Commuter Train Hits Some Bumps in the Tracks


Two weeks ago I talked about my experience riding the Sun Rail train to work here in Orlando, FL.  I was willing to give them a pass on the overcrowded conditions on the way home at night because we all knew that many people were just ridding the train during it’s free trial period to see what it was like and they just needed to get home for supper just like the rest of us working people.

Well that minor bump proved to be true and ridership this week is far less than it was last week. In fact, a friend of mine who got on the 5:28 northbound train from downtown said that there was still plenty of room and was able to find a seat at one of the tables on the second level. That is far better than the previous week when it was standing room only as the train stopped at the downtown station. This drop off in riders was expected. Hopefully though the number of riders will sustain the operation of the train. At least for the first few years the train is being supported with government dollars. But to be successful in the long run, it has to be able to support itself through riders.

Another bump (or perhaps two) were accidents that occurred during the first two weeks of operation. The first accident occurred when a truck pulling a trailer failed to completely clear the tracks at a road crossing. As the northbound train pulled around a curve immediately before the intersection, the train engineer saw the trailer hanging over the tracks and attempted to stop the train. However, even small commuter trains can take some distance to bring to a complete stop and the train did hit the trailer. Fortunately, no one was injured, not in the truck or the train. However, it did cause delays for people getting home as the accident was investigated. Ultimately, it was released that the engineer did everything he could to bring the train to a stop, but you cannot always avoid an accident caused by people who don’t release how long their extended vehicle with trailer really is.

Then only yesterday, Monday, there was another incident on the northbound train. This time a car apparently stalled while sitting on the tracks. Fortunately the driver was able to exit the vehicle for it was totaled by the train. However, the driver was still taken to the hospital to be checked as she fainted after seeing her Lexus destroyed (or maybe she just faintly because she realized how narrowly she escaped. I don’t know why the car was stalled over the tracks but I will say one thing. I’ve often seen people stop over railroad tracks during the peak of rush hour traffic when the traffic ahead of them stops for a red light. I guess they just don’t want to leave a space between them and the car in front of them (over the tracks) because they know someone will pull around them to fill in that space. Maybe it is because many of the crossing arms have malfunctioned in the past and have come down even when there was no train that some people tend to ignore the potential danger. However, I hope these two incidents will start people thinking twice about stopping over the tracks.

Of course the timing of the gate arms is another issue. There is a YouTube video that shows the gate arm at one downtown crossing coming down just a couple of seconds before the train goes by. That may be too short a time. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a train stopped at a station which sits in a block between two downtown streets and the gates on both roads remained down for the duration of the time the train was at the station, even when it was stopped to let passengers off and on. This led to significant car backups until the gates reopened. It even caused problems with some of the bus schedules.

While the timing of the gate issues are something that will undoubtedly work themselves out over the next several months, I’m more concerned about educating people about safety around railroad crossings. It would seem like it should be a simple thing, but too many people are in a hurry. Maybe the tracks should be above ground while in the downtown area. (Florida cannot really support a subway due to its high groundwater levels.) However, the decision to go the ‘cheaper’ route of using the old freight train tracks during the day has resulted in more trains crossing intersections than before and thus more delays and more chances to ‘catch’ vehicles extended over the tracks. This will be a more difficult problem to resolve. Perhaps if the current system is successful, they will consider an elevated track the next time they plan an upgrade through downtown or when they add additional lines. This would allow the trains to run more frequently and carry more passengers while not inconveniencing drivers. More frequent trains and perhaps a few more lines like an east/west line might encourage greater usage as well. For many today, getting to one of the current train stations is almost as difficult as driving from home to work in the first place. Therefore, it may take a combination of factors to give us a transportation system that people will really want.

In any case, I hope these few bumps in the tracks do not discourage riders early on so that public transportation as a combination of better bus and train service could make getting around town without a car feasible.

C’ya next time.

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