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.