Philadelphia Reevaluates Regional Rail Route Structure, Dismissing Through-Running

» The advantages made possible with the opening of a downtown tunnel in the 1980s will be passed over if SEPTA officials get their way.

When it opened the Center City Commuter Connection in 1984, Philadelphia had produced an interconnected regional rail system few other American cities could boast of. By digging a tunnel 1.7 miles between the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Suburban Station and the tracks of the former Reading Railroad, regional transit authority SEPTA created a unified rail system spanning the entire Philadelphia region.

Unlike most U.S. commuter systems, Philadelphia could offer its riders through-service from one part of the metropolitan area to the next and stops at multiple stations downtown. Trains wouldn’t have to turn around at the center-city terminus, clearing up space for redevelopment and speeding up travel times. New uniformly numbered lines operated from one suburban destination to another, via downtown, just like the Paris RER and many German S-Bahn systems.

Unfortunately, SEPTA has spent the last 25 years making a mockery of the 1980s investment in its regional rail network. Now, the transit agency’s planners are pushing to remove uniform nomenclature from services and eliminate even the suggestion of through-running from operations. It’s a waste of transit capacity on a grand scale, and a disappointment for the agency’s 130,000 daily riders.

When the regional rail route designations were introduced in 1984, each route, labeled R1 through R8, had two suburban termini, with stops through downtown. Operations, like those on any rapid transit service, were relatively straightforward: trains on the R3 line, for instance, would begin their route in West Trenton and end in Elwyn, every time.

Today, however, services are muddled as if the line designations had no meaning. R2 trains, for example, become R6 trains when they pass through downtown when coming from the south; they become R1 trains at when coming from the north. R6 trains coming from Cynwyd simply terminate at Suburban Station, despite the fact that the R6 line supposedly continues to Norristown. On the weekends, R7 trains from Chestnut Hill East evolve into R3s headed towards Elwyn. On every line, certain trains simply cease operations once they reach downtown.

None of this, of course, is displayed on the agency’s map. How can the average rider not be confused?

These operational oddities are the result of ups and downs in transit ridership over time: line segments on each side of downtown were originally matched based on similar service needs, but corridor use has changed. But there is no explanation for why SEPTA is unable, for instance, to simply change the name of R2 trains coming from Newark to R6 and rename the dead-end Cynwyd R6 something else. The agency has clearly not made an effort to take advantage of the full potential of its built network, a failure that has been repeatedly been decried by one of the system’s designers, University of Pennsylvania transportation professor Vukan Vuchic.

The system’s staffers suggest that few people take advantage of the through-running nature of the system’s routes, and therefore that the idea of suburb-to-suburb lines should be abandoned.

But that through-running has not been made clear enough for anyone to understand! There are clear inconsistencies between line naming and actual services. Meanwhile, the system’s route map shows all regional rail lines in a uniform blue as if part of one line. The product is difficult to read, especially since the former Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad networks cross over one another with no interconnection north of downtown.

A lack of clear detail about which line goes where is to be expected for systems designed for commuters coming almost entirely from the suburbs to the center city — most riders know their line, they don’t transfer, and they go to a single downtown destination. But the beauty of an interconnected line such as Philadelphia’s is that it provides rapid transit ease of use for commuter rail passengers: it has the capacity of providing frequent services in the central city, multiple urban stations, and efficient transfers. Unfortunately, looking at SEPTA’s map, most people unfamiliar with the system can likely decipher none of those features.

One way to solve the problem is to diagram the regional rail system as a rapid transit agency would, as demonstrated on the right in the drawing above. Lines are differentiated by color, their paths are easily traceable, and it’s clear where trains begin, make stops, and terminate. Other cities with such systems show just that on their maps.

There is, in other words, a clear explanation for why SEPTA suffers from a lack of through-riding passengers: a lack of clarity about where trains go. For transit agencies just about anywhere, that’s a big problem.

SEPTA’s recently proposed solution to this situation is to rename lines based on their termini: R7 routes, for example, would simply become “Trenton” or “Chestnut Hill East” lines, depending on the direction. Colors and numbers currently associated with each service would be banished, because it has been decided that they are too complicated to understand. Whether or not trains themselves finish their routes downtown, lines would be portrayed as if they simply radiate from the center city in one direction; customers taking the train from a non-downtown station would be provided no information about the ultimate destination of their train past center city.

This change would basically reinstate the naming practices in place before the construction of the tunnel connection. It would basically compel all passengers to descend from trains downtown and transfer. The negative effect on ridership is unquestionable.

According to SEPTA planners, this would make getting around more simple. Unfortunately, that will only be true for people heading to the named terminus. Numbers and colors are far easier to remember than endpoints, especially when several of Philadelphia’s termini have very similar names (such as Trenton versus West Trenton).

