Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Goodbye to ticket machines?

Everybody we know hates those SunRail ticket vending machines because they are so slow and unreliable. But there may be good news right around the corner.

SunRail CEO Nicola Liquori told us that her team is exploring on a mobile payment app that would let people bypass the vending machines and pay for their tickets through their smart phones.

What makes this news particularly sweet is that SunRail is working on this project in conjunction with Lynx – our local public bus service.

Last year our sister blog reported that Lynx was working on a high-tech solution for passengers to pay their fares. Click here to see that report.

We’re particularly happy to see SunRail and Lynx working together because public transportation needs to be a seamless system.

Hopefully one day Lynx and SunRail will be merged into one transportation agency. Meanwhile we’re hoping SunRail will learn some important customer service lessons from Lynx. Lynx isn’t perfect, but it tends to be more customer oriented than SunRail.

On a daily basis, Lynx carries 100,000 more people than SunRail.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

DeLand SunRail looks like it's DOA

Hate to write this, but it looks like DeLand SunRail extension is dead. Or least it’s probably dead for the next 4 to 8 years.

Artist mock-up of  DeLand SunRail
We have strongly advocated for that rail extension to the Volusia County seat as that train service was promised as a key part of the SunRail project. The problem has been getting the money needed for the extension.

The Florida Department of Transportation that runs SunRail hoped to get about half of the $70 million it would cost to extend the train service through Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants offered through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Competition for those grants is very tough. So far SunRail hasn’t landed the money it needs.

As you can imagine, Volusia County leaders have been very frustrated by the delays. Currently DeBary hosts the only SunRail station in Volusia.

Now comes word through TransitWire that the Trump Administration plans to cut $449 million from the TIGER grant program. Ouch!

Without the money, the DeLand extension is out of gas. That’s a shame because DeLand SunRail not only improves Central Florida’s transportation network but it also expands economic, educational, employment, cultural and recreation opportunities for thousands of people living along the track corridor.

If we can’t extend SunRail to DeLand, you can forget about riding SunRail to Daytona Beach.

Guess we won't be seeing you on The Rail in DeLand.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

SunRail shows us what urban rail is like

On Saturday, March 18th, SunRail made history.

For that one day SunRail operated like a big-city urban train service, just like they have in South Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago and other vibrant metropolitan areas across the nation.

Crowded SunRail coach
Many of us have grown frustrated with SunRail’s inconvenient Monday to Friday bankers’-hours schedule that has nearly 3-hour gaps between some trains in the middle of the day.

On this past Saturday – thanks to special funding by a public-private partnership – SunRail ran on an hourly basis from 10 a.m. through 11 p.m. Service wrapped up in DeBary at 1:15 on Sunday morning.

There was so much happening in cities along the rail corridor on Saturday, it was a blessing that SunRail service was provided.

And trains were packed.

The FDOT officials who manage SunRail reported there were 12,842 boardings. Most SunRail passengers ride roundtrip so you should divide the number of boardings by 2 to see the actual number of riders.

The number of people who rode on Saturday is nearly 4 times the number who ride on a regular weekday.

And check this out!

During the week SunRail runs 36 trains. On Saturday, SunRail ran 28 trains. In other words, they ran 8 fewer trains and carried 4 times the number of riders.


It just goes to show: Run the train on a convenient schedule and people will ride.

This is the kind of train service Central Floridians have been begging for since SunRail launched in 2014.

Admittedly for the past few months we’ve been pessimistic about SunRail’s chance of long-term survival. Saturday gave us hope.

Many folks we encountered on the train were riding for the first time. They were impressed and glad they didn’t have to worry about driving on I-4 or finding parking at their destination in Winter Park, or downtown Orlando.

Regrettably, Saturday was a one-time deal that was privately funded. SunRail doesn’t have money in its budget for weekends or late-night service. In other words, don’t look for a SunRail train this coming weekend.

The elected officials who serve on the SunRail Commission say after SunRail completes its rail connection to Orlando International Airport they’ll have to offer 7-day service.

That airport connection is not happening anytime soon.

The airport link hasn’t been designed, approved or funded.

The most non-partisan way we can say this is: At this point, no one can predict what federal dollars might be available from the Trump administration for the airport link. (Thank goodness there already is Lynx bus service between the airport and the Sand Lake Road SunRail station.)

And oh, yeah, state dollars to operate SunRail will run out in 2021.

So, friends, what do you want our local leaders to do to keep the good times rolling on SunRail?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Impressive ridership on Saturday

Saturday SunRail numbers are in and the results are very impressive.

FDOT reports there were 12,842 boardings on Saturday. No doubt most people already guessed that because there was standing-room-only on so many trains.
Riders boarding in Winter Park

Boardings and riders aren’t the same.  SunRail counts every time someone gets on a train as a boarding. Most riders take the train round trip so to figure out how many people rode the train, you have divide the number of boardings by two.

