Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Peek behind the SunRail's curtain

When someone says SunRail. Most of us think of the cool train and the smiling conductor and engineer on the controls.

SunRail's Sanford operations base
The truth is SunRail is so much bigger than the train and tracks we’re accustomed to seeing.

Just as they say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to run a railroad.
Recently we were granted a rare opportunity to peek behind the curtain to see what it takes to keep SunRail operating smoothly.

Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation and Bombardier – the folks who actually run the SunRail train – allowed me to visit their base near the Sanford SunRail station.

For obvious reasons the base is a secure facility so we weren’t allowed to take any photographs. Unlike the railroad towers of yesteryear, the SunRail base is very high tech. Its operations center is quite similar to an air traffic control room.

Inside a sealed room a handful of people monitor banks of computers and live-feed video screens. From that vantage point they can see what’s happening on the station platforms and keep track of trains coming and going along the railroad corridor.

The control room oversees the switching of tracks and signals to keep everything runny smoothly. Train crews also check in with the control room by radio when they’re arriving at stations and departing. During the rush hour peak there are typically up to 5 trains on the tracks, with one train that is staffed and held in reserve in case it needs to be substituted in to replace a disabled train.

As railroads go SunRail is fairly simple. It has a pair of parallel tracks (along most of its route) and doesn’t have dozens of complicated branches like some major commuter lines, such as New York’s Long Island Railroad.

Yet SunRail tracks are busier than many riders may realize (one of the reasons their public-safety messaging is so important). The team at the SunRail operations center oversee track operations for four long-distance Amtrak trains that stop in Orlando and Winter Park every day, as well as Amtrak’s Auto Train that runs out of Sanford.

Even though the SunRail train doesn’t run on the weekends the operations center is staffed and operating 24/7 because the team manages all freight train traffic on the corridor.

While the freight trains don’t run during the peak SunRail rush hours, there are some freight movements during off peak hours, and lots of freight traffic on weekends and after midnight, which is one of the reasons SunRail has to clear the tracks before the clock strikes 12 on weekdays.

Even though SunRail southbound passenger service currently ends at Sand Lake Road, SunRail owns and manages the tracks all the way down to Poinciana – the southern edge of Osceola County.

Crews that maintain and repair SunRail tracks and signals also work out of the Sanford base. They coordinate their projects with the operations center to ensure work is done safely.

At the Sanford operations base the SunRail trains are cleaned, maintained and repaired. The SunRail customer service team that answer questions from riders, and other railroad managers are also based at that Sanford facility.

What we saw in Sanford was very impressive. SunRail is poised to grow. Poinciana and DeLand, here we come.

See you on The Rail.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Dump the pump, ride SunRail

Do you have a neighbor or coworker who’s been saying: “One of these days I’m going to try SunRail”?

Well tell them to stop yapping, and actually get on board.

This Thursday is National Dump the Pump Day, a fitting occasion to leave the car in the garage and to try out some transportation alternatives for a change.

We still have a very long way to go when it comes to alternative modes of transportation in Central Florida. But thanks to SunRail we now have more choices than ever – new bike lanes, vanpools in addition to Lynx and Votran buses.

Considering the congestion and construction on that linear parking lot called Interstate 4, now is a great time to check out mass transit.

The public bus systems and SunRail leave a lot to be desired in terms of frequency and connectivity, but they’ll never get better unless more of us start using them and demand more service.

Thursday is a great time to start by dumping the pump.

See you on The Rail.

