Thursday, December 31, 2015

Heard enough excuses from SunRail managers?

Don’t know about you, but we’re tired of hearing excuses from SunRail managers.

·         Riders want weekend service.

·         Riders want to be able to take SunRail home late at night after they leave downtown Orlando events and clubs.

·         Riders want trains to run more frequently so they don’t have to wait 2 ½ hours between trains during off-peak hours.

SunRail managers have a hundred reasons why they can’t provide the service people want. And that’s why SunRail ridership remains well short of the more than 4,000 daily riders that was projected for the first year of service that began in May 2014.

Don’t wet your pants rail haters. It’s not that people don’t want to ride SunRail. The problem is that SunRail’s service is disappointing.

The public -- especially millennials – are becoming increasingly interested in mass transit. Yet the public transit available in Central Florida – SunRail, LYNX and Votran – is, well, half-assed. Sorry to be crude, but there’s no other way to describe Central Florida mass transit.

Let’s be honest. LYNX and Votran serves people who can’t afford a car. The amenities are few and the bus schedules are terrible. SunRail serves suits who work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Unlike Miami, Charlotte, N.C., San Francisco and many more, our public transit is wimpy and poorly coordinated.

SunRail is currently spending a fortune on consultants to figure out how to get more people to ride. The answer is not difficult to discover.

SunRail needs to take a page from Disney’s playbook. Disney works hard to understand what their fans want. And then guess what? Disney delivers what the fans want. That’s why Disney can charge hundreds of dollars for admission to their parks and happy fans line up to pay.

Time for the local elected officials who sit on the commission that oversees SunRail to step up their game and start asking sharper questions and demanding more from the FDOT managers who operate SunRail.

We expect our county, state and federal elected officials to do more to get the money needed to extend SunRail to DeLand and expand service hours. They really need to get busy and deliver because 2016 is an election for many of those officials.

Enough with the excuses. Central Florida is a 21st century world-class community. Give us the SunRail service we need and deserve.

What's up with bus service to the DeBary SunRail station?

How come you can’t catch a Votran bus in DeLand to the DeBary SunRail during the day?

DeBary SunRail
We put that question to Steve Sherrer, General Manager of Votran, and he explained that the DeBary SunRail station is served by three Votran Routes 31, 32 and 33. Click here for more information on those routes and their daily schedules.

All Votran feeder bus routes operate during morning and afternoon peak commute times.  There is currently no mid-day service.  It's important to note however that available funding does not allow each bus to meet each SunRail train at the DeBary station,” Sherrer wrote.

Our estimate is that it would cost an additional $1,486,000 annually for Votran routes 31, 32, & 33 to meet every SunRail train at the DeBary station.  This does not include the capital cost of the additional buses necessary to provide the service.  We would need six additional buses.  Buses cost approximately $500,000 each.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015

SUNRAIL FICTION: A Christmas story

“Merry Christmas, Perry!” chirped Rose, the always smiling front-desk receptionist.

“See ya. Rose,” Perry responded as he headed to the elevator. “Merry Christmas, indeed,” Perry’s sardonic inner voice said as he faced his first Christmas alone after Patty and the kids moved back to Boston.

The crowd on the elevator carried Perry through the ground-floor lobby and on to the Orange Avenue sidewalk. With the exception of Perry, almost everyone seemed in a hurry to get an early start on Christmas Eve.

Instinctively Perry checked his watch. The northbound SunRail train would arrive at Church Street in 15 minutes. He knew he would be would be there with time to spare. He was right, and the platform was crowded – mostly suits, some skateboard kids and a group of 20-something techies.

At the sight of the arriving train, the crowd groaned. “With a big crowd like this and the train only has two cars,” complained the usually smiley pixie blonde in the gray business suit. “I don’t believe them!” Perry could feel fellow commuters agree.

The crowd surged aboard the train. Many scampered upstairs, but Perry preferred the lower level. With no place to hold on in the crowded car, Perry balanced himself as the train rolled on. At Church Street the crowd shifted as a few people got off. But many others came aboard, including a young guy play rap music on his smartphone. No earbuds. Nice.

