.    Extension of SunRail service to DeLand in Volusia County. State engineers have finished 30 percent of the plans for that extension. However, Volusia County Council members are starting to whine about paying the county’s share of the costs. The money is due on Jan. 3, but county council members are scheduled to discuss this matter on Jan. 8 – the day before the rail commission meets. SunRail is scheduled to start serving DeLand in 2016 – if the money comes through.

3.    Preparations for the I-4 Ultimate project. SunRail was launched to provide commuters with a transportation alternative during the massive 21-mile construction project that will begin in late January 2015 and continue through 2021. Everyone is expecting that construction will prompt more commuters to jump on SunRail. We’re eager to hear about the preparations.

4.    Passenger advisory council selection. Orlando and Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties are expected to name their representatives to this group at the next meeting. Osceola County will name its representatives in 2016 when the train service is expanded down through Kissimmee to Poinciana in 2016. We’re excited that this council is being established to serve as a voice for SunRail riders. If you want to serve, click the name of your local government's representative on the rail commission.

As far as we’re concerned, when it comes to SunRail, the best is yet to come.

See you on The Rail.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The SunRail #NightTrain is a winner

In case you’ve been wondering, SunRail’s new #NightTrain is a big hit.

Tuesday night, after the Orlando Magic game the newly added SunRail late-night train was carrying a heavy load when it left Church Street for the last northbound run of the evening. And the riders were ecstatic.

Tuesday was just the second night for the new #NightTrain that was introduced on Monday as a test of expanded SunRail service.

As expected, Monday night’s passenger load on the #NightTrain was nothing to write home about. Only about 100 people used that train, but that was no surprise given that it’s Christmas week and there was nothing special going on in downtown Orlando.
But it was an entirely different tune on Tuesday. By early evening on Tuesday we heard reports that there were lots of people riding SunRail downtown for the Magic game. Until now most Magic fans couldn’t seriously considering taking SunRail to the Amway Center because the last train for the evening passed through Church Street before the end of the basketball game.

Under SunRail’s new test schedule the northbound #NightTrain pulls into Church Street at 10:30. That gives Magic fans lots of time to exit the Amway Center and stroll over to the Church Street SunRail station. (Fans were particularly happy because the Magic won for a change!)

Many fans arrived at the SunRail station at 9:45 p.m. and a few even had time to get a drink at nearby nightspots and reach the train station with lots of time to spare. In addition to basketball fans, we also chatted with several folks who just left a John Lennon tribute concert on Church Street and some tourists who left their car at Sand Lake Road and rode SunRail to explore downtown Orlando.

Now everybody is asking us when weekend SunRail service will start. With the kind of strong ridership we witnessed on Tuesday night, hopefully SunRail weekend service will be here soon.

Monday, December 22, 2014

We need you tonight on the SunRail #NightTrain

Tonight the stakes will be very high.

Both the news media and the SunRail and mass transportation haters will be paying very close attention to the SunRail night train service that begins tonight.

Even though tonight will be the first day for the new schedule the critics are licking their lips ready to declare the night train a failure because no one is riding. You can believe that future expansion of SunRail service (weekend service and more trains during the day) hinges on the success of the night train.

Other communities, such as our neighbors in Tampa Bay who desperately want to expand their mass transit offerings, will be paying close attention too. Let’s show them what SunRail riders can do!

We need to show the haters that our community fully embraces this new SunRail schedule, and mass transit in general (including Lynx and Votran).

There are lots of places to go and things to do tonight, including the multiplex movie theater in downtown Orlando, dining and fun in downtown Orlando, downtown Winter Park, downtown Lake Mary and downtown Sanford. And so to quote Lisa Minnelli: “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play…”

Remember the way we all rode during the #RideBlkFri campaign? Let’s ride like that again tonight and every night this train is running. Let’s get your coworkers and neighbors out there on SunRail tonight. And when you ride, please post photos under the hashtag #NightTrain

The last southbound SunRail train will leave DeBary at 9:05 p.m. and the last northbound SunRail train will leave Sand lake Road at 10:20 p.m. For a detailed schedule visit

See you on The Rail.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

SunRail's new night train, not late enough?

We’ve heard a few people complaining that SunRail’s new night train – starting next week – doesn’t run late enough.

To those whiners we can only say: Chill out!