Indeed, the existing system could work perfectly well for Philadelphia, as long as it were operated and labeled appropriately. The decision to move to a route-naming method that obviates possibilities for through-routing ignores the great transportation connections made possible with the downtown tunnel.

It’s true: The current line labels are nonsensical considering the operational environment. At the extreme, the R6 Cynwyd has a daily ridership of roughly 500 while its pair, the R6 Norristown, carries about 8,000 passengers every day. Services, as a result, cannot follow the route numbers as they’re currently set. The transit agency must rearrange lines so that ridership on each side of downtown is roughly equivalent, so that it make sense to provide similar amounts of service on each; otherwise, Philadelphia will continue suffering from its current bizarre operations conditions or have inappropriate service provision along many of the corridors.

Perhaps SEPTA simply needs to re-envision the manner in which it describes its existing system. Instead of each line being an individual branch of the overall network — i.e., R1 Airport — it could become an individual branch of a more encompassing line. There are currently thirteen line termini on Philadelphia’s regional rail network; by dividing services leading to those stations based on geography and ridership, SEPTA could produce a simpler to understand system.

One demonstration of how this could work is illustrated above: SEPTA could divide service into three main corridors — the “Red,” “Yellow,” and “Green” lines, each with roughly equivalent ridership on each side of downtown. This would reduce the number of major routes from seven to three and make a network map easier to understand than the slithering cacophony of hues that would be required were each route designated with its own color. Customer comprehension of the system would improve, simply because of the smaller number of variables encountered by the average passenger.

Philadelphia may not be the best test case for such a simplification of the route network because of the general lack of shared main lines outside of the urban core. Yet the concept, which would take full advantage of through-running and encourage passengers to take the train from one part of the region to the next, is still valid.

For Philadelphia’s future development, getting regional rail right is vitally important: the system has the potential to carry a much larger percentage of the region’s population if it were upgraded to rapid transit-type operations, a series of improvements that would be far cheaper to implement than a major light or heavy rail construction campaign. But the only way to do so would be in taking advantage of the system’s through-routing, which increases overall speeds, improves network capacity, and expands the number of available destinations for passengers.

Today, roughly one-third 5% of passengers take advantage of SEPTA’s through-routing, departing and arriving at destinations outside of downtown, despite the agency’s terrible lack of information about routes and dramatic inconsistencies in operations. These peoples’ commutes cannot be thrown out the window, or the system’s popularity will suffer; meanwhile, improvements in the design of line routings would probably increase ridership by encouraging more non-downtown use of the network. A rethinking of the way regional rail works is well worth the effort for Philadelphia, but a move back to the radial model of suburb-to-downtown transit lines would be a step in the wrong direction.

Above map hypothesizes completion of the unfunded but relatively cheap “Swampoodle Connector” that would allow formerly Reading Railroad trains to continue along the Chestnut Hill West line. Ridership in the above proposal based on 2006 estimates, from SV Metro.

70 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • thunda

    The major issue with the Regional Rail (RR) nomenclature is that almost no one takes advantage of the through running. Of all RR trips, a full 95% begin or end in Center City. And at least some of the remaining 5% is rides that begin and end on the same line without even reaching Center City, like Paoli to Ardmore. (The 33% figure you mentioned above does not refer to individual passengers, but to trains ie: only 1/3 of trains actually run on lines with the same “R” designation). As such, ridership won’t change noticeably after this change, because so few people ride the trains past Center City.

    Also to correct, SEPTA does not have 130,000 daily riders. That is the number of rides on the RR system (~65,000 riders x 2 trips a workday). Once you add that to Transit division, and SEPTA serves up about 1 million unlinked trips per day.

  • Stirner

    As Thunda mentioned, the 33% figure is only for trains that that traveling though Phila. The percentage of through riding passengers is much lower. The article cited in the post had a figure of 100 passengers a day through-running from R7 Chestnut Hill to Trenton. 100 passengers on a line with approx. 4,000 daily passengers! (And that is to a major transportation nexus like Trenton, other lines are probably even lower).

    I would prefer it if SEPTA could make through running work and make the pass-through line pairings much more consistent. However, SEPTA has many budgetary constraints, and they have found that cutting back on the pass-through service has enabled them to more effectively maintain a relatively good level of service, given their constraints.

    Given that reality, their move to rationalize the commuter lines into a giant hub and spoke system is a sensible step to increasing the usability of the system. The current R-system is surprisingly confusing for many out-of-towners (especially the thousands of car-less new freshmen college students that pour into Philadelphia every fall).

    Of course, in typical SEPTA fashion, even if they change the route designations on their maps and signage, it will take decades for those sign changes to make their way onto all the far flung stations in the network. There are still signs on the system that indicate routes and stations that have been shut down for over 20 years.