The suits, including Perry, looked at each other and shook their heads in disapproving of the way Smartphone flagrantly violated SunRail’s posted rules.

Perry forced himself to ignore the music and the automated voice announcing the stations as the train rolled on. By Longwood the crowd thinned out and Perry got a window seat on the right side of the train. He daydreamed about happier days on Christmas morning watching his kids eyes fill with excitement as they opened their gifts.

The daydream ended as the train lurched to a stop. After 5 minutes the conductor announced. “We are stopped due to a signal issue We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Five minutes later the conductor announced: “We are stopped due to a signal issue We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The conductor repeated the announcement four more times at 10-minute intervals. Perry’s fellow passengers were fed up.

“Gee whiz, tell us something new” groused the pixie blonde.

“I need to get home to get started with my cooking,” complained a plump grandmotherly woman whose gray hair had a weird green tint.

By now it was dark outside the train that was stopped opposite an abandoned cement plant.
Smartphone dude was now playing some classic NWA for all to hear.

A burly guy wearing a heavy canvas Carhartt working man’s jacket, looked directly at Smartphone dude. “Yo, bro, can you knock it off with that?”

Smartphone smirked, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Chill man, it’s just music.”
“You call that music,” Carhartt man shot back.

“That’s NWA, isn’t it?” Perry quickly chimed in as he could see the situation was headed for an angry confrontation.

“See my man here knows music,” Smartphone responded with a comfortable smile on his face.

“I grew up listening to NWA,” Perry admitted. “But I was wondering if you had anything on iTunes with a little more Christmas flava.’”

“Flava,” Smartphone, repeated as he mimicked Perry’s hip-hop pronunciation.

“Look,” Perry explained, “I don’t mean any trouble. It’s just that this is my first Christmas without my wife and kids….” Perry couldn’t believe that he just shared such personal information with these SunRail strangers. Tears started filling his eyes.

“You cool,” Smartphone replied. “I like me some Christmas music too. He fiddled with his phone for a moment and the next sound they all heard was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

By the last line of the song everyone in the train car realized they were singing along with the choir. What’s more, they hadn’t noticed that the train was moving again. Moments later the doors opened in Lake Mary. Nodding farewell to the other passengers Perry stepped off the train and walked down the platform to the ticket validator where he “tapped off.”

“Hey what’s your name?” Perry heard a voice behind him ask.

Perry turned to see Carhartt man. “My name is Perry.”

“Listen I heard you say something about spending Christmas alone.”

“Me and my big mouth,” Perry said with an embarrassed expression on my face.

“I remember when my Mom and Dad went through that,” Carhartt man said with understanding in his eyes. “It was a rough time for all of us….But listen, me and my family are having a big Christmas Eve get together. Sure wish you would join us.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much,” Perry said gulping back an audible sob.

“Merry Christmas,” Carhartt man said.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Know what SunRail and Star Wars have in common?

Pez dispenser

No doubt riders loved receiving the tchotchke. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a freebee?

But what business message was the Star Wars trinket intended to convey?

The Pez dispensers are perfect if SunRail is planning to zip riders from Sanford to Church Street aboard the Millennium Falcon. But we kind of doubt that’s going to happen.

By giving away Star Wars stuff, SunRail became hapless hucksters for the Disney marketing machine.

The only business message SunRail needs to push is: “Please ride SunRail.”

The squeezable toy trains and lanyards SunRail distributes at events make perfect business sense to get attention for the train service.

Granted the Star Wars stuff costs less than $5,000, but it was a wasteful spend that needlessly gives ammunition to the rail haters who love to stamp boondoggle on SunRail.

We vehemently disagree with the rail haters. We want SunRail to become one the nation’s top passenger rail operations. Star Wars isn’t going to get us there.

We need more service during the day, at night, and especially on the weekends. SunRail is not a toy. It’s serious business.

See you on The Rail.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Looks like SunRail got the wrong train

By Chris Carson
SunRailRiders Special Correspondent

A transit system’s success is often defined by its ridership. While creation of SunRail has prompted more than $1 billion in commercial and residential development near the train stations, ridership is lagging behind projections.

