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:
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.