Saturday, January 31, 2015

Don't trust SunRail railroad crossings

We don’t know about you, but we don’t trust SunRail crossing gates.

Friday morning shortly after 9 we were driving to an appointment in downtown Orlando. Driving east on Central Boulevard we saw the lights flashing and the crossing gates lower at the tracks next to the big fire station. There was an SUV in front of us at the crossing. The gates were down for more than 30 seconds, but from our vantage point we couldn’t see a train. A female passenger got out of the SUV, and much to our horror she walked around the gate and crossed the tracks. Still no sign of a train.

After the woman crossed the tracks, the gates went up. Mind you we still couldn’t see a train. But the SUV in front of us (the one the woman got out of) didn’t budge. And then a moment later we could see the locomotive of a northbound SunRail train slowly rolling toward the Central Boulevard crossing. But get this: the crossing gate was still up. As the train reached the crossing the gate came down and the warning bells started ringing.


What if we were coming down Central at a good clip and the gates didn’t come down until the train was actually crossing the street?

Now we understand why we’ve been seeing angry Tweets from motorists complaining that they almost got killed by a SunRail train. We thought those motorists were just SunRail haters, or reckless drivers. But no, we’re now convinced that there is something wrong with the SunRail crossing-gate system, and this problem isn’t isolated or new. We’ve been seeing Tweets about the crossing gates for months.

Think about it riders, how many times have you been on a SunRail train that had to stop so the conductor could climb down to the ground and use a red flag to stop traffic for the train to cross a street? (Shades of “Petticoat Junction”, Google it millennials) This past week we rode SunRail in the evening on Wednesday and Thursday and both nights the train had to stop for the conductor to flag traffic and Holden and Michigan Street in south Orlando. We’ve also seen crews working on crossing signals at several locations.

Thank goodness there have only been a handful of accidents with SunRail trains. To our knowledge, the crossing gates were not at fault in any of those incidents. But considering what we – and other riders and motorists – have seen, something is not working right in the crossing-gate system. How long before a malfunctioning crossing gate gets somebody killed?

No one should feel as though they’re rolling the dice when they cross the railroad tracks. Local government officials should be asking SunRail some tough questions.

We sent an email on this issue to SunRail on Friday. They told us they’re looking into it and will get back to us next week. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How about a high-tech SunRail adventure?

We went on a great adventure the other night, thanks to SunRail.

When we were preparing the SunRailRiders datebook we noticed there was a wearable technology meet up in downtown Orlando at Canvs, the co-working space in the old Church Street Exchange building.

Honestly we didn’t know a thing about wearable tech, but we were intrigued. Usually the thought of driving to downtown Orlando at night is a turnoff – especially considering that the Orlando Solar Bears were playing at the Amway Center. Downtown you have to fight traffic and pay a fortune to park.

But thank goodness for SunRail, we rode right to Church Street and got there in time to get a bite to eat before the presentation.  At the meeting we met a mom who brought her two kids to hear the presentation, and they even got to ask questions. How did they get to the event? On SunRail.

Doug Brown, founder of Factur, was one of the presenters. Factur is a non-profit “maker space” filled with all kinds of high-tech tools that regular people can learn to use to bring their inventions to life.

Watch the attached video for more details on Factur. During the presentation Doug said that Factur, Located in Ivanhoe Village near downtown, has an open house every Thursday, starting at 4 p.m.

Ivanhoe Village? That’s close to the Florida Hospital SunRail station. And guess what, on Thursday we’re taking our bikes on the SunRail, so we can get off at Florida Hospital ride over to Factur. Maybe we’ll see you there.

And get this: on Friday night Orlando Critical Mass is holding its monthly event. OCM is a  massive bicycle ride for bike riders of all skill levels. Participants will meet at 5:30 p.m. at Loch Haven Park, near the Florida Hospital SunRail station. If we’re not too worn out from the ride to Factur, we plan to attend that event on Friday night. Hope you'll come ride with us.

There’s a whole universe of things to explore, and you can get there on SunRail. Have you had any great SunRail adventures recently?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

SunRail hospital schedule needs surgery - STAT

Back when SunRail was being planned most people expected that the train stations at Orlando’s biggest hospitals would be among the busiest stops. That’s a reasonable assumption considering that Florida Hospital and Orlando Health are two of the region’s largest employers.

