You’ve Got Rail

Greg Dawson rides SunRail and finds lots of satisfied paying customers.

Raquel Chilson

Some people have a bucket list of things they hope to do before they die. I have a coffin list of things I’ve given up hope of seeing before I die, like Smell-O-Vision, a robot housekeeper, and an honorary college degree. 

I am thrilled to report I can cross one thing off my list: light rail in Orlando. I figured it was deader than Trigger, remembering how community leaders stared down the federal gift horse and refused free money for a system in the 1990s.

Even now, two months into regular service, the sight of a sleek, snub-nosed SunRail locomotive pulling into a station, with its sunburst logo and flowing yellow and orange lines, has a surreal, pinch-me quality. What’s next—the Coors Light Love Train?

As a happy mass-transit commuter in Boston (train), Indianapolis and Orlando (bus)
before retiring, I had high expectations for SunRail service but high anxiety about public response because of the relentless caterwauling of the naysayer chorus and its sour theme song, “Boondoggle!”

On a Sunday afternoon in late March when SunRail held an open house at the Sand Lake Road station to let people explore the parked train, I feared that only a few curious souls would show up. I was off by a thousand. The parking lot was so packed we had to park on a side street.

This was not an aberration but a harbinger. The trains were standing room only the first two weeks of operation in May when there was no charge. In the first two weeks after the free rides stopped, SunRail was still close to meeting its goal of 4,300 riders a day, which naysayers had mocked as delusional.

It seems no one, including SunRail planners, perceived the pent-up demand for light rail, not just as an alternative to slow-cooking in our cars on I-4, but as a way of rediscovering and reconnecting a fragmented community. Early on, the media seized on two non-fatal accidents at SunRail crossings in which the train was not at fault.

Make no mistake: The real train wreck is I-4. It’s a community killer that makes enemies—or at least adversaries—of us all. The better angels of our nature abandon us at rush hour. To the left, to the right, in the rearview mirror—grimaces, scowls and blank stares. No one makes a friend on I-4.

I made several on my first two rides on SunRail—once during, once after the freebie period. Most people want to connect with others. SunRail gives them a chance by placing many seats face-to-face across a tabletop. I met Kathleen Carr, 64, leading 43 day-trippers from Westview Baptist Church in Sanford, all in sky-blue shirts, all paying customers.

“This is the third time I’ve been on it,” said Kathleen’s husband, Rodger, 67. “Anything to keep me off I-4.”
For years he’s endured I-4 from Sanford to get his hair cut at a shop near Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive, then lunched at nearby Pho 88. Now, Rodger said, he plans to load his bike on SunRail for the trip downtown and pedal to his haircut and lunch.

Theresa Smith-Givens is a teacher at Bridge to Independence, a private school on Mercy Drive in west Orlando. She was shepherding 28 sixth-grade and high school students on a field trip to Winter Park. Mercy Drive is just seven miles but a world away from Park Avenue. Smith-Givens said none of the students had ever been there.

“I hope they’ll see that the world is a lot broader than what they see every day,” she said.

Many riders who caught the train at Sand Lake Road got off in Winter Park for lunch. The students had smoothies, sandwiches and pizza. My wife, Candy, and I headed for an old favorite, the Briarpatch. At the table next to us were Kathy Harris, 55, husband Chris, 54, and his sister Elizabeth Harris, 61. They drove from their homes in DeLand to DeBary and paid to ride the rails to Winter Park.

The last time she visited Winter Park was 20 years ago on Amtrak, Kathy Harris said. “I’m coming back next week.”

Our server, a young woman, said she and her 4-year-old son took SunRail to Lake Mary to visit her parents. “We’ll do it again; it’s worth it.”

After lunch we had time before the next train home to browse Park Avenue shops. At Kathmandu, which sells necklaces, bracelets, clothing, incense and other ’60s head-shop goods minus the drug paraphernalia, clerk Dawn Ashley said business was up 50 percent in the first weeks of SunRail.

We stopped in at the Morse Museum and were told that SunRail has brought an influx of first-time visitors, especially from outlying communities.

Cha-Ching. But lost in the cost-benefit number crunching is the higher incalculable benefit of SunRail. As Jerry Seinfeld once said in exasperation to George Costanza:

“We’re trying to have a civilization here!”

SunRail is a small foundational stone in a kinder, gentler civilization. With apologies to the O’Jays:

Tell all the folks in Maitland and Sanford, too 
Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board 
And let this train keep on riding, riding on through. 

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