They don't come any more enthusiastic about public transportation than us, so we were thrilled when SunRail brought a commuter train to Central Florida.  There were many disappointments, such as learning that the engines are diesel instead of electric, and most especially with the schedule:  the trains do not run on the weekend.  During the week, the best frequency is every 30 minutes during rush hour, and midday the trains are one, two, or even three hours apart.  What's more, the last train leaves downtown Orlando at 9:30 at night, making it completely useless for anyone planning an evening in town.  This is not the way to win a very skeptical population to mass transit.  But, we figured, it's a start.  If SunRail can prove itself useful for commuters, perhaps it can grow into a real train for the rest of us.

On Friday we decided to check it out.  I adore train travel.  My life is full of positive emotional associations with trains, from commuting to my first job on the Philadelphia Main Line run, to a luxurious ride from Rochester, New York to Springfield, Massachusetts early in our marriage, to my unplanned "rest and recovery" trip from Florida to Connecticut on September 13, 2001, to the easy and relaxing tourist travel in cities at home and abroad.  I planned to love the experience, sitting with Porter and a friend at one of the table seats, watching the world pass by out the window.  It was a glorious day, too:  sunny and dry, with temperatures in the low 70's.

Alas, it was not to be.  Porter described our experience in his subsequent e-mail to SunRail:

Sun Railers,

Well, I need to rail against you concerning your system.

I decided to take my elderly neighbor for a ride on the system to introduce her to it, and get her familiar with it as she doesn't drive anymore and wanted someone to go with her the first time she used it so she would get familiar with the stops and how to use it.

I was appalled!

It is as though you didn't study any train systems anywhere in the world!

We tried to board at the Altamonte Springs station going south on the 10:53.  We picked this time as it was a middle-of-the-day train and we would not be competing with commuters for space.  No luck, the train was full, and there was no additional train coming; the next train would be 2 1/2 hours later.  I felt like I was back in 1869 waiting for the train to Promontory Point.

However, the unboardable train was just the icing on the cake.  Your design was clearly a disaster even before the train arrived.

There is a long, 40 yard unbroken stretch of mulched landscaping between the parking lot area and the seats and vending machines, drinking fountain and "tap post."  One must detour far left or far right to get around this barrier.  However, I am sure that the plantings near the "tap station"—which is in the middle of this landscaping—will be trampled soon enough.  The other two "tap stations" are only marginally closer to the actual places one is supposed to walk to enter or exit the station.

Where else is this brain dead "tap station" system in use?  I have used public transport in DC, Boston, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Atlanta, London, Zurich, Paris, Kofu, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Lucerne, Basel, and Bangkok—among other places, and never have I seen such an inconvenient method of egress.  [The way payment works is that you buy a ticket and "tap" it at one of three kiosks at the station, both before boarding the train and after disembarking.  I will be very interested in seeing the system in action sometime; what I envision is long lines at the kiosks and people forgetting to "tap off" or giving up in disgust.]

You have nice electronic signs that are capable of giving messages in multiple languages—but the messages shown were generic and mostly useless.  There was actually one that said the train that was coming was full—but it did not specify whether or not another train had been added to pick up the extra riders.  Also, the sign did not say when the train would actually arrive.  This is the 21st century—you don't even need sensors in the tracks to make this calculation; with GPS technology you could easily provide this information.

Your connection with Lynx [our bus system] didn't work out.  The bus arrived about 2 minutes before the scheduled time of arrival of the train—however, it just looped the lot and left before the train actually arrived.  We waited about five or six minutes after the train arrived to see if enough people would exit so we could board.  Then it took us another five minutes to return to our car as we had our elderly neighbor with us.  In all this time no other Lynx bus arrived.  So, for those folks who did exit from the train, they had no bus to connect with.

When the door on the train opened (yes, singular door, all the doors did not open simultaneously to let people disembark, but rather one at a time, opened by hand, from the outside, by a conductor with a key) it was clear that the architects had muffed the egress design yet again.  There are two LARGE steps that need to be negotiated.  With all the time that you had to design this, there is no excuse for not having a level surface where train car floor matches the height of the train platform.  Even Bangkok's system does this.  The last one I was on that did not was Dacca, Bangladesh, 1974.  Don't tell me you went there to get the latest ideas for mass transit.

I had so hoped that you would succeed.  I hoped that you would be so successful that you could grow from simply commuter rail to real public transport usable at anytime for people to get into and out of Orlando.  But with all the avoidable mistakes you have made—obvious with just one visit to your system—I think you are doomed.

I was at least as upset as he was, though I still retain hope.  No trip that got us outside on such a beautiful day can be said to have been wasted; my sorrow and anger were because so many people here have no use for public transit, and I had so hoped SunRail would win some (many) converts.  But public transit must be reliable if it is to succeed.  We didn't hang around or return later to try another train because we didn't want to risk being stranded downtown and having to take an expensive taxi home.  Who is going to risk being that late for work?

The SunRail news is not all bad.  Businesses near the train stations have been thrilled to see their customer base expand significantly.  SunRail is working to iron out kinks and amend their mistakes.  It's just such a shame we are all so bad at learning from other people's mistakes—and more importantly, from their successes.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Edit
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Egad! That sounds terrible.

(First, let me say that I thought "tap post" was where you could fill up your water bottle).

Are you telling me you could be trapped in the train because the door is locked from the outside? Can people get off if there is an accident?

Were there any people working in the station? I know in Boston, we country bumpkins have been rescued a couple of times by MBTA workers who show us how to use the machines.

When I worked for the company with the big red umbrella, I started taking the express bus into Hartford. It was great, I got on at a commuter lot and got off right in front of my building. I would consider using it now, but I am afraid of embarrassing myself (this is what prevents me from doing many things). When I was at work, I had a monthly pass, that I think a machine read, but I am not sure. Now, I would have to have exact change and figure out how to pay once I got on.