Reality proved to be vastly different from the assumptions. The stations at Florida Hospital and Orlando Health rank among the bottom three for ridership. It’s not that caregivers and other workers at the hospitals don’t like SunRail. The problem is that the train schedule doesn’t work for many of them.

SunRail at Florida Hospital

Hospital caregivers tell us that the biggest problem is in the evening for the northbound SunRail train. The shift ends for many of the caregivers at 7 p.m., but the northbound SunRail train arrives and departs too early from the train stations at both hospitals.
It’s not as though the minute the shift ends the nurses and other caregivers instantly drop everything and walk out the door. They have to finish what they’re doing; update patients’ charts and brief the next shift.

The handover process is time consuming but necessary to ensure safe medical care for patients. In addition, caregivers at Orlando Health have to walk at least two blocks to the train station.

To be fair, back in August SunRail tried to address this situation by adjusting the schedule so the 7:22 p.m. train at Orlando Health now arrives at 7:37 p.m. Instead of 7:34 p.m. that train now arrives at the Florida Hospital station at 7:49 p.m.

Good try, but this situation demands more attention. If caregivers coming off shift at 7 miss the northbound train they have to wait at least 2 hours for the next train. Would you do that? Most people wouldn’t, so caregivers drive to work because they can’t count on SunRail to get home.
SunRail at Orlando Health

Caregivers say it would be better if SunRail changed the schedule so the northbound train arrived at Orlando Health at 8 p.m. That train would also serve caregivers at Florida Hospital.

No doubt changing the SunRail train schedule is more complicated than just writing numbers on paper. Changing the northbound train schedule affects the southbound train schedule. In addition, every time the schedule is changed, it can affect the hours that train crews are on duty. Federal rules limit how long crew members can work. Despite those concerns, the ultimate goal is to increase ridership by making SunRail a convenient alternative to driving.

We love hospital caregivers – nurses, orderlies and techs. We love doctors, too. But anybody who has ever been in the hospital knows that the caregivers are the ones who get the job done. Let’s make it easier for them to get home.

Monday, January 19, 2015

No 'donkeys' allowed on SunRail

Are there SunRail riders who really get on your nerves?

The kind of riders who take up more than one seat with their feet, packages or widely spread legs; the litter bugs; the noisemakers; the drunks, and the slow pokes who take forever to get off the train?

CJ Smith has a name for those thoughtless riders. She calls them “donkeys.”

Where CJ is from “donkey” is an insult. CJ lives in metropolitan Toronto where she rides the Go Transit commuter train and writes the blog about the thoughtless jerks she and her fellow riders cope with daily.

A couple of months back we exchanged emails with CJ who saw a photo of a SunRail platform and she marveled at its pristine condition, compared to the situation on the crazy train in Toronto.

It’s nice to read compliments about SunRail, but recently we’ve started noticing carelessly dropped gum and other litter on a few platforms and trains. And other SunRail riders have told us about people smoking on platforms, drunks and other rude behavior by a few riders.
No offense, but, we don’t want SunRail to become like the New York City subway, or CJ’s “crazy train”.

We want SunRail trains and stations to remain clean, comfortable, friendly and safe.
Each one of us has the power to help maintain the SunRail trains and stations. Hate to admit it, but we’ve been guilty of hogging more than one seat when we placed our knapsack next to us. Next time we’ll put it on the floor to make room for others to sit.
We also need to get prepared to get off the train before the train reaches our destination, and let passengers get off before trying to board the train. This helps keep the train on schedule – lost seconds, become lost minutes and the next thing you know the train is running late.

If we see others engaged in thoughtless or rude behavior we shouldn’t put ourselves at risk by confronting them, but we’ll do ourselves and other riders a favor by reporting the rude riders to the conductor or station Ambassador.

Whatever you do, don’t become a “donkey”.

And if you want a couple of chuckles, check out CJ’s crazy train blog.

See you on The Rail.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Will you pay more to ride SunRail on the weekend?

Everybody wants SunRail trains to run on the weekends, but are you willing to pay for it?

During last week’s meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission one of the bosses said it will cost an additional $5.5 million to run SunRail on the weekends – 18 trains daily on Saturday and Sunday.

As we previously explained, almost every mass transit system in the world has to be subsidized with public dollars, but the riders do have to pay their fair share from the fare box.

So on our SunRailRiders – Florida Facebook page we asked our followers: Would you be willing to pay a higher fare on the weekends to help pay for weekend SunRail service?