No SunRail to July 4th celebration

Hoping to ride SunRail to the July 4th fireworks display at downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola Park? Forget about it.SunRail will be idle in the barn on July 4th while you’re fighting to get to the park and find a parking space for your car.Last year during a SunRail commission meeting Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer wondered aloud about using SunRail to help ease the nightmare traffic jams in downtown on July 4th. So recently we followed up to see if the city would use the community’s newest transportation alternative on July 4th.A city’s spokeswoman sent us this written response to our query: “The City of Orlando and FDOT staff have evaluated the possibility of providing SunRail service for the “Fireworks at the Fountain” event on Saturday, July 4, 2015.
“While the City is excited about all opportunities to increase SunRail service, following our evaluation, we are unable to commit to providing service for this year's July 4th event. “Several factors contributed to this decision including safety, availability and costs. Estimated attendance for the July 4th event is 120,000 people. The City's concerns included: total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian way finding and transport options between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability. “While the resources and logistics did not work out for this particular event, we believe that with additional time and planning, our efforts will result in the availability to provide service for future special events.”So we won’t see you on The Rail. Good luck at Lake Eola.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

SunRail thinking about adding more trains during the day

A top SunRail official said last week that staff members are considering ways to add more trains to off-peak hours during the day.

Tawny Olore, a Florida Department of Transportation engineer who serves as the SunRail project manager, briefly spoke about this topic during last week’s SunRail Technical Advisory Committee meeting.

Olore’s comment represents a change in philosophy for SunRail bosses. Last summer Orange County Mayor Theresa Jacobs brushed aside calls for weekend SunRail service. Jacobs, a SunRail commission member, said that SunRail is a commuter train and that’s why service is focused on the morning and evening rush hours.

Earlier this year Olore said that dramatic ridership spikes on Black Friday and for the Citrus Bowl game shows “the service really wants to be more of an urban rail than commuter rail.”

During day stations are empty because trains aren't running
Many people have complained that there aren’t enough SunRail trains between the morning and evening rush hour. After a 10 a.m. train departs from DeBary there is a 2-hour gap in southbound service, and a 2 1/2-hour gap after a 12:30 p.m. southbound train departs from DeBary. There are similar service gaps in northbound SunRail service.

Would-be riders traveling on business say they can’t afford to wait 2 hours for a SunRail train during the day so they opt to drive. Their driving compounds increasingly bad daytime traffic congestion on I-4 and other major and secondary roads throughout Central Florida.

Those fortunate enough to be able to use midday SunRail trains say coaches are full of people traveling on day trips to Winter Park and those with medical appointments at Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The need for midday train service is validated in a recent article by Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic CITYLAB that references the Commuting in America 2013 report showing that “commuting to the office only makes up about a third of all trips and trip mileage” on public transit buses and trains.

In City Observatory Daniel Hertz wrote: “Lots of people don’t work at all, and those people – largely students, the elderly, or people with disabilities – are disproportionately likely to use transit for all or almost all of their trips. Finally, plenty of people who do work might drive three or four days a week and take transit the other one or two…”

Wrapping up the CITYLAB article, Jaffe wrote: “The upshot here is that cities need transit systems that run frequently and reliably at all times of the day and on all days of the week. Trains and buses that run well Monday through Friday at rush-hour are great for typical commuters. But all-day service accommodates these folks as well as the unemployed, and the retired, and shift workers, and people who mix their mode of choices throughout the work week.”

Adding more SunRail trains during off-peak hours is more complicated than putting a pen to paper.

The biggest challenge is finding a scheduling sweet spot for off-peak hour trains that will get lots of use. Any additional SunRail trains will need to be scheduled around the long-distance Amtrak trains that use the SunRail tracks. Olore noted that adding more SunRail trains means less time available for maintenance of trains and tracks and spending more money on fuel and crews.

Despite these concerns SunRail is headed in the right direction by considering more off-peak-hour trains.

See you on The Rail.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Jazzy SunRail Friday

Friends let's groove to some smooth jazz (we're talking live music) and fun Friday at 7 p.m. at Lucy Bleuz Cafe, directly across from the the SunRail station at ORMC/Amtrak.

If you've never visited Lucy Bluez you're in for a treat because the food is chef prepared and they have an excellent list of wines and craft beers.

This is a great after work stop. There's a southbound SunRail train arriving at ORMC/Amtrak at 6:54 p.m. and the last northbound train departs at 10:10 p.m.