Let’s get real: This is Central Florida, not New York City. We don’t need 24-hour train service.

We’re grateful SunRail has added the late-train to the schedule. This late train can do wonders for restaurants, entertainment and cultural venues along the SunRail corridor. At this point we're mainly focused on getting everybody to take full advantage of this new night train. Strong ridership on the night train sets the stage for weekend SunRail service.

SunRail’s deal with CSX requires SunRail to get their trains off the tracks before midnight to make way for freight trains. As it is, SunRail's new night train ends its run in DeBary at 11:30 p.m. 

Let's keep in mind there are many businesses along the SunRail corridor and elsewhere in Central Florida that count on those overnight freight trains to haul supplies and products.

Starting next week Orlando Magic fans can use SunRail to get to and from games on weekdays. We understand that many performances at the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts won’t end in time for patrons to use the train to get home. Sure, that’s disappointing, but it’s impossible to please everybody all the time. Maybe the performing arts center can consider starting performances a little earlier so their patrons can use SunRail. Everybody needs to bend a little. SunRail has shown good faith by expanding their service.

As for late-night revelers who want to ride SunRail home at 3 a.m. after a night of slamming drinks, all we can say is tough luck. We don’t want SunRail to become a rolling drunk tank. If you want to drink yourself into oblivion, then it’s your responsibility to find a safe way to get home.

Monday, December 15, 2014

SunRail is adding a late-night train

You asked for SunRail to run later at night. You’re getting your wish.

More than 3,400 people signed our petition asking for SunRail to run later at night and on the weekends.

Clearly the bosses at SunRail heard your request.This afternoon SunRail announced that starting a week from today (Dec. 22) SunRail will add a late-night train to the Monday to Friday schedule.

That train will leave DeBary at 9:05 p.m., arriving at the Sand Lake Road station at 10:08 p.m. Then the train will begin its northbound trip – last run for the night -- from Sand Lake Road at 10:20 p.m. That train is scheduled to arrive in DeBary at 11:23 p.m.

This will make it much easier to use SunRail to attend and leave events in downtown Orlando at the Amway Center and the new Dr. Phillips Performing Center for the Performing Arts, as well as enjoy dinner and other activities in all the cities along the SunRail corridor.
The SunRail bosses deserve our thanks. They’re giving us a chance to show how much we want SunRail service expanded, so for heaven’s sake. Let’s ride. Making this late-night train a success will help pave the way for more service enhancements.

See you on The Rail!

See how great you did during the #RideBlkFri campaign

We just got the official station-by-station breakdown showing how many people hopped aboard SunRail during our #RideBlkFri campaign to demonstrate support for expanding SunRail service to weekends and late night hours.

Crowded SunRail train on Black Friday
As you recall, since many people were off from work on Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving -- we asked you to ride the train to destinations you would visit if SunRail ran on the weekend.

As the numbers on the accompanying chart shows, the turnout was amazing. Volusia County residents proved they’re wild about SunRail. Nearly double the number of regular weekday riders used the train used the DeBary station on Black Friday. There were nearly double the number of regular riders at the Lake Mary and Sand Lake Road stations.

And holy cow, there were nearly triple the number of riders at Winter Park!

Check out Black Friday crowd in Winter Park
Friends, you outdid yourselves with your enthusiastic support of the #RideBlkFri campaign.
Hopefully local politicians are paying close attention because we need them to act quickly by approving the proposal to expand SunRail service to weekends and late-night hours. The SunRail bosses are planning to formally present that proposal to local leaders in January. Stay tuned.

See you on The Rai!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Sizing up Tri-Rail, SunRail's big brother

We just came back from an adventure in South Florida.

We drove to West Palm Beach to experience Tri-Rail, Florida’s first commuter train system.
Think of Tri-Rail as SunRail’s big brother. SunRail and Tri-Rail have similar birth stories. Both were creations of the Florida Department of Transportation. SunRail was launched this past May to offer a transportation alternative during the massive I-4 Ultimate construction project that begins early next year and is expected to be completed by 2021. Tri-Rail began operations in 1989 to provide a commuter alternative to a massive construction project on I-95 in South Florida.

We rode round trip on Tri-Rail from the Mangonia Park station in West Palm Beach to Hialeah Market/Miami Airport station and back again to Mangonia Park. This was our first ride on Tri-Rail and the roundtrip 140-mile journey took 4 hours.

