By Jeffery Morris
Customer Advisory Committee, Chairman
At the most recent meeting, the SunRail Customer Advisory Committee unanimously recommended that SunRail offer an earlier northbound afternoon train from Sand Lake road to serve the needs of more passengers. Unfortunately, the CAC is only able to make recommendations to SunRail. It has no authority to require SunRail to implement the committee’s ideas, and SunRail has no obligation to listen. However, SunRail should take care to listen to passengers and this committee as advocates for the community and implement the changes that work to increase ridership, even if it gives them pain to do so.
There are a number of areas that can be improved with SunRail, including scheduling tweaks, direct airport service, and the offering of recreational weekend service (at least on a test basis). Obviously some of these areas for improvement are more difficult to accomplish than others, even for seasoned community leaders. For that reason, today’s focus is the low hanging fruit of strengthening core commuter ridership with schedule changes. The potential for change appears to be within reach with minor tweaks to the existing resources already held by SunRail.
The biggest problem with the existing schedule is that the earliest northbound afternoon train is at 4:15 p.m. This leaves out potential riders with early work shifts and others with family priorities. The daytime service gaps greater than one hour fail prospective riders who simply require flexibility. If we expect people to change their lifestyle and leave their cars behind and ride the train, we must provide them with an adaptable train schedule. The current schedule does not accomplish this and must be changed if a ridership increase is desired.
The scheduled times for northbound afternoon trains is out of sync with commuter work shifts starting any earlier than 8:00 a.m. A commuter who takes a train departing Debary at 6:30 a.m. arrives at Church Street at 7:21 a.m. This commuter’s eight hour shift would likely finish at 3:30 p.m. and he or she would have to wait 55 minutes for the first available train at 4:25 p.m. A 6:00 a.m. commuter would wait 85 minutes and a 5:30 a.m. commuter would wait nearly two hours for the first train home. If we expect to increase ridership, we need to provide a way home for early commuters. The current schedule doesn’t work for these riders, and should be changed by adding earlier afternoon trains to meet their needs.
The current schedule discourages working parents from riding. Lake Mary, Sanford, and, Debary all have trains arriving at their respective stations after 5:00 p.m., with Debary arriving the latest at 5:18 p.m. Single parents who need to pick their children up from daycare before 5:30 or 6:00 face monetary penalties for picking up their children late. The first train in for Lake Mary, Sanford, and Debary cuts it too close for these riders. If we want to serve working families who would benefit the most from the savings offered by commuter rail, we should change the schedule to serve them by offering, at a minimum, one or two earlier trains.
Finally, the schedule doesn’t work for people who simply require flexibility. After 8:00 a.m. there are two (or more) hour gaps between trains. These gaps are unappealing to commuters who would ride, but require flexibility, whether for family, work schedule, or other reasons. If you work a flexible schedule, or simply want to leave work, SunRail doesn’t work for you. No one wants to wait for two hours, plus the time it takes to ride the train to get home.
The solution is to offer afternoon trains beginning at 2:00 p.m. every half hour and trains at a minimum of every hour between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Without these changes, the service will continue to show less than expected ridership, devoid of meaningful growth. Marketing and advertising cannot fix this problem. However, marketing and advertising in combination with these schedule changes will most certainly yield a greater ridership.
Failure to meet ridership expectations is unacceptable, and we’ve invested too much to see this project fail. If SunRail doesn’t get a passenger count equal to or greater than the projected ridership expectations, when the local funding partners take over, the service could face reduction, or worse, termination. Let’s fix this now, before it’s too late.
Jeffery Morris is one of the daily SunRail riders selected to serve on the Customer Advisory Committee organized by SunRail managers.