We were blown away by the response from riders who overwhelmingly support higher fares for weekend service.

For example, John wrote: “What's the point of having a system like this unless you can use it at any time -- day or night, weekend or holiday? We'll never get the ideal amount of cars off the roads unless SunRail is available at any time day or night.”

Then there’s Eric, who wrote: “Growing up in a city that had a great train system, I rode all the time as a kid. Now that I have a 3 and 6 year old - I want to take them downtown, and to the science center, etc. … and I would do it all from the Sand Lake station. Not running on weekends is a bad thing. Please SunRail - change this!”
Our good friend Dani, also made a strong business case for a higher fare for weekend SunRail service. She wrote: “I think weekend service should cost more than weekday service. Revenue Management 101 is to charge more for a timeframe that is either more desirable or costs more to offer your service.”
However there were some who don’t like the idea. Patrice wrote: “Not paying more...figure it out...The train was proposed for 7 days, my taxes are paying for it make it happen!”
We tend to go along with the majority view to charge a higher fare for the weekends, but we do have some major concerns.
Many people calling for weekend service want the train running to use during their off hours to visit farmers markets or go to an Orlando Magic game or to dinner in Lake Mary, and so forth. Many of them don’t even ride SunRail during the Monday to Friday work week because the train doesn’t stop near to their job.
However, everybody in this market doesn’t work a conventional Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedule. Why should they pay a higher fare just because they work on the weekend?
If SunRail can ever get its ticketing system to work properly, we think the solution is to charge weekday fares to everybody who has a SunCard for rising weekly and monthly, and charge higher fares to people who buy one-day tickets from the vending machines on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hopefully the willingness to pay more to ride on the weekends will speed up the discussions and get trains running on the weekends by this summer.
See you on The Rail.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Take Xerox to the woodshed for screwed-up SunRail ticket machines

SunRail says it’s too late to fire Xerox for the lousy job that company has been doing with the ticketing system it was paid to install.

But it’s not too late to get tough with the technology giant. Last Friday – when 9,000 people rode SunRail – the machines were terrible Even a top Florida Department of Transportation official agreed that the machines performance was unacceptable.

And the way to get tough is to insist that top Xerox executives attend this Friday’s meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission – the body that oversees SunRail -- to give a progress report on the ticket-vending system. Yeah, we know they’ll say they’ve been solving some of the problems. Listen carefully, that’s the sound of us playing the world’s smallest violin.

As all riders know, the ticketing system is terrible. Riders have missed the train trying to get tickets from these blasted machines. We’re pissed off. It’s time for the rail commission – elected officials – to give it to Xerox with both barrels.

At every rail commission meeting the SunRail staff is stuck with the job of explaining why the ticketing system breaks down so often and fails with simple transactions – such as handling transfers between the buses and the train.

SunRail staff members are not ticket-vending machine technicians. That’s why Xerox was hired. The corporation has more than 100 years of technology experience. This is a multi-million dollar contract. Opening-day glitches are understandable, but problems persist since last May – eight months! Even on a good day the machines are incredibly slow.
We’re sick of it. And it’s time for Xerox to face the heat for their own failure.

Yeah, we know it’s kind of the last minute to demand Xerox officials attend Friday’s meeting, but what the heck, tell them to hop on their corporate plane and jet down here. They’re lucky they don’t have to buy a ticket from one of their balky machines.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

SunRail's ticketing system sucks

Enough’s enough with SunRail’s unreliable ticket-vending machine system.

Xerox is the vendor with the contract to install and maintain the machines. Quite frankly, the ticketing system hasn't worked since Day 1.

It’s not as though SunRail just launched the other day. SunRail has been running revenue operations since mid-May 2014 when riders were required to buy tickets. We’ve been in SunRail stations where 3 of the 4 vending machines were out of order. In addition, the ticketing problems have fouled up back-office operations that make it difficult for SunRail to accurately count and analyze ridership trends.

On Friday, Jan. 2, the machines had all kinds of problems when riders surged into stations to ride SunRail at the end of the Christmas holiday season. In some cases SunRail trains left stations while people were still in line trying to buy tickets.

Rube Goldberg contraption
Even when the machines actually work, they’re incredibly slow. Who designed these machines? Rube Goldberg? (Millennials, please Google)

Xerox has a million excuses and says they’ve sent squads of techs to resolve the issues. That’s too little, too late. If Xerox can’t deliver, then they shouldn’t have bid on the job.