Tri-Rail passenger coach

We traveled during the off peak period in late morning so we can’t tell you what the Tri-Rail experience is like during rush hour. Tri-Rail’s website doesn’t have a real-time train tracker, which was a surprise. Passengers have to depend on their conductor or platform announcements when there are delays or other problems.

Our first impression of Tri-Rail wasn’t great because the Mangonia Park station is sandwiched between a huge, abandoned jai alai fronton and a sprawling rundown apartment complex. Once we got on the station platform we felt more comfortable because there were uniformed, armed security officers on duty.

The forlorn area at the Mangonia Park station set an unfortunate negative tone for our Tri-Rail experience. We hope Tri-Rail and local officials are working hard to address the twin eyesores at that station.

Our Tri-Rail locomotive 
Another thing, the locomotive powering our train was a workhorse – it looked like one, and not in a good way. The locomotive’s exterior was beaten up. Its paint job didn’t match the cool tropical motif on the passenger coaches. What’s up with that?

Throughout the train trip we kept reminding ourselves that we weren’t in Central Florida. Much of the Tri-Rail track corridor cuts through the grimy underbelly of South Florida --rough neighborhoods, endless junkyards, illegal trash-dump sites, and warehouses marred by out-of-control graffiti. There was enough trash dumped along the tracks to fill 10 Amway Centers. We have concerns about some trashy areas along the SunRail corridor, but the eyesores on the SunRail corridor don’t come close to what Tri-Rail passengers see every day.

Some neighborhoods next to Tri-Rail stations were better than others, but we didn’t notice anything like a Park Avenue in Winter Park setting at a Tri-Rail station.

But enough dishing on Tri-Rail. There were many things about it that we liked.

Tri-Rail passenger coaches were clean and appeared to be well maintained. The ride was very smooth, compared to SunRail where there are some bumpy sections of tracks. Though we were traveling during an off-peak period, there were lots of passengers.

Tri-Rail is very convenient for people on the way to catch a flight because the train stops close to two airports – Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport. Numerous airline passengers with luggage boarded and got off at those airport stations.

The two best things about Tri-Rail: It runs on weekends and late at night.

Train tickets Tri-Rail style

The Tri-Rail ticketing system is similar to the set-up at SunRail, but there are some important differences.

Tri-Rail ticket vending machines
Tri-Rail has ticket vending machines at all of their stations. Hate to say it, but their machines are as slow and balky as ours. We had to try two machines and three credit/debit cards before we could buy our ticket. But one big plus is that all of their vending machines not only take credit/debit cards, but also accept cash and coins. Unfortunately, of the four ticket-vending machines at each SunRail station, only one machine accepts cash.

Tri-Rail passengers using the train for one day get paper tickets, and riders with paper tickets don’t have to tap on and tap off.

Those with an EASY card -- similar to our weekly/monthly SunCard -- have to tap on and tap off the train. You can use EASY card to pay your fare on South Florida buses and Metrorail -- a rapid transit train system that serves downtown Miami. (Now if we can just get the transfers to work between SunRail and Lynx!)

Armed guard checking tickets aboard Tri-Rail
We were surprised that Tri-Rail conductors don’t check tickets on the train. Tickets are checked by uniformed, armed security guards who ride every train. Bet those guards don’t have too many problems with fare cheats!

Tri-Rail has better platforms than SunRail

We like Tri-Rail stations better than our SunRail stations because they offer more amenities for riders.

The platform canopies at Tri-Rail stations are fantastic. Compared to the canopies on SunRail platforms that only provide a thin ribbon of shade on a scorching hot Florida afternoon, the Tri-Rail platform canopies are five times wider and offer generous protection from the sun and rain.

Check out the wide platform canopy

Notice the lightning rod on platform canopy
We noticed Tri-Rail platforms have lightning arrestor systems, something we think SunRail should add considering the furious thunderstorms during Central Florida summers.

In addition to water fountains, the Tri-Rail platforms have soft drink and snack vending machines. There is no rule that prohibits people from snacking on the trains, and despite this, the trains appeared to be clean and free from litter.

While Tri-Rail doesn’t have platform Ambassadors to assist riders, they do have uniformed, armed security guards posted at each station. Those guards answer questions and assist passengers who encounter problems with the ticket-vending machines.