Still, that ridership number is VERY impressive when you consider that typically during Sunrail’s normal Monday to Friday operation, the trains typically have 3,400 boardings.

Why can’t SunRail offer service like that every weekend?

Because they don’t have money in the budget for weekend, or late-night service.

Because there were a host of major activities – from the art festival in Winter Park to sporting events in downtown Orlando -- this past Saturday’s service was privately paid for by business and public entities.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ticket machine meltdown - already!

Be ready to wrestle with the ticket vending machines today at your local SunRail station.

As of 11 on Saturday morning we were getting reports of machine failures at the Longwood station. So, we were told that many people didn’t pay to ride. They’re not fair-beaters. They want to pay, but the machines won’t take their money.

We are not surprised.

And if these problems are occurring at Longwood, it’s a pretty good bet problems are happening elsewhere in the system.

Back a couple of Sundays ago, when SunRail was running to support the first match at the Orlando Lions new stadium, we witnessed and experienced ticket machine problems in Maitland.

We had to use the machines on both sides of the track and change credit cards a couple of times until we could get the machines to dispense a ticket. And we know how to use the machines. Many people at the station were first-time riders.

When we tried to report the problem to SunRail customer service, guess what? There was nobody home. Customer service is only open Monday to Friday during the normal SunRail revenue service hours. Though you would think someone would always be on duty whenever the trains are operating.

But see, here’s the thing. The problems with these ticket vending machines go back to the beginning of SunRail revenue service in 2014. Yeah, that’s right, 2014.

Is the problem that difficult to fix?

Difficult to understand why we haven’t fired the vending machine vendor.

In addition, we were flabbergasted to learn that the vending machines rely on cables to communicate ticket transactions.

Cables? In a wireless world?

Every food truck in central Florida uses a wireless system to handle transactions quickly.

But not SunRail.

Go figure.

Today if you run into problems trying to board the train, please tell the train conductor.
Hopefully the conductors will report the problem and allow those folks to ride. We have been told conductors have been allowing folks to board when there are machine problems. But the conductors are asking riders to buy a ticket when they get off. 

Hopefully the ticket machines are working better at the destination station.

Monday, March 13, 2017

SunRail will roll for Winter Park art festival

Before you even ask – yes SunRail will be running this Saturday for the Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival.
We’re certainly grateful that rail service will be offered, because under the best circumstances parking in downtown Winter Park is a huge challenge.
Finding an inexpensive, convenient parking space during the art festival is next to impossible.
The first Winter Park bound train will roll out of DeBary at 10 a.m. and the first from Sand Lake Road will be at 11:15 a.m.
During the day SunRail will be departing at hourly intervals. Train service ends 1:15 a.m. Sunday, so this is a great opportunity for a date night including a ride on SunRail.
For more details, check the SunRail website.
Much as we love Winter Park and the art festival we’re duty bound to tell you there are lots of other events and destinations on the SunRail corridor worth checking out this Saturday including:
Sanford -- Sanford Art Walk, starting at 6 p.m. Call 407-948-2711 for free shuttle van service to historic downtown Sanford.
Lake Mary -- Lake Mary Farmers Market, plus shopping and restaurants.
Longwood – Farmers and artisan market until 1 p.m.
Winter Park – In addition to the art festival, leave some time to visit the Morse Museum and the beautiful Rollins College campus.
Florida Hospital – Orlando Science Center, the Orlando Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Art, Ivanhoe Village shopping and restaurants.
Lynx Central Station – Orlando Philharmonic plays Tchaikovsky at the Bob Carr Theatre.
Church Street – NCAA March Madness at Amway Centre; Orlando City plays Philadelphia Union at Orlando City Stadium, 7:30 p.m.; the Orange County History Center; the Orange County Public Library, and Lake Eola Park.
Much to our frustration, SunRail doesn’t usually run on the weekends. This Saturday service is being underwritten by a public-private partnership, but regular fares apply.
While ridership has been soft during some past special weekend SunRail operations, we’re optimistic it will be better this week because there are so many events on Saturday.
Also, we’re glad that SunRail got the word out early enough so more people can plan to use the train.
We hope SunRail is ready this time. A couple of weeks ago, when we used train service for the opening match at the new soccer stadium the ticket vending machines in Maitland kept malfunctioning.

Hope to see you on The Rail.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How good are SunRail ridership stats?

