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Commuter rail test slow to make trip

In the event the Tampa Bay area finds $259-million to build a proposed commuter rail line, it will be important to remember to turn off the train's lights at the end of the day.

Someone forgot Saturday night, and the battery of a demonstration rail car that has been touring the area went dead. The train was three hours late for an exhibit at Tropicana Field.

"To say the least, it's embarrassing," said Dennis Culnan, project manager for Siemens, the company that makes the rail car. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said about 300 people stopped at the demonstration site before the train arrived. When it pulled up at 4 p.m., about 60 people remained to greet it.

The German-made RegioSprinter is a two-directional rail car that holds about 175 people. It is the type of rail car that would be used in a countywide commuter system being explored by Hillsborough County commissioners, HARTline and the Florida Department of Transportation.

It would operate on existing but upgraded CSX Railroad tracks. The proposed system could connect the downtowns of the area's major cities, various neighborhoods and major sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Turanchik has asked the federal government for $243-million to build the system. Track and system improvements and the purchase of the trains would cost an estimated $259-million.

Sunday's demonstration, hosted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was the 12th stop of a monthlong $450,000 promotion. The event is being paid for with federal, state and local money, as well as private contributions.

Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli said he would welcome a connection to Tropicana Field, where the team will play. Naimoli said the facility can accommodate about 20,000 people arriving in cars, but it can hold 45,000 people.

"We have to bring the other 25,000 here some way," Naimoli said. "A system such as this is a very economical and viable way to do it. What it will do in the overall is add to the tourism and add to the general economy."

Residents who toured the rail car said they were impressed.

"I'm from New York and it's much, much different; it's comfortable," Herman Martinez said. "It's a good way to the make the community grow."

Anthony VanDeWall of Tampa waited three hours to see the RegioSprinter. He said he wanted to see first-hand how practical a commuter system would be for the area.

"It doesn't seem like it would cost an exorbitant amount of money to get it up and going," VanDeWall said. "The fact that they've been able to get it around on these old tracks says something about how practical it would be."

Supporters of the project say it is not only practical but the area's best solution to traffic woes.

"You ask a person when will we build all the roads we need, and the answer is never," Turanchik said. "There's not that much money and you can't tear down all the neighborhoods. This is cheaper to do than roads. It protects neighborhoods."

Organizers said they hope to bring the RegioSprinter back to Tropicana Field on April 1 for those who missed it.

Sunday's problem was ultimately resolved by borrowing two batteries from the Clearwater Fire Department.

Earlier this month, the rail car was halted when a rock broke a window and by a mechanical problem.