To assist with customer service, the Tri-Rail system has a handful of ticket booths at strategic stations that are staffed with "living and breathing" human beings to assist passengers with questions and problems.

Customer-service booth at Tri-Rail station

Bridge keeps Tri-Rail passengers off tracks
Probably the most impressive feature at Tri-Rail stations are the passenger overpasses to get from the north to southbound tracks or the parking lot. These overpasses eliminates any reason for passengers to ever set foot on the tracks. Passengers don’t even have to walk up the steps to the overpass. There are elevators on both sides. No doubt the overpasses are very costly, but what price tag do you put on passenger safety when you have a railroad track corridor that is used by Tri-Rail, Amtrak and freight trains?

Yet we do need to temper all this praise for Tri-Rail with an important observation. Many of the Tri-Rail stations are showing signs of aging. We noticed many rust spots and surfaces that need to be repainted. The lesson is, you can’t slack off on short term, or long term maintenance.

Rust spots about at Tri-Rail stations

SunRail passenger coaches are better than Tri-Rail

The Tri-Rail passenger coaches are very similar to the ones we ride on SunRail.
But we like the SunRail coaches better.

The Tri-Rail high-back passenger seats seem to have higher backs than SunRail, and they have adjustable armrest between seats. SunRail has more tables on the upper deck of our passenger coaches. And like SunRail, Tri-Rail coaches have restrooms. In addition, Tri-Rail coaches have a drinking-water cooler with disposable cups outside the restroom.

Like SunRail, the Tri-Rail coaches are clean. In fact, near the end of the southbound run on Tri-Rail, a custodial worker came through the coach picking up scraps of paper and cleaning the restroom while the train was still rolling with passengers. This ensured that the train would be clean and ready before the train began its northbound run. We did, however, notice that some of the passenger seats were showing signs of wear.

Despite all this, we like SunRail better for one very special amenity we use that doesn’t exist on Tri-Rail….free Wi-Fi service. Their trains don’t have Wi-Fi, but Tri-Rail plans to add that feature in the future.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Don't let SunRail become a boondoggle

SunRail will become a boondoggle unless it gets expanded to full service -- trains running on the weekend and late-night hours.

SunRail’s current weekday-only, rush-hour centric schedule is barely adequate. We’ve talked to many riders and would-be riders who find the current weekday schedule frustrating. “What’s the point?” many ask.

There are many times during the work week when we could have used SunRail to go to business appointments in Sanford, Longwood, Lake Mary, Winter park or downtown Orlando, but we opted to drive because if we took the train we would have to endure a 2-hour wait to get back to our home station at Sand Lake Road. We know people who rode SunRail to lunch in Winter Park, or downtown Orlando, and then got stranded because there was no return trip for 2 hours. Is that any way to run a railroad?

Originally everyone assumed that nurses and other medical staff members at ORMC and Florida Hospital would be big users of SunRail. Certainly some do, but many do not because trains aren’t scheduled to fit the real-world work cycles for nurses and other health-care professionals at the hospitals. SunRail tinkered with the schedule a little, but it’s still not attracting the throngs many anticipated.

There is a SunRail station 2 blocks from the Amway Center and the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando But you can’t use the train to attend events because either the train won’t be available to take people home after the event, or the train doesn’t run on weekends.

We know that the rationale to build SunRail was to alleviate anticipated congestion during the I-4 Ultimate project, but we expected more from commuter rail than what we got. SunRail’s shortcoming are starting to make the train irrelevant, and that’s a shame because SunRail’s potential is enormous.

More than 3,400 riders and would-be riders have signed the petition calling for an expansion of SunRail service. Nearly 5,000 of you packed the trains on Nov. 28 during the #RideBlkFri campaign – 2,000 more than SunRail’s average daily ridership.

Fortunately the SunRail bosses are now preparing a proposal to add 4 daily round trips on weekdays and 9 roundtrips on the weekend. To move forward with this plan the SunRail managers need approval from their local government partners in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the city of Orlando. #expandsunrail

If the approvals come through, SunRail expanded service could begin next summer. Are you willing to reach out to your local officials to tell them to OK expanding SunRail service?

Friday, December 5, 2014

TGIF on SunRail, but don't get stupid

Many people like to let their hair down a little on Friday night, but a few SunRail riders are getting too carried away.