Many argue the ridership shortfall is due to the track routes. Realistically, though, the location of tracks cannot be changed. What can be changed, however, is the type of train SunRail runs on those tracks.

SunRail was doomed to fail from the start when measured in terms of ridership. This is because of the trains SunRail opted to use.

SunRail uses diesel-electric commuter locomotives that are very expensive to run and maintain. Each train has one locomotive pulling 2 or 3 unpowered passenger coaches.

Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) or Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains are better suited for SunRail service. In DMUs and EMUs the train’s propulsion motors are integrated into the passenger coaches so a train can operate as a single coach (needing no separate locomotive), or several coaches coupled together – depending on ridership demands.

Currently SunRail has 10 diesel locomotives and 20 passenger coaches. That rolling stock typically operates in a set with 1 locomotive and 2 passenger coaches – 10 trains. Converting SunRail’s rolling stock to DMUs or EMUs could triple the size of the train fleet.

More trains mean they run more frequently with shorter wait times. Research shows  frequent, reliable transit service is essential to attract “choice riders” – who opt to use the train instead of their private car.

A 15-minute wait for a train is acceptable to most people. Once that wait gets longer “choice riders” start thinking “I should have driven my car.”  Sadly, the wait time between some SunRail trains can be as long as 2 ½ hours.

Changing the SunRail trains won’t be cheap. However, over the long term, changing the train technology makes the most business sense for SunRail and the community.

How is this possible?

For starters, the increased frequency of trains will attract more riders whose time is limited and require fast, reliable service. More riders mean more fare revenue to help offset operating costs.

With increasing concern about climate change and the environment, it makes the most sense for SunRail to buy EMUs because they emit no fumes and run relatively quietly.

Changing to EMUs would require installing overhead cables to power the trains. A study by CalTran showed that train tracks could be electrified for roughly $4 million per mile, after purchasing new trains and selling off existing equipment. Long term the route could be retrofitted with solar, not only making SunRail service more sustainable but bringing down electricity costs to almost zero. In addition, the propulsion motor in an EMU is simpler than a fuel-burning engine in the existing diesel locomotives Simpler machinery also drastically reduces maintenance costs.

More efficient, reliable and frequent SunRail service will more fully integrate SunRail in Metro Orlando’s transit network. Currently LYNX has multiple bus routes that parallel the SunRail track corridor. Those LYNX buses currently run more frequently than SunRail. A robust SunRail would eliminate the need for duplicate LYNX routes. The buses could be re-directed to concentrate more service to communities that aren’t on the SunRail corridor.

At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to spend some money now to fix SunRail and ensure its long-term success? Or, do we let SunRail stay as is and watch it wither away?

Chris Carson is a University of Central Florida engineering student.

Train schedule change misses the mark

By Jeffery Morris
Chairman, SunRail Customer Advisory Committee
As we are all now aware, SunRail (aka the leaders at FDOT) has proposed a schedule change cancelling the #NightTrain, and substituting a southbound 1:00 p.m. train from DeBary. 

 With this change, they also intend to adjust the morning schedule forward by 15 minutes. This proposed change only offers a diversion from the problem of the gaps in service, as opposed to offering real solutions, and ignores recommendations of the Customer Advisory Committee (CAC).

When we learned about this schedule change at our last meeting, the CAC unanimously disapproved and renewed our prior recommendation to add a train an hour later at 2:00 p.m.  from DeBary, which would serve northbound afternoon commuters during the 3:00 hour.  To date, SunRail management has ignored our recommendation and signaled that they intend to push forward with a new schedule in late December.  This would be a mistake.
It is not difficult to see why it is necessary to add the train we have recommended and to close the afternoon service gaps.

The 7:00 a.m. train from DeBary and the 4:15 p.m. train from Sand Lake are the busiest trains. This is because these two trains comport best with the normal 8-hour shifts worked by commuters.

The 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. southbound trains do not have return trips any earlier than the 4:00 hour, which creates significant gaps between the end of a normal commuter’s shift and the first return trip home.  These gaps are clearly the biggest obstacle to increasing ridership in the service.  Commuters want to be able to leave work and go home when they done working, not one to two hours later!

