July 01--Two months after opening for business, the SunRail commuter train has added, then dropped, a third car to its most popular late afternoon run.
"When we saw that third car ... cheers went up," SunRail rider Alice Sproul wrote in an email last week after boarding an expanded SunRail train.
Train managers dropped the extra car -- at least temporarily -- Monday because they do not relish using equipment actually intended for 2016, when the route expands farther north into Volusia County and south in Osceola County, said SunRail spokesman Steve Olson.
Right now, SunRail has seven locomotives and 14 cars. Two of the engines and four of the cars are supposed to be held in reserve and put into regular use for Phase 2.
But the late-morning, mid-afternoon train going south from DeBary has been busy, resulting in that run becoming increasingly crowded as its makes the return trip north. It typically hits downtown Orlando after 4 p.m., when many commuters are beginning their treks home.
That's when Sproul usually gets on. The extra capacity, she said, allows people to catch a seat rather than standing in the aisles.
David Porter, who runs the passenger advocate website SunRailRiders.com, thinks the state is making a mistake by taking back the third car. "I think it's unfortunate. This thing is a winner. They should embrace it," he said.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, thinks he might have a solution for SunRail.
Back in 2007, when SunRail was in the planning stages, Mica secured about $25 million in federal grant money to purchase six self-propelled train cars known as diesel multiple units, or DMUs. They can run separately or together, depending on the need.
Mica expected the DMUs to become part of the SunRail system, but it failed to get the necessary approval of the Florida Legislature for two more years.
So, Mica had the DMUs shipped to the Tri-Rail commuter train system in South Florida. The agreement to use the cars expires at the end of the year.
"I don't want those six units sitting on a side track," he said.
Mica contends the DMUs should be relocated to SunRail, which would give the 31.5-mile operation extra capacity. With the DMUs, Mica said, SunRail could operate on weekends and during the night, instead of only on weekdays and mostly during the morning and evening rush hours, as it does now.
The problem would be how to pay for the extra hours. A one-way SunRail trip costs almost $2,500, end to end, or from DeBary in Volusia to Sand Lake Road in south Orange. The state pays for operating the trains until 2021, when local governments take over.
Olson said state officials have not had a chance to "analyze that concept." He added that Central Florida government agencies that are supposed to run SunRail in the future would have to be consulted, too.
But Mica said the time to expand is now because SunRail is averaging more than 4,200 riders a week, which is just short of the 4,300 originally envisioned. SunRail opened in May and was overrun with riders during the first two weeks, when no fares were charged.
The passenger count has steadily risen since riders have been paying, with Fridays typically carrying 5,000 to 6,000 people.
Most observers think SunRail ridership will increase even more next year, when a major six-year overhaul of Interstate 4 begins. The work, featuring the addition of four toll lanes along a 21-mile section through downtown, is expected to create major congestion.
"The proof is in the ridership numbers," Mica said. "It leads one to believe we should be ahead of the curve."
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