ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s just before noon and the northbound SunRail train is pulling into the Church Street station in downtown Orlando; many of its cars are nearly full with passengers.

  • SunRail passed 1 million passengers for a year for the first time since the line opened
  • Future expansion will bring the line to OIA, expand to 7 days a week
  • Rep. Soto wants to add stations in Polk County
  • JUMP TO: Five Years of SunRail, by the numbers 

Next week will mark five years SunRail has been in service, and numbers show ridership is growing.

SunRail’s future could be tied to the fate of a separate rail project, including not only the number of stations but also the frequency of service.

How Virgin May Impact SunRail

Virgin Trains (formerly known as Brightline) plans to start construction in weeks to build near high speed rail service connecting Orlando to South Florida.

Bond sales have provided more than $2 billion for Virgin to link their existing service to a station at the new intermodal station at Orlando International Airport. Company leaders have said they also plan to expand, with added stops at Walt Disney World and downtown Tampa

There are efforts now to link that Virgin rail service to SunRail at multiple points, including OIA and SunRail’s new Meadow Woods station. Those two stops would provide points for riders to go between Virgin and SunRail.

Meadow Woods is one of four new stations that opened last year, extending SunRail’s route into southern Orange County and Osceola County.

“I worked directly with Virgin Trains to have them connect to SunRail,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee. “There was a Phase Three that was in the works that doubled in price for the state of Florida from $150 million to $300 million, so we saved $300 million in taxpayer money because now Virgin Trains is going to cover that and they’re going to go all the way to Tampa.”

Soto says Virgin’s corridor can be easily used to help expand hyperlocal SunRail service. Soto says he wants additional SunRail stations and routes extended into Polk County, linking cities such as Lakeland, and Haines City to Poinciana.

“The key is that by the time this is over, your average Central Floridian can drive to a local stop and get to the airport, get to places as far as Tampa and Miami eventually, without needing to get into the car to drive there,” Soto said.

Soto cautions that the plans are preliminary and anything could be years from reality. A survey will first have to determine whether ridership demands are even there.

“We can’t build enough I-4 to fix this,” Soto said. “We’re going to get a whole lot bigger in this region, and we are doing our best to prepare for that.”

SunRail's Growth

SunRail currently has 16 stations, connecting Volusia, Osceola, Seminole, and Orange counties. State, federal, and local funds are used to finance operations.

Nearly 960,000 people rode SunRail in its first year of service in 2015, but ridership started to fall in the years that followed.

The Florida Dept. of Transportation, which currently co-funds and fully operates SunRail, says the opening of the Meadow Woods, Tupperware, Kissimmee, and Poinciana stations last year increased ridership by 82 percent.

SunRail’s numbers show March of 2019 had the highest single month of ridership ever, more than 146,000 passengers in March alone. With more than two months remaining in the fiscal year, SunRail has also reached more than 1 million passengers for the first time in its five-year history.

Multiple SunRail riders told Spectrum News Tuesday that they take SunRail as an alternative to driving on Interstate 4. They, however, acknowledge the limitations.

SunRail currently only operates Monday through Friday, but is likely to expand by the year 2022 when SunRail and Virgin begin service at Orlando International Airport’s Intermodal Station.

“When we got to the airport we’ll have to extend to seven days a week and we want to do that," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who also serves on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission. "But the original agreement with the state, and the state is operating it for the first seven years, is that it’s commuter rail service, so that means Monday through Friday certain hours.”

The original deal put in place to launch SunRail called for FDOT to fund and operate the service until May 1, 2021, at which point the CFCRC would take over. Dyer says that means by the time daily service is launched, it will be up to local municipalities to cover the costs.

It is a cost that multiple riders on SunRail told Spectrum News Tuesday that is worth it, making it easier to get around.