  • Erin

    I don’t have any firm statistics, so my feeling is only conjecture, but I’d be surprised to find that any great number of people had an interest in a system that allowed travel to cross-city destinations, with the exception of through service to Trenton (primarily to continue to NYC) and through to the airport. There’s probably a non-zero number of people that go all the way through the tunnel to reach either Temple University or University City, but those stations are still counted as part of the Center City zone for fare purposes, so any statistical analysis would likely have trouble capturing those numbers.

    On the whole, though, my impression as someone who’s lived the majority of my life in the Philly area is that there’s just not that much going on outside Center City that one would want to take the train to get to. Most regional rail stations don’t have good connections to non-commuter bus transit outside of the city limits anyway, so trying to take the train from somewhere in Bucks County to somewhere in Delaware County, especially on the weekend, just wouldn’t make sense. You’d get to your destination on one of the once-hourly trains and still have a 15-20 minute drive ahead of you. The tunnel is a good idea, but it needs a better support system of local transit around stations to make it worthwhile.

  • Jim

    In practice, getting through Center City is not that difficult on regional rail. For instance, 30th St. Station has special monitors that tell you “Next train to Center City” or “Next train to University City” with the time, track number and route number of the train.

    Also, If you’re coming from the south or west, once your train leaves the last station before 30th St. or University City the conductors always stop saying “Center City” and begin saying “R3 West Trenton local” or, if the train is being taken out of service will say “Temple University” It’s the same thing if you’re coming from the north except, often times, with a train that’s headed to the airport the conductor will say “R1! Airport! Center City!” well before the train has hit Temple.

    A lot of people make good use of the commuter tunnel. As was pointed out – Temple U. and University City stations are both used quite heavily and for fare purposes are considered “Center City”.

    The RR system has a very suburban ridership base and there just isn’t that much of a reason for people in one suburban town to travel by train to a far off ‘burb on the other side of the city. Even for people in the city who work in the suburbs – the big suburban job centers (or corridors) are often best reached by bus or suburban light rail and for those who do take RR – it’s often just easier to catch the train at Suburban or Market East than to try to pick it up at one of the outlying stations.

    As you began to point out – North Broad Station should be merged with North Philadelphia station into one, Secaucus-like Transfer Center. It should also have a concourse connection to the North Philly station on the Broad St. Subway. It would allow for easier connections to RR for a lot of people in North and Northeast Philly and it would allow for easier transfers for people traveling between (for instance) Jenkintown and Conshohocken.

    • trolleyman54

      There is concourse connecting Ex-Pennsy Railroad North Philadelphia Station to the Broad Street Subway & there a concourse connecting North Philadelphia Station on the Broad Street Subway to the Ex-Reading Railroad North Broad Station, however both concourses were seal off because of lack of ridership and crime.

      • driz

        very late reply (just stumbled upon this great discussion) but im fascinated by this mention of concourses between the 3 north philly stations. do have any more info about these? id love to explore these connections.

  • George

    I thoroughly enjoy this blog, but this particular post strikes me as complaining for the sake of complaining. There are several assumptions that one must take as true in order to understand the contentions that the author makes:

    (1) People are stupid and don’t know how to read schedules or look at maps. Therefore, all trains must go precisely as shown on the map, even if there is not enough ridership demand to justify such routing.

    (2) Commuters in Philadelphia are not particularly interested in going to Center City. They all want suburb-to-suburb through-running service.

    • Louis

      George, that’s a serious straw-man argument, saying that Yonah is indicating that “they all want suburb to suburb through running service”

      I think what distinguishes Philly RR from the Paris RER is frequency. It’s hard to have a semi-rapid-transit/semi-suburban rail system with hour headways. At the same time, Philly has done a terrible job of marketing its through-running service.

    • George -

      Thanks for your comments, but I don’t think I’ve argued for the stupidity of transit riders nor suggested that commuters aren’t interested in going to Center City.

      Indeed, it appears that the guilty party in “complaining for the sake of complaining” is not me, but rather SEPTA itself, which is changing route designations away from line numbers and colors simply because it doesn’t feel like altering them to reflect current service conditions.

      I wanted to point out here that there’s no reason Philadelphia can’t improve its services in a way that makes the system easier to use for everyone. If SEPTA cannot route trains in a way that is reflected by line numbers or the network map today, it can most certainly change those line numbers and maps to give greater legibility to the customer while also continuing to take advantage of through-routing.

      Perhaps I didn’t clarify why through-routing is so advantageous — indeed, why Philadelphia built the Center City Commuter Connection in the first place. By running trains from suburb to suburb, rather than turning them around, changing route designations, or stopping them in the downtown, service costs are reduced, customer understanding of the system is increased, and destinations are multiplied.