The ticket-vending machine problems leave many SunRail riders -- and would-be-riders -- with a bad taste in their mouths. Those riders don’t complain about Xerox. They complain about SunRail. 

We think Xerox's top executives should attend the Jan. 9 meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission to take heat directly from our elected officials.

It’s time to cut the crap.

SunRail says it’s withholding payment to Xerox, and certainly lawsuits are probably in order. But none of that helps the riders who have been inconvenienced by the ticket-machine problems.

Fortunately, we’ve got a solution. Every time a rider tries to buy a ticket and the machine is too slow, or it won’t work, the rider should board the train without a ticket and tell the conductor what happened. The conductor should record the number of riders who couldn’t buy a ticket. Then Xerox should be charged $7.50 -- the full price of a round trip ticket from DeBary to Sand Lake Road.

Will some scamsters game the system? We’re sure they will. But you know whose problem that will be? Xerox. Get the ticket-vending machine system fixed and Xerox won’t have to pay the fares anymore.

The ticket-vending machine problems aren’t an inconvenience. They’re an embarrassment. We’re tired of it.

See you on The Rail.

Friday, January 2, 2015

SunRail haters gonna hate

Don’t be misled by the SunRail haters.

This past Friday morning one of the haters tweeted that SunRail was a failure because he had just been passed by a SunRail train that was carrying only 7 passengers. (This guy must be pretty impressive because he was able to count 7 people on a passing train.)

Twenty minutes later a SunRail rider posted a photo on our Facebook page showing a standing-room only crowd on a southbound SunRail train in Longwood. The accompanying photo shows the mob scene when that train arrived in Winter Park.

The haters want us to believe that SunRail is a pitiful failure.

We’re the first ones to admit that SunRail has had its share of problems. We ding them on a regular basis. But SunRail gets better and better and more Central Floridians are embracing the train – especially with the expansion of service hours to the late night and the recent service to support the Citrus Bowl game.

Yet the haters are relentless. This fall they used news reports covering SunRail ridership dips to help torpedo a proposal to enhance public transit in the Tampa Bay area.
Don’t expect facts to deter the haters. When they’re finally forced to concede that people are riding SunRail, the haters will change their tune and start saying they’re OK with SunRail “as long as it pays for itself.” Typically public transit system fares cover about one-third of the cost it takes to run the system.

Let’s deal with facts. There is almost no public transit system anywhere in the WORLD that pays all of its expenses out of the fare box. The two exceptions we could find are in Asia where the public transit agency not only runs the trains, but also owns and develops all the real estate around the train stations.

Public transit is a service that is paid for by the public. Police and fire are also services paid for by the public. The big difference is that public transit does generate some revenue – fares – to help pay its expenses. Who in their right mind would say we’ll keep police and fire service “as long as it pays for itself?”

Tell the SunRail haters to go play in traffic.

See you on The Rail.

Volusia officials seem to suffer from SunRail buyers' remorse

This is not a new topic. This has been discussed and discussed. State engineers have done their work, now it’s time for Volusia to pony up.

In a way we’re not surprised about this recent outburst of buyers’ remorse. It would be unfair to call Volusia County Council Chair Jason Davis -- who serves on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission -- a SunRail hater, but considering some private comments we’ve heard him make, he’s no friend.

While the Volusia County Council is whining about whether to pay their share for expanding service to DeLand, Volusia County residents have demonstrated they’re huge SunRail fans. Even though SunRail only has one station in Volusia County, that station is one of the busiest in the SunRail system. The parking lot at the DeBary SunRail station is running out of spaces.

Hopefully the SunRail commission won’t spend too much time dickering with Volusia. If they don’t want to extend the train service to DeLand; fine. Let’s not extend it. Five years from now Volusia officials will wish they grabbed the opportunity when they had it.

Regardless of what Volusia does, we’re eager to see SunRail service extended down to Osceola County. Unlike Volusia Commissioner Davis, Osceola’s representative on the commuter train commission is a strong proponent for mass transit.

Newly elected Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer, who has just joined the rail commission, grew up in New York City and she rode the bus and train to work and school. Many of her constituents rely on public transportation. She understands the importance of reliable, affordable mass transportation. We’re excited to have Ms. Janer join the rail commission.