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More trains coming?

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A top SunRail official said last week that staff members are considering ways to add more trains to off-peak hours during the day.

Tawny Olore, a Florida Department of Transportation engineer who serves as the SunRail project manager, briefly spoke about this topic during last week’s SunRail Technical Advisory Committee meeting.

Olore’s comment represents a change in philosophy for SunRail bosses. Last summer Orange County Mayor Theresa Jacobs brushed aside calls for weekend SunRail service. Jacobs, a SunRail commission member, said that SunRail is a commuter train and that’s why service is focused on the morning and evening rush hours.

Earlier this year Olore said that dramatic ridership spikes on Black Friday and for the Citrus Bowl game shows “the service really wants to be more of an urban rail than commuter rail.”

Many people have complained that there aren’t enough SunRail trains between the morning and evening rush hours. After a 10 a.m. train departs from DeBary there is a 2-hour gap in southbound service, and a 2 1/2-hour gap after a 12:30 p.m. southbound train departs from DeBary. There are similar service gaps in northbound SunRail service.

Would-be riders traveling on business say they can’t afford to wait 2 hours for a SunRail train during the day so they opt to drive. Their driving compounds increasingly bad daytime traffic congestion on I-4 and other major and secondary roads throughout Central Florida.

Those fortunate enough to be able to use midday SunRail trains say coaches are full of people traveling on day trips to Winter Park and those with medical appointments at Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The need for midday train service is validated in a recent article by Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic CITYLAB that references the Commuting in America 2013 report showing that “commuting to the office only makes up about a third of all trips and trip mileage” on public transit buses and trains.

In City Observatory Daniel Hertz wrote: “Lots of people don’t work at all, and those people – largely students, the elderly, or people with disabilities – are disproportionately likely to use transit for all or almost all of their trips. Finally, plenty of people who do work might drive three or four days a week and take transit the other one or two…”

Wrapping up the CITYLAB article, Jaffe wrote: “The upshot here is that cities need transit systems that run frequently and reliably at all times of the day and on all days of the week. Trains and buses that run well Monday through Friday at rush-hour are great for typical commuters. But all-day service accommodates these folks as well as the unemployed, and the retired, and shift workers, and people who mix their mode choices throughout the work week.”

Adding more SunRail trains during off-peak hours is more complicated than putting a pen to paper.

The biggest challenge is finding a scheduling sweet spot for off-peak hour trains that will get lots of use. Any additional SunRail trains will need to be scheduled around the long-distance Amtrak trains that use the SunRail tracks. Olore noted that adding more SunRail trains means less time available for maintenance of trains and tracks and spending more money on fuel and crews.

Despite these concerns SunRail is headed in the right direction by considering more off-peak-hour trains.

See you on The Rail.