      It may be true that most Philadelphia commuters are looking to get downtown — I don’t believe I ever disputed that fact — but providing them the opportunity to get to non-downtown destinations without having to transfer seems perfectly acceptable.

      The question we need to ask is whether SEPTA is marketing and operating its services in a way that is efficient and easy to understand for everyone, essential features of any successful transit system. If you think it is doing so, then ignore my discussion above. If not, maybe my complaints aren’t so worthless after all?

      • Rob B.

        Yonah,

        Regarding your justification of through-running, I thought you made an argument in an earlier article (maybe about New York?) that it saves time b/c trains don’t need to turn around. FYI.

  • Chris

    The major problem with making any major changes like this is that we’re dealing with SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia; two institutions that are uncompromisingly opposed to any serious change, or to anything that will be “too hard”. Doing, above would fall under those categories.

    I’ve often thought that the Cynwyd Line which doesn’t go through, and the Airport Line should be upgraded to a rapid-transit like model, instead of regional rail. Most of those riders only go as far as Center City. This would make the rerouting of the regional rail lines simpler.

  • Louis

    Yonah, why not use odd numbers and even numbers depending on which direction they pass through Central City? The RER utilizes the direction one passes through Paris.

    • Louis,

      Indeed, that’s what I proposed in that second map above: for instance, on the Red Line, West Trenton trains would be R1 and Trenton trains R2; on the Yellow line, destinations to the southwest of downtown would by Y1/Y3/Y5, while those to the north would be Y2/Y4.

  • Robert Jackel

    Under SEPTA’s new plan, would all trains going on the old Reading tracks still start at 30th st?

    It’s one thing to stop pretending the two R6s are connected. It’s a much more serious problem if the R6 to Norristown doesn’t begin at 30th St. Station. That would eliminate the one real benefit the tunnel has right now, which is that all three center city stations are hit by every train.

    • TLP

      SEPTA hasn’t said anything specifically yet, but as trains stopping in Center City run now, inbound trips from the Pennsy side end at Temple and inbound trips from the Reading side end at 30th St.

  • Lou

    Yonah, if it makes you feel any better SEPTA is on the verge of abandoning everything. They tried changing the Media Elywn R3 timetable to demphasize the RR number but have now converted it back. SEPTA tries these things once in a while but usually does nothing ie the new coming soon (for 3 years) fare system.

    The CCCT is great but there are major limitations on the main trunck lines especially on the former reading side. (only 2 tracks for R1, R2, R3, R5) operating them all frequently would be nearly impossible in America, the FRA buracrats alone would have heatattacks.

    The RR system was designed when there was still service to West Chester, Newtown, Quakertown, and Reading. If these and other destinations came back ridership on some of those stubs would surely hit the roof. (SEPTA has been working on Wawa reintroduction for 10 years)

  • David

    I think your points are valid Yonah, but the travel time for suburb to suburb thru center city takes too long unless going north to south (airport line or Wilmington to Trenton). The Cross-County Metro would have solved a lot of the suburb to suburb travel.

  • eldondre

    I mostly like this blog as well but I find that it;s often wide of the mark when it comes to Philadelphia. there are a numbe rof misunderstandings and inaccuracies here, most notably the assertion that a third of riders travel through). I’d also take issue with this
    “Perhaps I didn’t clarify why through-routing is so advantageous — indeed, why Philadelphia built the Center City Commuter Connection in the first place. By running trains from suburb to suburb, rather than turning them around, changing route designations, or stopping them in the downtown, service costs are reduced, customer understanding of the system is increased, and destinations are multiplied.”
    the main benefit of the through tunnel isn’t, and I’d be surprised to see it ever was, suburb to suburb travel. the CCCT has accomplished plenty independent of suburb to suburb traffic. Specifically, it allows SEPTA to efficiently move equipment from one system to another (indeed, all distinction between the two has all but vanished for the regular rider). Second, Reading Side riders no longer have to transfer to the el/trolleys to get to West Market, 30th St, or the growing Ucity stop. Pennsy side riders can get to market east and temple without a transfer. Wayne Jct riders can get to Pennsy side destinations as well. In and of itself these have been a huge improvement for RRD riders. the basic concept missing here is that the system does NOT serve the entire region. Indeed, because of the legacy of the two systems, the most useful through trips (western suburbs-south jersey, Elwyn-Trenton) are not possible. Almost all the through trips that exist can be done much faster by car. Lastly, SEPTA has stated, and probably correctly, that through ridership only matters for a few lines…R7 Trenton (ata that, only 100 riders aday) and the airport. As such, they can alternate stops to said destination. I think SEPTA and it’s schedulers aren’t not quite as stupid as people are making them out to be. I also think that the current system treats people as morons but that most people aren’t morons but may act as such if that’s the way you treat them. People will think about where they are going if it’s clear they have to. the current system leads people to believe it’s simple when it’s not.

