By Erika Webb
It's never a good idea to tarry in close proximity to railroad tracks, but the Florida Department of Transportation is advising the use of even more caution than usual as it begins to test some new vehicles.
"With SunRail service just around the corner, you'll be seeing a lot more of our sleek new SunRail trains running the rails in your community," according to a Dec. 9 news release from FDOT spokesman Steve Olson.
With SunRail service set to begin next May, FDOT has been busy building the first 12 stations, installing a new signal system on the railroad corridor and adding a second track "to ensure reliable service" when operations get underway.
"For the next few months, SunRail crews will be running vehicles regularly on the Central Florida Rail Corridor (starting in the north and progressing south) to comply with federally-mandated testing and system integration protocols," the release stated.
FDOT officials are begging the public's pardon for any inconvenience the testing may cause, saying the new trains are shorter and quicker than Amtrak and freight trains that use the corridor. As a result, FDOT promised, disruptions are expected to be "short lived."
Whether walking, bicycling or in a vehicle, FDOT advised, people should stay at least 25 feet from the railroad tracks.
"Once SunRail service begins, no freight traffic will be permitted on the corridor during the morning and afternoon rush hours, when local traffic on area roads generally is heavier," Mr. Olson noted in the release.
There will be seven locomotives in all, but probably only five will run on the corridor daily, Mr. Olson said in a phone interview.
So far locomotive No. 1 is here and racking up the 2,500 miles required before it can be used for passenger service.
"We've added some new brakes and made additions to fix and improve," Mr. Olson said. "The thinking there is if something's going to go wrong it will probably be on the first locomotive."
The second locomotive, only required to accumulate 500 miles during the testing process, is "about ready," he said.
The third is on its way from New Orleans where it made a stopover en route from its place of manufacture in Boise, Idaho.
Passenger car assembly begins in Canada. The cars are sent to the Bombardier plant in upstate New York for final assembly, Mr. Olson said.
By the end of December or early January, a fourth locomotive will be prepped and put on the corridor for testing, he added.
Mr. Olson said systems integration testing up and down the corridor includes making sure the sensors activate the gates, making them come down to stop road traffic, and checking to see how the trains line up with the platforms.
He said in the months to come there is a "high probability" that people will see the trains.
"People, in the course of commuting will encounter trains at crossings," Mr. Olson said.
Though the delay will be shorter than waiting for Amtrak or freight trains to make their way through the crossing, "like stopping for a quick stop light, so to speak," he said, FDOT officials have concerns the novelty of seeing the new trains may give way to impatience.
"At first they'll probably say, 'boy that's really neat,'" Mr. Olson said. "But then ... 'why are they doing this?'"
So he wants people to understand it's all in the name of passenger safety.
"It's a really exciting time but we want people to know," he said.
When service begins next spring, trains may reach speed limits of 79 mph on certain parts of the corridor. When the service expands, top speeds will primarily be between Kissimmee and Poinciana to the south and possibly along the biggest stretch -- DeBary to DeLand -- to the north.
"But during testing, the speed limit will be in the 30s, maybe a little higher," Mr. Olson said.
Again, public safety is paramount.
"We don't want people standing on the tracks taking pictures," he said, "and we're still working on the platforms so we don't want people in a construction zone."
Picture taking and curiosity seeking are fine as long as its 25 to 30 feet from the tracks, he added.
The commuter trains will run along a 31-mile stretch from DeBary to Orlando with 10 stations in between.
DeBary's station at 630 S. Charles R. Beall Blvd. is 90 percent complete, according to SunRail.com.
Central Florida real estate professionals, elected officials and business leaders have had a couple of opportunities to check out the Phase 1 alignment, but not via the new locomotives. They were transported on an Amtrak Silver Star train.
Volusia County Councilwoman Pat Northey went along for the ride.
"We went back a couple months ago to see the construction," Councilwoman Northey said. "We went from DeLand to Kissimmee. It was a pretty cool ride."
The journey made her think of what Interstate 4 commuters will be missing.
"The really cool part about this is it will be an opportunity for anybody who's been an I-4 hostage to sit back, relax, have a cup of coffee and read the paper or get some work done," she said.
Gliding along, looking at traffic on U.S. 17/92 and I-4, Councilwoman Northey was impressed with the smooth, uninterrupted passage.
"They're gonna be cruising past people stuck in traffic. How cool will that be?" she said.
Phase 2 of the project promised a station in DeLand but expansion north in Volusia and west into Osceola counties is on shaky ground.
Federal budget sequestration could derail what was expected to be a guaranteed funding from the federal government to complete the $1.2 billion commuter-rail system project.
Local partners, including Volusia, Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties as well as the City of Orlando were responsible for contributing 25 percent of the funding. Another 25 percent was state funded, and the federal government, through a full funding grant agreement, was due to kick in the other 50 percent.
"The Phase 2 North -- DeBary to DeLand -- cost to build infrastructure and procure additional locomotives is $80 million," Mr. Olson said.
The full funding grant agreement was expected to cover half.
"We're waiting. We still have time, if we get in the budget, to get things rolling in 2016," Mr. Olson said. "But we're concerned because that window is closing."