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All Aboard

June 26, 2014

By: Debby Shimick, Darden Restaurants

All Aboard

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Commuter rail has come to Central Florida and a group of Darden "pioneers" is among the first adopters of the green option for commuting to and from work.

In May, a brand new 32-mile, 17-station commuter rail system through the Orlando metropolitan area premiered, giving residents and commuters another option for greener travel. Although commuter rail may be commonplace in some cities, it’s new to Central Florida and we’ve been anxiously anticipating its debut after months of planning and testing. That includes many commuters to Darden’s Restaurant Support Center, located just south of downtown Orlando, who welcomed the new way to get to and from work.

In anticipation of the new SunRail train system, the employee Sustainability Team at the Restaurant Support Center held information sessions to explain the logistics of SunRail, share route and schedule information and get a feel for the level of interest in commuter rail. The information sessions were well attended, as the idea of avoiding rush-hour traffic and saving on gas and vehicle wear and tear appealed to many.

There was one significant hurdle to clear, though, if SunRail was going to be a viable option for Darden employees. The closest station to the Support Center is six miles away, so we needed some way to transport our commuters between the station and our campus. The answer: a van pool program available through Lynx, Central Florida’s regional public transportation system.

With Darden’s support and help from reThink, a commuter support service sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Sustainability Team’s Commute Green Committee approached Lynx about leasing some vans through their program. Next they identified a group of approximately 20 Darden employees interested enough in commuter rail to participate in an employee-funded and -run van pool. Employees participating in this program would drive the vans themselves and equally share the cost of the van’s monthly lease and gas, while Lynx takes care of all maintenance and insurance. I volunteered to be the primary driver of one of the vans, and we have back-up drivers for when I am unavailable.

Thanks to the excitement of these early adopters, we now have two full 12-passenger vans running back and forth from the SunRail station to Darden at the beginning and end of every work day. Word has gotten out about how well this is working and how much our commuter rail pioneers love riding the train and now many of our colleagues are asking how they can join, so our number of vans could be growing.

These first few months of SunRail have been very exciting for the Central Florida community. The system was created with business commuters in mind: the train cars have tables with laptop plugs, free wi-fi, comfortable seats with plenty of leg room, luggage compartments and bicycle tie-downs. The engines are diesel-electric commuter locomotives, providing better fuel efficiency and advanced emissions reduction. Most of all, it’s been great to be able to sit back, do some work, check through emails and not have to fight through traffic during our morning and evening commute.

As one of our area’s largest employers, Darden is setting a great example by embracing green commuting. I know that all of us in the inaugural Darden van pool are proud to be among the first adopters of commuter rail in Central Florida. Not only are we flying past snarled traffic, ignoring the weather, saving money and reducing our own stress, but we also believe we’re part of something that could significantly reduce the number of cars on the road and the amount of pollution in the air. We’re excited about all the possibilities and to see more people in the Orlando area jump on board commuter rail.

By: Debby Shimick, Darden Restaurants

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