    • Eldondre -

      Sorry about the inaccuracies on through-ridership — just corrected it above, as you’ll note. That said, I should note that the low through-riding number only reaffirms my point: SEPTA has done a miserable job clarifying how its regional rail system works, and the low ridership past downtown is the case in point. Philadelphia will attract more riders to its system if it makes very obvious how trains move about: it’s not doing that at all currently, and the new line designations won’t help much either.

      The point here, though, is that suburb-to-suburb travel allows improvements in efficiencies that have little to do with whether people are actually going from suburb to suburb. The ability to run trains through central stations, decrease service costs by maintaining similar operational frequencies on both sides of downtown on a single line, and it increases the number of destinations.

      And indeed, whether or not people are taking advantage of the service, SEPTA’s regional rail trains do go from suburb to suburb! It’s just that it’s not clear on the agency’s maps or schedules where they’re going.

      My main complaint with SEPTA is not that the agency is stopping through services: it isn’t doing that at all, even with the changes in line naming. Rather, my problem is that SEPTA is running services from suburb to suburb without informing the customer appropriately of what is happening. People getting on a train anywhere in the region should be able to know from the time they get to the station where the vehicle will terminate, not simply that it will end downtown: That was the original goal of the R1, R2, etc designations in the first place.

      But SEPTA seems set on eliminating any defined notion that trains are through-routed, even though they still are and will continue to be. Why not advertise, and take advantage of, that through-routing?

      • Adirondacker12800

        The ability to run trains through central stations, decrease service costs by maintaining similar operational frequencies on both sides of downtown on a single line, and it increases the number of destinations.

        But there aren’t a whole lot of destinations suburb to suburb. People aren’t going to get on at a suburban station go through the city center and out to another suburb just to go to a Rite Aid that is so similar to the one two blocks from home they can’t tell the difference.

      • People may be going to go to the class A mall, for example King of Prussia. Philadelphia has a lot of suburban job centers that could in principle be served by SEPTA. The problem is that the track layout at 30th is such that the two busiest lines, the Trenton Line and the Main Line, can’t be put on the same through-line. The through-running opportunities on SEPTA are all on lines that are C-shaped or cross themselves.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Very difficult to get to the King of Prussia mall by train, there is no train station in King of Prussia.

  • Max Wyss

    What is so bad about giving arbitrary numbers to a line (something like R1, R2, etc.), and running the trains through? It does not even matter whether there are many passengers not getting off in the core of the network (which appears to me to have 4 stations). The advantages of running through are obvious, as turning around a train occupies a track for at least 5 minutes, and blocks the whole station entry for another minute (assuming we have double track, as in one direction (arriving or leaving), the opposite direction track must be crossed).

    Line numbers don’t really matter, but should be kind of logical. And what speaks against several lines on the same branch, where for example line 1 goes from branch A to branch B, and line 2 goes from branch A to branch C, creating an overlapped schedule.

    They say that optimizing operations is the cheapest way to improve the system. And running through the center is one of the cheapest operational improvements you can make.

    With all due respect, Yonah, but the suggested line numbering is way too complicated. Why not (as said before) just line numbers.

  • billpa

    I get the feeling there’s been more discussion about how to improve Septa’s RR naming HERE on this blog than there has been at Septa HQ. When they first announced they were looking at making changes to “improve” things for the infrequent rider it appeared, at least to me, that they’d already made up their mind. They started putting out schedules with the R-number reduced in size. On the website schedule they’re putting the R-number in parentheses like this: AIRPORT LINE (R1). Clearly, that’s Septa already telling us they’re getting ready to call it the Airport Line.

  • david vartanoff

    @ Jim. There WAS a concourse tunnel from North Philly PRR to the Broad Street Subway. I remember walking through it in the 60′s. I would assume it was blocked off after someone was mugged sometimes in the 70′s. Philly, in fact, had a number of outside fare control concourse level walkways in Center City. There were also at one time connections from the now Amtrak lower level platforms directly to the SEPTA Market St subway concourse, allowing one to completely bypass the 30th St. waiting room area. Those were sealed off in 69 or 70.

  • Tom Taggart

    There were connections directly from Amtrak trains to the El? No Way!!!!!! Why haven’t they been re-opened? It’s so confusing to strangers how they have to go up and over to go back down.

    Is anyone here (besides me) young enough or interested enough to want to start a facebook page against the renaming of the rail lines? I thin, Yonah and Vukan are right, and that they are not making the msot of the system.

