Less than a year from now, thousands of people will be boarding Florida’s new SunRail commuter rail service. The $1 billion, 61.5-mile system, being built by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), will provide commuters with an alternative to the highly congested Interstate 4, a major commuter arterial roadway, which parallels the rail line.
“It takes our customers downtown right where they want to go in the morning and drops them off where they live at the end of the day,” says Steve Olson, public information officer for FDOT’s District 5.
The 32-mile first phase of SunRail will serve 12 stations and link DeBary, in Volusia County, to Sand Lake Road, just south of Orlando. Service is expected to begin in 2014. Construction on Phase I of SunRail includes double-tracking, signal improvements, stations and an operations control center. The rail line, built on an existing freight rail corridor that traverses Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties, has put about 800 people to work, according to FDOT officials. Phase 2 will serve five additional stations, north to DeLand and south to Poinciana.
FDOT officials are careful to say that SunRail is not necessarily going to reduce congestion, because there is a high demand for north-south surface roads, which will be undergoing improvements in the coming years. “The region is continuing to grow, so there will be demand for these services,” Olson says. “Our thinking is to get people to rethink using their automobiles and use the SunRail trains and other forms of mass transit.
“We think SunRail will change the whole dynamic for mass transit in the region,” he adds. “It will have a huge impact as far as giving people choices.”
“The corridor has actually been looked at for decades within the Orlando area for use as passenger rail, because the communities have grown up around this rail line,” says Tawny Olore project manager for SunRail. “This line goes through the heart of metro Orlando as well as the suburbs to the north and south.”
It basically parallels Interstate 4, which is subject to a lot of congestion during rush hour. Further south, the line parallels a busy state road, Orange Avenue, which brings in traffic from southern Orlando and the Kissimmee/Osseola County.
Although the existing rail corridor is used by freight and Amtrak services, it will have to be improved for SunRail’s passenger service. The trains will be operating with push-pull technology, and to ensure on-time performance, most of the 61.5-mile corridor will be double tracked.
“We are putting new tracks next to existing and moving existing tracks over, and replacing it,” Olson says. “We are going through some of the existing infrastructure and upgrading it so it’s a smooth ride.”
SunRail will operate on weekdays, every half hour during three-hour windows in the morning and in the afternoon, and every two hours during off-peak periods. No freight will be allowed on the corridor during those peak travel periods. Olore says SunRail will also be in compliance with the positive train control mandate for 2015.
The capital cost for SunRail will also include a new state-of-the-art signal system for train operations and upgrades for the at-grade crossing warning system. In addition, upgrades to the at-grade crossing warning system will ensure that crossing gates aren’t down any longer than needed, Olore says.
The former CSXT right-of-way along this 61.5-mile stretch is currently used 24 hours a day, seven days a week by freight and Amtrak trains. On average there are 10 through-freight, 10 local freight switchers and up to six Amtrak trains operating on a typical day. Many of these trains are operated after 11 p.m. CSX Transportation's long-range business plans call for relocating up to nine through-freight trains over to the "S-line," which runs through the center of the state. Freight trains on the "A-Line," where SunRail will operate, will be scheduled outside of peak commute times.