Provo • Michael Ackley said he was among the first passengers to board UTA's FrontRunner commuter train in 2008, when it opened a line between Salt Lake City and his Ogden home.
So, of course, the 64-year-old retired painting contractor was among the first to catch the 10 a.m. opening Saturday for the "Public Free Ride Day" between Salt Lake City and Provo.
"I like the freedom of trains. It's just a very civilized, sensible way to travel," said Ackley, a self-described train aficionado so dedicated to the mode of transportation that he and his wife, Cheryl, book their vacation travel only on Amtrak. "I'll fly if I have to in order to get somewhere, but I don't like it."
His words would be music to the ears of UTA officials, who surprised a sometimes skeptical group of business officials, mayors and legislators by finishing the $850 million, 45-mile extension under budget and three years ahead of schedule.
With comfy seats, two passenger levels per car, speeds of up to 79 mph, power plugs and Internet Wi-Fi, it's hoped the sleek new commuter train will ferry more than 6,500 riders daily between stations in Provo, Orem, American Fork, Lehi, Draper, South Jordan, Murray and Salt Lake City.
For fast-growing Utah County, which sees more than its fair share of travel north, it's also hoped that will translate to fewer cars on the freeway and better air quality.
Standing near an open passenger door as hundreds of Provo residents filed inside for the commuter train's first public run into Salt Lake Central, Ackley looked almost like a minister watching over the newly converted.
But while plenty of new FrontRunner passengers were also tickled at the prospect of a free ride on a new train, many braved the sometimes hourlong wait to examine the train for more pragmatic reasons.
Bill Mitchell, a 52-year-old physical therapist in Provo who commutes to Murray for work, brought his two children along to gauge whether or not he'll ditch his car for FrontRunner tickets. Less than 10 minutes into his ride north, Mitchell said he was impressed.
He said he pays $11 or so daily for the three gallons of gas necessary to commute by car. Compared to UTA's $2.35 base fare, plus 55 cents for each additional stop, he estimates a savings of less than 80 cents. Not much, admittedly. Still, he said switching to the train will save both his car and his nerves more than enough wear and tear to make the difference.
"I find myself getting up earlier and earlier just to avoid traffic heading north," Mitchell said. "That's a big stress."
Others rode Saturday for reasons similar to Mitchell, or just to try FrontRunner on for size. Robert and Carol Hintze, retired grandparents from Holladay, got up early to take their 13-year-old grandson on a trial run so he might ride it to Orem and back to visit his other grandparents.
As passengers talked to others or simply stared through the windows at onto a gliding montage of track-side brush, backyard decks, white-steepled ward houses and horses out to pasture, about the only complaint was finding the train restroom, located in the car farthest from the locomotive.
"It's very nice," said Gregory Amobi, a University of Utah business student who lives in Salt Lake City. "They need more restrooms, that's all."
FrontRunner: Provo to Salt Lake line
Info • www.rideuta.com