  • eldondre

    I disagree; it does not necessarily reaffirm your point. Statistics are facts, but what they mean is subject to interpretation. Specifically, you say that the low ridership numbers are a reflection on poor advertising. I say the affirm my assertion that such pairings never made sense. It may not be obvious looking at a SEPTA map but I assure you if you overlay the lines on a real map complete with highways and traffic patterns you will see the issue. If you live in, say, Cherry Hill, it would be useful to have a train that runs through to Paoli where you could transfer to a shuttle to the major corporate park down the hill. As it is, from Cherry Hill, you have to catch the infrequent diesel train operated by NJT which takes a circuitous route to 30th st making it useless for Cherry Hill to downtown commuting, then transfer to a westbound SEPTA train on the upper level, buying a second fare instrument. It’s possible, of course, for expresses to bypass downtown via the Pittsburgh subway but you have interagency issues there and the fact it’s run by NJT, hardly an agency worried about the Philadelphia market. Another useful route would be Paoli to Trenton but this too requires you bypass the commuter tunnel entirely in order to be reasonably competitive. Or Perhaps Media to Trenton, but both are Pennsy lines. Geographically, few of the pairings makes sense for through travel given current infrastructure. It’s worth noting, they used to pair more trains in the past and ridership was still abysmal. To your second point, I have seen no evidence that SEPTA plans on ending through service, just the naming scheme that implies permanent pairings. AS for North Philly, it once was connected via the subway platform but security concerns caused it’s closure. I hope that some day this area will be integrated but it’s still no-go territory for most riders and, perhaps more importantly, SEPTA has no money for such projects. If they do come into money, it has to go to upgrading track, signaling, and bridges between Suburban and 30th street. Lastly, no one has come out with the details on SEPTA’s new plan that I’ve seen, just a lot of hearsay. I’m not against eliminating the misleading system that bears little resemblance to reality but a lot rides on how the new (old) system is implemented, IMO.

  • Jim

    I agree that SEPTA should probably reorganize their map to reflect reality but I also agree that SEPTA should at least try to make it obvious where the trains go after they pass through Center City. It’s especially helpful for people headed to the busier stations like Wayne Junction or University City.

    @ Max – Center City has 5 stations. University City, 30th St., Suburban Station, Market East and, finally, Temple. Only 3 lines service University City but the other 4 are served by all trains.

    @ David/Tom – next time you’re walking inside 30th St. and are heading towards the El – You’ll notice “Bridgewater’s Pub” inside the station. The stairs to the concourse are behind the bar.

    I’m not sure what the issues are (if any) down there or why they can’t just move the pub to another location inside the station but I agree – it doesn’t make much sense to force so many riders outside and through a busy intersection like 30th & Market.

  • Stirner

    I can’t say that I find Yonah’s new and improved 3-color SEPTA system map to be an improvement. (If implemented, the new complaint would be “….but which yellow line do I get on?”).

    However, his initial system map that showed how the routes overlap throughout the system is a definite improvement on the current layout. My take is that SEPTA should keep the basic colors for lines that consistently run though, pick new colors for lines that only terminate in Center City (i.e. the R6 Cynwyd), Drop the R# and keep the end-station names, and then draw the system map much the way that Yonah drew it at the beginning of the post.

    One large improvement that SEPTA could make to improve the ride experience for new riders would be to vastly improve the signage and information in the center city stations. Those three stations are where most people get wrong-footed by the system. There should be video displays or interactive kiosks with comprehensive line, station and system maps. Fixing the problem in these stations would fix 90% of the lost passenger problem. If you get lost on one of the outlying stations, you have to be pretty clueless to miss the “To Center City” signs that are prominently displayed.

  • eldondre

    I always knew about a connection from 30th (staircase where bridgewaters is now located) but I didn’t know it went directly from the platforms! that is cool. if they ever implement ticket validation or print at home tickets why not?

  • hammersklavier

    As eldondre and thunda have noted, there are a number of inaccuracies with respect to Philadelphia’s actual system.

    What I want to address is the map at the end of your post. Your map divides the system into color-coded mains (based on the three PRR main lines heading out of 30th Street) and you back up your design with statistics–but, at the same time, its implementation would make things even MORE muddled for Philadelphia commuters. You see, you would sever ALL of the routes that are currently through-run in the Regional Rail network–the R3 (Elwyn-West Trenton), R5 (Thorndale-Doylestown), R7 (Chestnut Hill West-Trenton)–the route with the highest current count of through-runners–and the R8 (Chestnut Hill East-Fox Chase).

