May 02--SunRail was swamped with an estimated 10,000 riders on its inaugural runs Thursday, causing the commuter train to fall as much as an hour behind schedule much of the afternoon.
But most of the riders took the delays in stride.
"A lot of people are joy riding, and I will be glad when this settles down," said Dale Grieme, who lives in Volusia and works in Orlando. "But the train is top-notch."
SunRail officials say they will react more quickly today to move an extra train into service if the system is overrun again.
"If it's as busy ... we'll have to tweak the service, definitely," said Noranne Downs, who oversees SunRail for the Florida Department of Transportation.
SunRail expects to carry an average of 4,300 passengers daily, fewer than half the number who showed up Thursday.
SunRail ran mostly on time Thursday morning but fell behind when four of the five trains in operation were taken out of service as scheduled after the morning peak about 9 a.m. That's when SunRail officials expected the crowds to taper.
But people continued getting on the remaining train.
Many were just checking out SunRail because service is free until May 19. So they did not get off after a few stops. Instead, they rode the entire 31.5-mile route from DeBary in Volusia County to Sand Lake Road in south Orange County, then back again.
Among the joy riders was Brenda Colburn, who boarded the train in DeBary. Although she liked the train and said she would ride again, she scrapped plans for lunch at Church Street Station because of the crowds.
"We decided to stay on the train and go back," the 68-year-old said. "Some of the stations, they couldn't pick up [riders] because there were too many people."
By the time commuters were heading home in the evening, the trains were packed and still running behind schedule. Train cars designed to comfortably seat 300 were carrying 600 or more passengers.
The southbound train leaving the Lynx station at 4:18 p.m. was so crowded that it took several minutes to get people on and off.
Particularly challenged were disabled riders, and SunRail attendants tried with limited success to help them get through crowds and then to board or exit, using only a portable hand-carried ramp to connect the car to the station platform.
At the end of the line, Sand Lake Road Station, disabled retirees Joan and Skip Brainard struggled while trying to exit before help could arrive.
Joan, 65, managed to step down from the car but found herself in a deep well between the tracks and platform and could not climb it. Skip, using a walker, was determined to balance his way off the car and somehow onto the platform. After a couple of minutes of fruitless struggle, help finally arrived, and an attendant got them both onto the platform.
Yet like many of the riders, they were ready to dismiss the problems as first-day issues.
"You know, it's just bugs they have to work out," Skip said. "We enjoyed it."
SunRail did not catch up until midway through the evening peak, between 5 p.m. for southbound and 5:30 p.m. for northbound trains. The trains remained crowded well after 6 p.m.
Passengers throughout the day praised the train's amenities, including tables, power outlets, free Wi-Fi and space to stash a bike.
Dean Brewer, a retired Orange County teacher, hopped on the train in Sanford and secured a seat on SunRail's upper deck, a vantage point from which he could watch the faces of people coming onto the train at each stop.
"They have a sparkle in their eyes," Brewer said. "It's just like little kids coming and seeing all the gifts sitting under the tree [on Christmas]."
"What a difference than sitting in your car. Everybody's so excited and so friendly. And the cars," he said, looking around at SunRail's interior. "It's better than New York."
There were a few glitches.
An Orange County school bus was clipped by a crossing-guard arm at Princeton Street near the Florida Hospital Station about 8 a.m. The arm fell on the tracks and was run over by a northbound train, but no one was injured on the bus or SunRail.
In DeBary, the parking lot quickly filled, forcing some commuters to park on the grass next to U.S. Highway 17-92. Even at midafternoon, roughly 50 people were waiting for the train, prompting SunRail officials to hand out bottled water in the muggy, warm weather.
And the Lynx bus connections were not quite perfect. As the second southbound SunRail train eased to a stop at Sand Lake Road Station, on-time at 6:33 a.m., people looking out the windows could see the Lynx 111 bus pulling away from the bus stop just 20 yards away on the other side of the tracks.
"Are you kidding me?" said Karen Kremer of DeLand, who needed that bus connection to get to her job on John Young Parkway.
SunRail eventually expects to attract disgruntled motorists who commute on Interstate 4, which is about to undergo seven years of construction to add four toll lanes down the middle of the highway.
Staff writers Paul Brinkmann, Sara Clarke, Mike Lafferty, Scott Powers and Kevin Spear contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5444.
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