In a post on the Facebook page, rider Mark Smith raised very serious questions regarding the validity of passenger count information from SunRail. The numbers are frequently disappointingly low. What if the ridership stats are wrong?
Hardworking SunRail conductor
Smith wrote: “I'm concerned that the numbers just aren't accurate. I've taken SunRail for special events, including yesterday, and no one checks anything. I'm referring to SunRail staff. No one checks my ticket or even pays any attention. Even on a normal day no one checks my ticket so how do they really know who actually rides? I see lots of people not tapping on or off and there were no ambassadors to help. Again, I just wonder how SunRail thinks the numbers are accurate.”
We’ve previously asked FDOT how they come up with the numbers. They told us that they rely on a head count provided by the conductor. FDOT says they run an audit that shows the conductor count is 90 percent accurate.
In the high-tech 21st Century that seems, sort of….well, loose.
What if we’ve been getting low ball ridership numbers?
Now we certainly don’t mean to rat out the conductors because they work very hard. It’s got to be difficult for them to open the train doors, handle their safety responsibilities, answer rider questions, count heads and check tickets. Some stations along the route are only a few minutes apart when doors have to be opened.
On Tri-Rail -- SunRail’s older sister commuter train that serves south Florida -- the conductor focuses on train operations and the tickets are checked by the armed guard who rides on every train.
That guard solution probably is not financially feasible for SunRail at this time, but click here for details on technology that would make the conductor’s job a little easier and increase the confidence and accuracy of the ridership numbers.

Meanwhile we’ll ask FDOT again why they think their ridership numbers are accurate.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Take advantage of SunRail today

Just because you aren’t attending the opening match at the new soccer stadium doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advantage of SunRail service today.
No doubt most people riders will be getting off at SunRail’s Church Street station to walk a couple of blocks over to the stadium. But the train will complete its entire route between DeBary and Sand Lake Road.
This means everyone has a chance today, not just to ride SunRail, but to experience a variety of attractions and activities Central Florida offers adjacent to the railroad track corridor..
Church Street Station in downtown Orlando also speaks for itself. We’re betting that will be crowded with soccer fans so unless you’re going to the match we’d leave that for another afternoon or evening.
Here are a few SunRail destinations worth exploring:
Winter Park
City is holding its annual St. Patrick's Day parade this afternoon so this is a great way to avoid the crazy traffic and non-existent parking by taking the train.
Also, check out the Morse Museum, just 5 minutes from the SunRail station.
Gemini Springs Park is a nice bike ride from the SunRail station. It’s a nice location for a picnic or a nature walk. Don’t forget you can bring your bicycle with you on SunRail.

Lake Mary
Lake Mary
Downtown Lake Mary is a 5-minute walk from the station. There you’ll find the very relaxing park at City Hall and a variety of restaurants and shops.

Florida Hospital
This station in the heart of the Florida Hospital campus is a five-minute walk from Loch Haven Park.
Loch Haven Park is the home of:
  • The Orlando Science Center. If you have a Bank of America of Merrill Lynch card you can get in free this Sunday.
  • The Orlando Museum of Art. If you have a Bank of America of Merrill Lynch card you can get in free this Sunday.
  • The Mennello Museum of American Art. If you have a Bank of America of Merrill Lynch card you can get in free this Sunday.

In case you weren’t aware, SunRail doesn’t usually run on the weekends. The train service today is being paid for by private groups to support the opening game at the new soccer stadium. However, regular train fares apply.
Ticket validator
The ticket vending machines are supposed to accept cash, but that can be iffy. Best to bring your plastic. Once you get your ticket, be sure to use it to tap on at the yellow ticket validators. Once you reach your stop, it’s important to tap off.
For today’s special train schedule, please visit SunRail’s website for the departure time from your local station. Also, be sure to check what time you need to catch the train back to your home station.
SunRail doesn’t wait, so don’t be late.


Orlando City kicks off with SunRail

Yes, it’s true. SunRail will run THIS Sunday (March 5).
This special train service is being offered to support the first Orlando City Soccer match at the team’s new stadium on Church Street.
New stadium
The match is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., but the first SunRail train is set to depart DeBary at 1:30 p.m. The first northbound train leaves Sand Lake Road at 3 p.m.
The train will run at hourly intervals until game time. Please note that this service is being privately funded because much to our regret, SunRail does not usually run on the weekends.
Though the service is being privately funded, regular SunRail fares will apply on Sunday, and it’s advisable that you get to your local train service early because it’s likely there will be long lines at the automated ticket machines. Best if you use a debit or credit card because the cash ticket vending can be wonky.
Newbie riders, please note that the southbound Church Street station is on South Street.
When you get off the train, turn right to head toward Church Street. Don’t forget to tap off with your ticket. There are three ticket validators in the station so if you see a big line, just go to the next one.
You can get to Church Street by turning left when you leave the station. Walk down to Garland Avenue (parallel to Interstate 4) turn right walk one block to Church Street, pass under the interstate and you’ll see the stadium just a couple of blocks ahead of you.
Enjoy your walk. Don’t forget the last northbound SunRail train is scheduled to leave Church Street at 9:10 p.m.