    The simpler solution, from a customer’s point of view, is not to realign the options to eliminate the current through-running services, but rather to realign the map to reflect which trains run where. Only the R6 to Cynwyd (kin-wood) terminates at Suburban. The trains that originate in Warminster mostly run to Airport; those that originate in Norristown, to one of the various termini along the Newark line. Thus, the optimization of the R-lines as they currently stand would be:

    R1 Airport-Warminster
    R2 Newark-Norristown
    R3 Elwyn-West Trenton
    R5 Thorndale-Doylestown
    R6 Cynwyd-Center City
    R7 Trenton-C.H. West
    R8 C.H. East-Fox Chase

    This would synchronize the dominant operational patterns with the actual R-line designations without losing the classification system*.

    *It is also important to note that the use of the R-line designation is now the norm in Philadelphia. (“Where’s Lansdale?” “Along the R5″…”On the R3, on my way to Langhorne the other day…”…”I take the R6 home. Day in and day out–on at Miquon, off at Suburban…” etc.) Throwing away the R-line designations is throwing away the most significant branding coup SEPTA’s ever had!

    Poor Inepta–why do you always try to exercise the worst possible option?

  • Hi folks. Let me try and clarify some things for you all.

    There has actually been considerable thought on this matter, both at SEPTA and with rider groups like DVARP (us) and the Citizen Advisory Committee. The problems with the present system are well known, primarily people being confused by having trains with the same number going to two different destinations. Everyone talked about change, but nobody was willing to do anything until the current management team took over. There were several meetings about the subject last summer with stakeholders like the counties, business and community representatives, and us. While there was a majority agreeing change would be a good idea, there’s no one perfect alternative.

    A final decision on the fate of the R-numbers has _not_ been made yet, and if they are eliminated, there will be _a lot_ of consultation with those stakeholders as the details are worked out. We’d be happy to bring your concerns and ideas to the table. You can contact us by e-mail at mail@dvarp.org, by phone at 215-RAILWAY, or by coming to our next meeting, Saturday, February 20 from 1:00 to 4:00 at our offices in Center City.

    In the comments above, “eldondre” has described the situation pretty well. Ridership from one branch to another makes up less than five percent of the total, and only three markets make up the bulk of that small fraction: trips to Trenton, primarily from the Main Line colleges, trips to the airport, and reverse commuting. Note also that the line pairings have _never_ been done on the basis of where planners thought passengers would want to go to and from. No matter what you do in terms of through running, the impact on ridership is gonna be measured in the hundreds at best.

    Meanwhile, it should be noted that the pairings have never been cast in stone, and in fact, West Trenton was originally R1, not R3. Pairing changes have been made over the years for various practical reasons, including construction (which is why the latest timetables broke the R3 pairing) and the current shortage of equipment. To the extent that service is locked into specific through-routings, opportunities to run the service more efficiently are missed, so change could mean more service for less money. That was one of the things we queried SEPTA about this week.

    The other is implementation, and those plans are in the early stages. One thing for sure is SEPTA understands the importance of signage and other communications in making the transition successfully. For example, there are near-term plans to replace the next train displays in Center City with newer technology that can communicate more information. I can’t say what the timetable is, but I know that the customer service people have made it a high priority.

    Addressing the original post, remember that at the time the tunnel operating plan was devised, we were just a few years removed from gas rationing (probably before most of you were born), and the assumption was that more oil crises would lead to a great increase in demand for rail service, and a European-style transit network with 10 or 20 minute service frequencies on all the lines. Obviously, things turned out differently, and we need an operating plan to match present conditions.

    Pairing lines and planning the system is like solving a very large puzzle, with a lot more considerations and constraints than just how many riders are on a line and where they might like to go. There’s crew scheduling, layover time, single track, and limited slots on the Amtrak lines to consider, just to name a few things. It’s a fascinating subject to dig down into.

    Again, we invite all of you to join DVARP, or to share your ideas with us. Contact us at mail@dvarp.org or 215-RAILWAY.

    –Matt Mitchell

    • Nathanael

      Two things should be improved:
      (1) Signing of through-running. “Airport via Center City” and “West Trenton via Center City” are actually pretty good. “Center City continuing to Airport” is fine too. Branch timetables should note which line any given train continues on after Center City, and which line any given train comes from.

      (2) Line naming. The problem with destination signing is short turns; it confuses people to have separate “Paoli” and “Thorndale” trains when they’re going to some intermediate station. The usual answer is line names or numbers. Using destinations for line names causes trouble.

      Really good signage is therefore something like
      “to Center City, Keystone Line, term. Paoli”
      “to Center City, NEC North, term. Trenton”
      “to Center City, term. Suburban”
      “to Center City, Fern Rock, term. Warminster”

      But it takes up so much space.

  • Roland S

    What if 30th St Station was re-aligned so that trains from Trenton and West Chestnut could go through the lower level to Elwyn, Newark, and Airport, while bypassing Center City (Suburban/Market East)? Let’s call this the “B” network. This notion of a line crossing itself at N. Philadelphia is absurd and is one of the main problems with legibility.