The bus also has a stop at the end of my street, but I've never had to signal a bus to stop, I always went to a parking lot where it automatically stopped. I am sure once I rode once or twice, it would be no big deal. It's the first time that prevents me.

No bus service on weekends, but free parking at the state office buildings which are near the symphony.

Posted by dstb on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Because the system is so new, there were plenty of employees there at the station to help. How long that will last I don't know. And I really don't know about the door situation. There's no way in the world they could run a train you couldn't exit in an emergency. My (uneducated) guess is that the doors will normally open automatically and simultaneously, but they were doing them manually, one at a time, because they were only letting passengers on to replace those exiting. Still, it was bizarre, and certainly unsustainable as a general practice.

You weren't as far off as you think. At least one of the "tap posts" has a drinking fountain next to it. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 2:34 pm

The tap post doesn't sound all bad - it reminds me of the Suica in Tokyo, which works like a wallet of sorts and gets charged every time you disembark. The big problem seems to be managing the flow of commuters. In Tokyo, the "tap posts" are at wickets at the exits and entrances; here, they seem to be placed at random points - out of the way, rather than where people must pass anyway. The Tokyo system also allows for paper tickets: same wickets, with a slot for the ticket, and the ticket machines near the entrances. I do hope SunRail improves!

Posted by Stephan on Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 11:51 am

Wait a second ... something run by the government doesn't work right? You don't say ... LOL

The word that comes to mind is "boondoggle". I hope I'm wrong, but when the newness wears off, and in a few months when the rates go up, will people still use it?

Posted by William on Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Aye, Bill, that's the question: will enough people still use it when they have to pay. It's not a boondoggle; it's a much-needed first step. But it's hard to get over the social barrier of a widespread attitude that public transit is for losers. An inconvenient and unreliable system will only attract those who have no choice, perpetuating the stigma. We need to get to a tipping point, where people feel confident that the majority of their fellow passengers will not have extreme body odor problems and mental health issues. I'm grateful for Orlando's bus system, and I use it, but it can be an adventure. That will only happen when they can also feel confident that the train will get them where they need to go on time.

It can be done, and done well—yes, even by the government. It makes me pose the same question I did to those who brought us our national health care: Did you actually study places with systems that work well?

I think SunRail still has a lot of good potential, and I'm confident they'll work out most of the kinks over time. What I think they underestimated is the importance of making a really, really good first impression.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, May 19, 2014 at 7:30 am

Well, the reasons why I think it's a boondoggle in the making are:

1. It doesn't "go" enough places, and the places it does go to don't have enough transfer options to finish me to my trip. When I get to the end of the train run, how do I then get to my final destination? As you stated, the buses aren't synced.

2. Not dependable. Let's say I use the train for work. As you stated, it comes in full. I'm now late for work because I have to wait for the next train. That only has to happen ONCE and that person will immediately be turned off. Add into that the very limited hours, and the lack of use on the weekends ...

3. (small concern for most, but a big one for me) No weapons allowed. I am my own security. If I can't carry concealed on the train, I won't use the train. This isn't as small a concern as you think. There are over a million concealed weapon permits issued in Florida. That's roughly one in twelve adults.

4. Cost. It's GOING to go up. No doubt about it. This cheap introductory rate will not last. This rail system cost a lot of money, and over the years it's going to cost a lot more. It's better than the idea for one to Tampa, or Miami, but it's still going to be a huge drain on resources.

5. Thia is NOT a tight urban area where mass transit could work and work well. Central Florida is too spread out to make mass transit cost effective, in my opinion.

I HOPE it works, but past experience with government tells me it's another boondoggle. Your comments that they didn't even bother emulating what worked and what didn't in other cities shows me I'm probably going to be right.

Posted by William on Monday, May 19, 2014 at 7:46 am

The real test will be when people have to pay to ride (starting today). I don't see it very useful until they add weekends, at least for me.

Posted by Patti on Monday, May 19, 2014 at 8:50 am

I agree with most of our points, Bill, even the no weapons allowed rule. It's ridiculous to allow concealed carry on both ends but not for the ride. I hadn't realized that was a restriction, and I can see it being a deal breaker for many people. If the Swiss weren't allowed to carry their knives on their public transport, I think their whole, wonderful system would come tumbling down! It's also ridiculous that they don't allow food on the trains. All those nice tables and you can't enjoy your breakfast?

It's true the current rates are low, but I strongly believe that public transit is a community value that deserves to be subsidized. This will be a very unpopular suggestion, but if I could I'd have a "local-option" gas tax that helped pay for public transit. This would have the twin benefits of raising money for public transit and of discouraging car travel. Much as I hate to see the price at the pump rise, we really pay very little to fill our tanks. Someday, we will be very glad to have a good public transportation system, but we're never going to get it while car travel is so cheap.

It is certainly harder when we are so spread out. It's a 30-minute walk from our house to the nearest bus stop! We need a lot more than one train; we need other dependable transit infrastructure, also. And I think trains to Miami and Tampa—not to mention the Orlando airport!— would be great. But you have to start somewhere, and I think the SunRail train is a good start, or at least could be, if they fix their problems quickly.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, May 19, 2014 at 9:25 am

Right, Patti. I think many people will be willing to pay, especially getting from the outskirts into Winter Park or Orlando. We'd rather drive to the Altamonte Springs station (which is almost to Casselberry for us), parking in the free lot, and pay the train fare to go to downtown events. It's well worth it to avoid the hassle and/or high fees of parking downtown. But, of course, the trains do not yet run at times that would be of any use for most events.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, May 19, 2014 at 9:31 am