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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Riding the Rails to Work

This morning I rode the new SunRail train to work. Our light rail commuter train just went into operation here in Orlando last week and for the next week or so is free. So why not try it? Right? If you have ever been to any major city with a great rail and bus system, you know the value of these types of system. For example, in New York City I’ve been able to get from the airports to downtown Manhattan and even get around town exclusively via the bus and train system. In Seattle, the light rail was able to get me from the airport to downtown where I was staying for less than $3.00. Taxi riders paid as much as $40. I even met a Microsoft employee who works in downtown Seattle who takes the light rail to and from work daily. So when they announced plans for a light rail in Orlando, I knew right from the start that I would have to try it.

Currently, each train only has two passenger cars, but each car has two levels. The lower level gets used mostly by people who bring their bikes to either get to the station from home or from the station to work. On the upper level seating is very comfortable and is arranged in groups of four seats. Some groups have a small table between them. The trains are very well lit. In fact, some people on the early morning train have asked if the lights could be dimmed so they could sleep, but that is not an option.

On the other hand, the trains all support free WiFi and even power outlets if you need them. So I pulled out my iPad and was able to get through both my work and personal email on the ride into work. You cannot do that in your car or at least you should not be doing that unless you are carpooling and someone else is driving. Another thing you cannot do in your car on the way to work is use the restroom facilities which you can do on the train (although I did not try that), but still, it is just one more reason to consider taking the train. Oh, and texting while you ride is definitely allowed on the train.

But the best reason to take the train was that: “There is no traffic!” One of the major corridors through Orlando from the north to the south is the multi-lane I-4. Even at 6 AM, the traffic can be quite heavy although it usually moves well unless there is an accident. In the evening, going home is significantly worse. But even when the traffic moves, you still have to contend with the Type A personality drivers who have hang onto your back bumper until they can find a small gap in the lane next to you to slip around and get a car or two ahead. And no longer will I have to worry about those crazy motorcyclists pulling wheelies at 65 mph going down the highway and weaving in between cars.

After the free period ends, the cost of riding the train will be $2.00 for a one way ticket plus $1.00 for every county you cross. However, there will also be round trip tickets, 7-day passes, 30-day passes, and even an annual pass. Discounts of 50% are offered to seniors, students, and disabled individuals. There is even an extra 10% bonus for buying a pre-paid card with $10 to $300 on it. You need to consider how much you spend on gas and wear and tear on your car. Maybe you even pay to park downtown. If most of your driving is to and from work, you may quality for a reduction in your car insurance by taking the train. But best of all you can arrive at work or at home at the end of day without having to deal with the stress of driving. And that last factor will only become more important when they start the new I-4 widening project later this year. Construction during the widening will make an already bad commute even worse in the interim. And for those environmentally conscious folks, every train rider is one less car on the road pumping out carbon dioxide.

Yes, I know that Orlando still does not have the infrastructure for public transportation like New York City, Philadelphia, London, and many other large cities, but this could be a step in the right direction. Kudos to Orlando for taking that step.

C’ya next time.

Light Rail in Orlando and Seattle

Recently our town of Orlando has started building stations for a new light rail system.  The first phase of the project will run from north of town to south of town going through downtown itself. On the north side, it runs through the very populated area of Maitland and Altamonte Springs.  That will be great for their commuters coming into town to work.  We do not live in that part of town.  We live southwest of Orlando close to the Universal Studios and International Drive area, a big tourist area to say the least.  But the light rail will not come anywhere near us.

In fact, the southern route of the light rail will not go to Disney.  It will not go to the airport.  It will not go to the Florida mall.  It will not go anywhere near the outlets.  It will not go to the Orange County Convention Center.  Sadly, it will not go anywhere near anything that might help tourists get around.

Why do I want the light rail to help tourists?  Well, for one reason, we were just in Seattle Washington about a month ago and we took advantage of the light rail system there to get from the airport to downtown Seattle where our hotel was located as well as the convention center.  At a cost of only $2.75 for a one-way ticket, it certainly beats the $30 taxi ride alternative.  Sure there were several stops between where we got on and where we got off, but only about 10.  Depending on the time of day and thus the traffic conditions, the 45-minute ride may have even been faster than a taxi.

