FL: SunRail Starts Charging for Rides

May 19--The free ride for SunRail ends today, and the real test begins to see how many people will pay to use Central Florida's first commuter train.

SunRail debuted May 1 and didn't charge for its first 12 days. The freebies drew a lot of joy riders, which in turn led to crowded and delayed trains much of the time.

Alice Faye Sproul, for one, cannot to wait to pay the one-way base fare of $2.

"If paying would guarantee me a seat, I would pay twice as much to get one. Gladly," said Sproul, 67, who lives in Altamonte Springs and is a data bank manager at a downtown Orlando law firm.

Sproul was riding three days a week but took some time off from the trains, in part because of the crowds.

SunRail carried 134,850 passengers through Friday, an average of 11,237 riders a day. SunRail officials have said they hope to draw an average of 4,300 riders daily.

No one can say for sure how many people on SunRail have been commuters going to and from work versus those riding for fun or inquisitive about Metro Orlando's first fixed-rail mass-transit system. Estimates range from half to 65 percent of the total ridership being people out for fun.

Most agree that the early-morning trips are populated largely by commuters. Pleasure riders tend to jump on the rest of the time, especially during the late morning and into the late afternoon, when many are leaving work and heading home.

One potential problem facing riders today is how well the ticket machines function. Activated last week, the touch-screens were slow to respond. The Spanish language version of the instructions were not working last week and likely will not be this week, either.

"That's something we will get to," said SunRail spokesman Steve Olson.

People riding for amusement have so overwhelmed the system during what are supposed to be the off-peak hours that SunRail officials added a second so-called chase train to the only one that was supposed to be running. A third car was added to one of the trains, too.

But crowds have still packed the two trains in operation, leading to delays that can last well into the evening.

That causes "agony" for commuters, in Sproul's opinion.

"We have badly underestimated the attraction of the train. Everyone wants to ride it," she said.

It is not uncommon to see retirees and young families riding the trains when the schedule switches from every 30 minutes during the early morning to every two hours during the late morning and early afternoon. It returns to half-hour intervals during the evening peak hours.

Peter Bell, 67, who lives in Poinciana and used to work as a security guard, jumped on one recent afternoon, a couple of hours after the morning rush.

"I'm retired. I've learned to relax and enjoy life," said Bell, who boarded at the Sand Lake station in south Orange County -- the train's southernmost stop -- and rode to DeBary in Volusia County, the end of the 31.5-mile route.

Crowds have been so large at DeBary that Volusia officials opened two satellite parking lots in addition to the 275 spots next to the station. The Votran bus company shuttles people to the DeBary station.

Edward Toperzer, 83, a retired draftsman who lives in Deltona, has ridden round trip from DeBary to Sand Lake Road four times.

He called the trains "nice" and said he enjoys riding them but doubts he will get on them when SunRail conductors start checking fare cards.

"I have no reason to go down that way," Toperzer said.

Olson said officials who run the trains were happy to offer free rides, even if the system backed up every day as a result.

"All of these people helped pay for these trains. They are taxpayers," Olson said.

Like everyone else following SunRail, Olson said he is curious to see what the paid ridership ends up being.

"It will be an interesting day," Olson said.

Gary Huttmann, who rides into downtown Orlando from DeBary for his management job at MetroPlan Orlando, said, "It's kind of enjoyable to see the enthusiasm [of the pleasure riders]. But the on-time performance is being affected."

"I'm looking forward to it," Huttmann said of paying. "It's going to be nice."

dltracy@tribune.com or 407-420-5444407-420-5444

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