Hopefully, SunRail will see that this as a problem worth fixing, even if it takes a very modest investment to do so.  Perhaps SunRail managers should ride a train and talk to commuters, including caregivers from Florida Hospital and Orlando Health.  The only consistent suggested improvement by anyone who rides these trains (or who would ride) as a commuter is that the SunRail needs to:
  • Offer a southbound morning train between 8:00 and 9:00;
  • Offer a northbound afternoon train during the 3:00 hour
  • Close the two-hour daytime schedule gaps.
One thing that has never been suggested: add an afternoon southbound train from DeBary at 1:00.

Out of 80,000 prospective riders in downtown, it appears that SunRail’s marketing efforts combined have only yielded a 7 percent (less than approximately 250 people per day) increase in ridership over last year. This isn’t because the marketing efforts are ineffective. It’s because the schedule of the service being marketed is poor.

The only way to improve the product is to improve the schedule.  SunRail managers explain that adding a train would require the hiring of an additional crew to run it, and that this would make any of the proposed changes that the CAC has proposed impractical.

However, one thing is certain:  SunRail owns enough equipment to give us the service we want.  SunRail wouldn’t need to spend millions on more equipment.  SunRail would only have to hire a crew.  The riders and prospective riders are worth the investment.  Fix the schedule so that the marketing experts and media companies to whom SunRail is paying significant sums have something worth selling.  Otherwise, suffer the lackluster ridership increases, and the cost overruns that will come with it.

Please help deliver the message to SunRail management that we don’t want the new schedule with the 1 p.m. train.  Contact FDOT and your respective elected-official representative on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission:

FDOT District 5: Noranne Downs –
Orlando: Buddy Dyer –
Orange County: Teresa Jacobs –
Seminole County: Carlton Henley –
Volusia County: Jason Davis –
Osceola County: Viviana Janer –

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mayor Jacobs: "We've got problems at SunRail"

We were surprised by Orange County Mayor Jacobs’ candid comments during the Orlando MetroPlan meeting regarding SunRail, so we asked her spokeswoman for further explanation.

What follows is the written statement sent by the spokeswoman:

Here is Mayor's quote about the consolidation of SunRail and LYNX:

"I absolutely think that SunRail and LYNX should eventually merge. They both need to work seamlessly together. So many of the people who use SunRail rely on LYNX to get to and from routes. That's because when you get off at a SunRail station you have to have access to a LYNX bus to get to your final destination. Ultimately, our mass transit system needs to be integrated for all users. The question now becomes when and how we get there and to have all funding partners on board, which will take time."

Also, just to put her statement during MetroPlan that you sent in context, Mayor Jacob’s remarks were made in response to what appeared to be an implication that SunRail was much better organized and managed than LYNX.   Mayor was just pointing out that both organizations, like many such entities, face both challenges and opportunities.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What's up with the broken ticket validators?

How come ticket validators are out of order at several SunRail stations? 

Funny you should ask because this question came up at December’s meeting of the elected officials who serve on the board overseeing SunRail operations.
The SunRail managers said the wiring “degraded” to the devices riders use to pay for their ride by “tapping on” and “tapping off” trains at the stations. They validators are awaiting repairs. Kind of disappointing that SunRail has been in operations for less than two years and some wiring is already degrading.
Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari wanted to know why in 2015 SunRail was relying on wires to carry data. He was surprised that SunRail -- like many major companies and most people’s homes -- hasn’t gone wireless.
Great points Comish!
SunRail managers said they’re looking into using wireless in the future.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What's happening behind closed doors at SunRail?

We thought we knew a lot about SunRail, but boy were we wrong, according to The Commuter Confidential, a new blog that emerged late Tuesday night.

SunRailRiders and David Porter Communications Inc. have no involvement in this new blog, nor do we know the authors though they called us on the phone to tell us about the website.

Clearly the authors of this blog are insiders – either FDOT employees or consultants. The allegations contained in the blog raise some troubling questions about SunRail business practices that may be undermining the commuter line’s prospects for long-term success.

Don’t take our word for it. Click here and judge The Commuter Confidential for yourself