The train cars were a bit older than since the light rail in Seattle has been around for a while, but they were still comfortable.  My only complaint/recommendation to them is that since the line goes to the airport, an area to place luggage might keep the aisles from being cluttered with people’s travel bags.  I even met a person on my ride back to the end of the conference going to the airport who works for the marketing department of a major company in the Seattle area.  He told me that he takes the light rail every day to and from work.  It is less stressful than driving into town and he does not have to pay to park his car in one of the parking garages in part compensating him for the cost of riding the rail.  He usually spends the time reading the news on his Windows Phone or reviewing work documents or doing email so that when he gets home, he has more free time for his family.

I know the local light rail in Orlando tried to save money by using the existing train tracks used and owned by freight carriers.  They made a deal with them for access during certain daylight hours while freight trains were routed around the western side of the county to avoid the downtown tracks.  I’m sure that saved a lot of money, but if the train does not go where it is convenient for users, they will not use it.  Originally, one of the alternatives was to have the tracks go down the center of I-4 to the International Drive area.  I don’t know if cost or other facts squashed that proposal, but the new line reminds me of a road we use to call ‘The Road to Nowhere’ in Reading Pennsylvania.  That road was built as part of a proposed by-pass around town, but funding stopped after only a small segment was built which essentially went,… well… nowhere.

To get to the nearest station for the Orlando light rail from my house would be about the same distance as I would need to drive downtown and in fact, the traffic to and from the station over the existing road would be involve more traffic and probably more time.  Even if they eventually added a line from that station that extended from the Orlando airport at one end to International Drive/Universal area at the other end, it would be inconvenient and more time consuming because of transferring between trains. (Sort of like the difference between direct flights between two cities and flights with one or more stops where you have to run from one end of the airport to the other to get to your connecting flight.)

I wish them luck and success, but unfortunately, I don’t think the southern end at least will be of much help to me.

C’ya next time.

Travelling Again … Unfortunately

For the second time in less than a month, I found myself flying to a different corner of the United States, this time the Northeast.  Ok, while Pennsylvania may not be in the far northeast corner of the country, it is still over 1000 miles away.  This time it was not for pleasure.  Rather it was for a death in the family.

Unfortunately, there no longer is a direct flight from Orlando, FL to Allentown, PA (Yes, the Allentown from the Billy Joel song).  So we had to make a stop in Charlotte, NC.   Actually, we felt quite lucky to grab tickets on Saturday for a flight the next morning.  It was sort of a coincidence that Charlotte is also the host city for next year’s PASS Summit.  Having just come back from this year’s PASS Summit in Seattle, WA, I suppose the coincidence only means something to me.

The flight to Allentown was uneventful.  We arrived in time to witness my wife’s father take his last breath at the hospital.  He had a massive coronary a few days before.  There was nothing the doctors could do.   It was a little surreal watching the monitors drop to zero understanding that every line on the monitor represented a different body function that was shutting down.  It was the first time I ever witnessed someone actually die.  I suppose that it is of some comfort that at an age of 83, he led a good and full life and died rather peacefully.  Still it is hard to get my head around the fact that he will no longer be there.  Perhaps our daughter, Natasha, said it best when she wrote and gave the following eulogy at the burial.

Say not in grief ‘He is no more.” But in thankfulness that he was.

Grandpa, on this day before Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the days I spent at your house before I was old enough to go to school, eating tomato soup and watching The Price Is Right.

I am thankful for every birthday that you flew down to Florida to celebrate with me bringing what seemed like an entire suitcase full of presents for us because you missed us so much.

You were a man of humble beginnings, but you always strived to better yourself.

You graduated from high school at a time when most people dropped out or were forced to go to work to support their families.

You inspired and supported your daughter and granddaughter to go to college.

We learned from you that you have to work hard to succeed in this world.

You will be with me in all the big events in my life, and even the small ones.  I will always remember going to the ATM with you as you wondered why English and Spanish were the only options and not Pennsylvania Dutch, and I will remember when I use a microwave your amazement of how that tiny box can cook food so fast.

So today, I say not in grief,  that he is no more, but in thankfulness that he was a part of my life and will always be in my heart.

We got back from Pennsylvania late Saturday night after repeated delays in our flight out of Allentown.  I wish the delays were something exciting like snow, but rather it was just some mechanical malfunctions that needed to be checked out.  On the other hand, we did get to see snow flurries on Saturday, something we had not seen in years due to living in Orlando, FL.  Maybe that was his final gift to us as we prepared to leave for home.

We will miss you Dad.

