SALT LAKE CITY — The first official day of commuter rail service between Salt Lake City and Utah County may be a signal of transportation progress to some, but to others it may mean reverting back to the old-school I-15 drive.
The Utah Transit Authority officially launched FrontRunner South on Monday, with service between downtown Salt Lake City and Provo. The agency has heralded the new $850 million commuter rail line as a better, more efficient alternative to driving.
But judging by some of the glitches on day one, there's still work to do to convince commuters to rely on the service. Numerous delays and extended commutes resulted in less-than-stellar reviews by some first-day riders.
“It was a very disappointing experience today,” said Highland resident Jim Bradshaw. “A commute that usually takes 50 minutes on the express bus took an hour and a half.”
The train was supposed to take about 65 minutes, he said. The issue of trains running behind schedule resulted in missed bus and TRAX transfers upon reaching the downtown Salt Lake Central station, UTA officials acknowledged.
Bradshaw said many commuters had been accustomed to the timeliness and convenience of express buses, which brought many people in from Utah County until the implementation of FrontRunner South. Now those express bus routes have been eliminated.
“There were no connections,” he said, calling opening day "disappointing.”
Bradshaw's frustration level was so high on Monday that he was already considering scrapping public transit in favor of his personal automobile if his daily train commute does not improve in short order.
“I’m not going to put up with many more days like this,” he said. “I’ll probably use it to some degree, but there is no question that I’m likely going to drive in more.”
Among the positive comments expressed by commuters were the smooth ride and roominess of the train cars. But WiFi, available on express buses and promised on FrontRunner, did not work on Monday.
UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter acknowledged the inaugural day challenges, including problems with the vending machines that dispensed tickets to riders. But he said those issues should be remedied quickly.
“These are the growing pains of a new (system) and typical of previous startups,” he said. “It’s going to take a joint effort among everyone to get used to the new system.”
Things should settle in over the next few days, he said.
Agency officials projected that about 6,800 passengers will ride the train each day, with trains running at maximum speeds of up to 79 mph. In addition to four stops in Utah County, FrontRunner South will also have stops in South Jordan and Murray.
Carpenter said inbound trains are scheduled to run every 30 minutes during peak morning times, with outbound trains running hourly. That schedule changes for the evening commute, when outbound trains depart every half-hour while inbound evening trains run every 60 minutes.
FrontRunner South is the latest leg in an ongoing plan by UTA to expand rail service along the Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo.
The next step will be the Airport TRAX line — the $350 million extension scheduled to be operational by April 2013. Test trains are already running.
Under construction since January 2009, the new light rail line is one of five rail projects the agency has had on its construction agenda over the past few years. The others included the $535 million Mid-Jordan TRAX extension and the $370 million West Valley TRAX line — which both began operation in August 2011. Also in the works is the $212 million Draper TRAX extension.
Carpenter said the original combined budget was $2.8 billion for all five lines. However, the program thus far is coming in at approximately $2.3 billion — about $500 million under budget.
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