We keep hearing reports about riders who have overindulged on “adult beverages” bothering other passengers or otherwise making fools of themselves on some Friday evening SunRail trains.

Come on folks, SunRail is not a rolling “drunk tank.” Drunken, misbehaving riders undermine the campaign to expand SunRail service to weekends and late-night hours. We want people to be able to relax and take the train to catch a show; see a game, or have dinner and laughs with friends. Just please, demonstrate a little personal responsibility.

People who get drunk and board SunRail make the ride uncomfortable, and unsafe, for everyone else on the train. Boozehounds have “accidents” in the onboard restroom and cause other disruptions. Conductors have too much to do without having to play wet nurse to some immature drunks. Hard-partying drunks who choose to take SunRail add to the cost of security and maintenance.

If you want to slam drinks until you're totally wasted, do us a favor: Catch a cab.

Please wear your thinking cap on SunRail

Some people must forget to wear their thinking caps when they board SunRail.

This morning we watched a woman miss her stop at the southbound Church Street SunRail station because she took too long to get off.

The woman who missed her stop was riding with a coworker on the upper level. The coworker made it off, but the other woman got trapped on board when the doors closed and the train pulled away from the station. The conductor was in a different car and couldn’t see the problem unfold.

The coworker explained the dilemma to the station ambassador who politely suggested that it’s always a good idea to gather your belongings and prepare to get off before the train reaches the station.

The coworker said, ‘Well, they should announce that.”


Does anyone need to tell you to come in from the rain if you don’t want to get wet?
Come on folks, a little bit of “walking-around-sense” is needed if you’re going to use SunRail.

The train is on a schedule and can’t wait 10 minutes at every station for people to figure out what they’re doing. People who take a long time to get off are being unfair to all the other riders.

Get with the program. We’ve written it before and we’ll write it again: Step lively, folks!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stick to the numbers #RideBlkFri

Just the facts

SunRail’s average daily rider was:
  • August: 3,647
  • September: 3,045
  • October: 3,214
  • Nov. through Nov. 21: 3,166
  • #RideBlkFri (Nov. 28): 4,555

At Wednesday’s SunRail Technical Advisory Committee meeting SunRail bosses said the #RideBlkFri was based on counts by the conductors and those counts were probably a little off because the cars were so crowded that it was difficult for conductors to get through the train to count people. The bosses said they think there were probably as many as 5,000 riding on that day.

The SunRail bosses said the #RideBlkFri riders show there’s intense demand to get SunRail running on the weekends and during off-peak hours.

Weekend and late-night SunRail service is (almost) on the way

They heard you.

The petition signing and riding SunRail on Black Friday to demand SunRail service be expanded to the weekends and later at night has made a big impression.

This (Wednesday) afternoon at a meeting of the SunRail Technical Advisory Committee Florida Department of Transportation bosses agreed that they were impressed by the turnout for #RideBlkFri and they openly suggested what expanded SunRail service might look like.

They’re talking about adding four trains (that means 4 round trips between Sand Lake Road and DeBary) on weekdays, and 9 roundtrips on Saturday and Sundays. Yup, real weekend service!

Don’t do a victory dance yet. The real devil is in the details, and as you might imagine getting that service expansion boils down to politics and money.

First, a quick history lesson. SunRail operations are being overseen at this time by the Florida Department of Transportation because this rail system was built to alleviate the huge traffic jams that are expected when the massive Interstate 4 construction project begins this coming February. In 2021 (that’s no typo) after the construction is complete, the financial responsibility for SunRail will go to the city of Orlando and Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.

So before FDOT commits to expanding the SunRail service the state needs to get assurance that those local governments are willing to pick up the tab when the time comes. Here’s another little factoid to keep in mind, there is almost no public transit system anywhere in the world that pays all of its expenses from the fare box. That’s why local government money is needed.

How much is all of this going to cost? SunRail is currently tallying the estimate and plans to release a “white paper” in a few weeks that will get into all the gory details.

If all the stars are in alignment and those local governments agree, we could have weekend and late-night SunRail service in six months.

Sure, that’s a little frustrating, but we remember when no one really wanted to discuss expanded SunRail service? Now SunRail bosses are openly discussing the idea and even suggesting what that expanded service might look like.

You are responsible for pushing the expanded service idea this far. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.