The 2012 PASS Summit, Flying, and More

Last week I was at the 2012 PASS Summit in Seattle WA.  It was everything that others told me it would be.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  Of course, the best part for me was the opportunity to give one of the sessions.  Even though it was the last session on the last day of the conference, it was still very well attended, and I was relieved that at least some people stayed around until the end to hear my talk.  I met lots of interesting people from around the world and hopefully, some of them will be joining me in my blogs or on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelpantonovich) over the next several weeks to see what else I have to say about DAX, PowerPivot, and the Tabular Model.  The bottom line is that I recommend any serious professional try to attend a major conference in his or her field of work at least once a year.  The networking and learning opportunities are well worth it.

Let’s talk about the flight now.  I’m not a fan of sitting in a long metal cylinder (soon to become carbon composites apparently according to the one ad on the flight), crushed between strangers sitting in a seat designed for 8-year olds.  I mean really, did they ever test these seats with people taller than 5’6”?  At 6’3” my knees are wedged into the back of the seat in front of me. Then the lady (and I use that term loosely) in front of me kept trying to push her seat back against my knees attempting to push my femur right through my pelvis and into the back of my seat, it was a painful five hours getting from Chicago to Seattle.  After getting there I almost could not walk and my legs nearly collapsed under me twice just trying to get out of the plane.

And whatever happened to food on cross-country flights?  I probably will date myself, but I remember the days when you got a hot meal with real metal utensils.  Now they cannot even afford to give you a bag of pretzels.  Well actually, Jet Blue still does.  By the way, to the person eating burritos and beans somewhere around me, take note for the next time that menu item is not a good choice for a sealed in environment.

My flight did not even have ‘free’ TV.  Not even network channels.  On the flights west, they had little 5 in screens (or at least that is the size they seemed to be) that folded down from the luggage rack that displayed DirectTV in color.  By color, I mean that each screen going up through the plane was a different hue.  And they were not even in front of each row of seats.  The one in front of me was about 4 rows up.  I would have needed a telescope to watch anything.  Coming back, the plane had 3” TV screens in the back of the seat in front of each person.  But again, they wanted $7.99 just to watch a few shows on DirectTV.  This was a red-eye flight back leaving Seattle at 10:50 PM so I don’t think they made much money on that flight.  Oh, by the way, Jet Blue still lets you watch basic programming for free.

And each flight I was on seemed to be overbooked.  Are there really that many people travelling or have they cut back on the number of flights?  I mean no wonder the airlines are losing money when they offer a bonus of $500.00 for a person to wait for a later flight (about 4 hours later) and get a free upgrade to first class on that later flight.

I guess it could have been worse.  I hear that Spirit charges up to $100 each way for each luggage bag.  When it costs more to send your luggage than yourself, how long will it be until people try to wear 10 changes of clothes on top of each other to avoid the luggage fees and then try to pull those seat belts around their 15 pairs of pants and actually snap the two ends together.

At one time, flying was elegant.  But no longer.  Now between the lines at TSA, boarding lines, and overbooked flights, it feels to me more like cattle on the way to slaughter or maybe waiting in a line for a 3-minute ride at one of our local theme parks.

Finally, I find it amusing when the crew says on your way off the plane.  “Thank you for flying with us and we hope to see you again.”  In the meantime, I am sure that we are all thinking, “Thank God I’m getting out of this box and can breathe real air again that won’t pop my eardrums.

Fortunately, next year the summit is in Charlotte, North Carolina.  If I get the opportunity to go (and I hope I do) It would be a bit of a long road trip, but I’m thinking maybe it would be better to just drive.

C’ya all next time.

Our 3-hour Drive

We just got back from a trip to Ft Lauderdale.  We left yesterday afternoon after getting home from work.  We were going down to Nova Southeastern, one of the schools Natasha is interested in attending.  She only had to be there this morning at 10:30, but we through going the night before would be more relaxing.  We were wrong.
 
We made hotel reservations for last night.  Since we left home at 4:30 PM, we figured that we would have no trouble getting there by 8:00 PM, get something to eat and relax a bit before going to sleep.  All was going well for the first hour of travel down the FL turnpike.  However, we notice that while there were vehicles on our side of the road, there was no traffic at all on the other side of the road.  In fact, we went a few minutes noticing that there was no traffic going the other way.  That was strange.
 
As we rounded a curve, we saw ahead why there was no traffic.
 
Up ahead was a plume of dark smoke.  We had seen the smoke before off to our left, but not knowing that the road was going to curve in that direction, we did not at first associate it with a problem on the road.  But as we rounded the bend, we could see that the road directly led to the smoke.  And not only that.  We could see flames shooting up from the roadway.
 
