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.

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