As we approached the scene, we could see that flames were spread quite widely over the roadway on the opposing side of the turnpike.  We had almost gotten to the site when police finally stopped traffic on our side of the road.  In fact, we were only about 5 cars from the front of what would soon grow into a hugh line several miles long.  We had almost made it past.
 
However, with the traffic stopped, we could do nothing.  It was raining, and when the smoke drifted in our direction, the smell of burned rubber and who knows what else filled the air made it almost choking to breathe.
 
We sat there for over two hours, but not before emergency vehicles tried to make there way through the backed up traffic forcing people to move to the side of the road to let them through.  Finally at a little after 7:15 PM, they finally let us go.  Apparently at least 2 tractor trailer trucks had an accident of some time and burned.  We heard from the one police officer that there were 4 trucks involved.  But as we passed, we could not really tell from the wreckage how many there really were.  These trucks burned down to nothing melting or burning most of the trailer portions until you could just see some of the side rib frames and bits and pieces of the sides that were left.
 
No sooner than we started to move than I notice a thumping sound coming from the back of the car.  The thumping got steadily worse and pulled over to the side of the road just a few miles from the accident scene.  We had a flat rear tire on the driver’s side.
 
Pulling off to the side of the road and/or passing the wreckage I must have picked something up in that tire.  It was pouring.  We were in the middle of nowhere.  It was miles in either direction to the nearest exit and there were no houses or building to be seen anywhere around us.  The only light other than passing vehicles was from a sign for an ‘adult’ store.But I had to try to get out and change the tire.  I don’t know if you ever tried to change a tire along the side of a busy highway with cars and trucks zipping along at about 70 mph or more trying to make up for lost time waiting for the prior accident to be cleaned up, but it is just a bit scary.
 
I got three of the lug nuts off the wheel, but could not get the last two off.  The power of the air guns that automotive shops use can apparently tighten the nuts so much that it is nearly impossible to get them off.  That along with the fact that the jack handle provided with a Buick LeSabre is a piece of crap!
 
So we called the ‘road rangers’ for assistance, but were told that due to the accident, they didn’t think they could get to us for several hours.  Similarly, a call to our insurance to get someone out there was rewarded with a similar comment that they could not get on the turnpike just south of us at Ft Pierce because all traffic was being diverted.
 
Finally we got someone from the turnpike service plaza about 30 miles back to the north of us to come down to help us.  So we sat in the car, in the rain, in the dark and waited for nearly an hour and half until someone showed up.  During that time, I could not easily get beyond the fear that someone would drift a little from the  right lane and smash into us at about 70 mph. 
 
Fortunately, the service truck had a tank of compressed air because our spare (donut) tire needed air.  Even if we had been able to get the other two lug nuts off, we were not going to go anywhere without that air.
 
Finally $100 later and 2 hours after stopping with the flat and 4 hours after getting stopped by the accident, we were on the road again. We made it to Ft Lauderdale without further difficulting, but we did not get there until a little after midnight.
 
The next morning we got up early to go to Nova University.  On the way, we stopped at a shopping center to grab a quick breakfast at McDonalds where we saw a Gemini tire store.  I thought I would stop to see if there was anything they could do. 
 
The guy from Gemini Tire examined our tire and told us that it could not simply be repaired (there was a hole from a nail or something) because there was damage to the side-wall of the tire.  However, rather than taking the opportunity to sell us a tire, he notices that the tire, a Michelein was of a type that is typically sold at ‘club’ stores.  In fact, we did get it at Costco.  He suggested that we take it there since it did not appear to be too old to see what they would do.
 
Because we were from out of town through we had no idea where we might find a Costco.  However, this wonderful man from Gemini Tire gave us directions to the nearest Costco which as fate would have it was only about a mile from Nova University next to a shopping center.
 
We attended the event at Nova and when it was over, we went to Costco to see what they could do.  There is no way to express my surprise when the service man at Costco’s tire department told me, ‘No problem.  We will either fix it or give you a new tire, no charge.’  I was shocked.  Unfortunately it was already afternoon so he told us that it would be about 3 hours until they would get to it.
 
We walked around the shopping center and when we got back three hours later, our car was just being finished.  They had to replace the tire with an identical new tire.  And yes, there was no charge.
 
Thanks to the both Gemini Tire and Costco, our disasterous trip turned out alright and we made it back home with no further adventure. 
By sharepointmike Posted in Travel