    Then, all trains entering Center City from the Reading lines (Norristown, East Chestnut, Doyleston, Warminster, West Trenton, Fox Chase) would either terminate at the upper level of 30th, or continue on to Thorndale or Cynwyd. You can call this the “A” network.

    It would be simple as pie to do… just some track work at 30th Street and a bigger station to accommodate transfers at N. Philadelphia. Riders on the B network would have to transfer to get to Center City, but since it doesn’t matter what train they get on, the transfers should be quick affairs.

  • Max Wyss

    @Matthew Mitchell:

    > The problems with the present system are
    > well known, primarily people being confused
    > by having trains with the same number going
    > to two different destinations.

    Could you explain this statement. Does it mean that there are two different destinations in one direction (y-shaped lines) or simply that the line crosses the center?

    In either case, it looks to me like an assault to the intelligence of the passenger. It might be worthwile to have just a quick look at system maps, and see how common such configurations are.

  • Blayze

    It’s not really all that hard to figure out where the trains are going. As someone who uses Septa from time to time, it’s fairly easy to find what train you’re supposed to get on without freaking out. And believe me, I struggle to do basic biology and math problems but I can still figure out which line goes where on the nation’s most archaic commuter rail network.

    30th Street Station has it’s own mini-concourse for Septa outside Amtrak’s giant art deco concourse. Yes, my first commutes into Philadelphia were a bit daunting, but there’s usually ten or so people stationed in both concourses to assist in any questions. It is the best Septa station in terms of ease and accessibility, and why shouldn’t it? It’s the most grand station next to Grand Central.

    As for the Septa mini-concourse, it has all the end destinations and their arrival times on digital boards above the platform entrance-ways. Even on the platform, you have digital count-down timers which also post delays if they occur. And the best part is, they always go to the same platform! This isn’t New Jersey Transit’s ramshackle run-around in Penn Station where the departing train’s platform is random every time, ensuing a massive and injury-inducing rush for commuters. You can wait easily outside while the trains chug into the station. It’s quite scenic to say the least.

    So 30th Street is easy to navigate and all around beautiful. The second best of course is Suburban Station which is really, an art deco basement of sorts. Less glamorous, dimly lit, and a whole lot of timetable boards. It is possible to get confused here but, like 30th Street, the entrance-ways down onto the platforms have boards which give you the departing train’s terminus and arrival time. Finding the appropriate track can be the difficult thing here, so yes, keep an eye for which side of the platform you should be waiting on. Although even if you’re confused, you’ll often see the train having a sign on it showing it’s destination.

    Market East is the last and the most troublesome, along with the most dull and modern of the stations. It suffers from the same problems that Suburban does except on a bigger scale. I’ve had conductors, when asked where the train is going, to having no idea. I blame it on vague signage.

    So yes, there’s nothing wrong with the current train routes, it just needs a big overhaul in signage in the Center City stations. That and Septa itself just needs an overhaul as it is probably the least efficient commuter rail/rapid transit service in the nation. Having to wait over an hour on a stalled R7 Trenton bound train, for what appeared to be an issue on Amtrak’s part to some extent, is not excusable.

    Of course, the subways are also almost useless and difficult to understand. Philadelphia is too car dependent, thus Septa will remain shoddy in it’s designs.

  • Adirondacker12800

    What if 30th St Station was re-aligned so that trains from Trenton and West Chestnut could go through the lower level to Elwyn, Newark, and Airport

    Trains from Trenton go to Newark DE all the time. ( They go to Newark NJ all the time too) They have Amtrak painted on the outside instead of SEPTA. I don’t think they would need track work so a train with SEPTA painted on the side could use the same route as trains with Amtrak painted on the side.

    Riders on the B network would have to transfer to get to Center City, but since it doesn’t matter what train they get on, the transfers should be quick affairs.

    You are running things through for the sake of running them through. Right now people have a one seat ride to their destination. Under your plan on their inbound trip they would have to transfer to a train that is already full. On their outbound trip they would have to compete for seats which I’m sure the riders for destinations west of North Broad will find um um annoying. Sounds like a great plan. I guess you could call it a one seat ride it’s just that that the bit between North Philadelphia/North Broad and the city center would be done standing up. Sounds like a plan!

  • eldondre

    Jim and Yonah-we all agree and I’d bet Mr. Mitchell does as well, with the following statement:
    “My main complaint with SEPTA is not that the agency is stopping through services: it isn’t doing that at all, even with the changes in line naming. Rather, my problem is that SEPTA is running services from suburb to suburb without informing the customer appropriately of what is happening. People getting on a train anywhere in the region should be able to know from the time they get to the station where the vehicle will terminate, not simply that it will end downtown:”
    they are in the schedules but many overlook them. It should say, for example, Malvern via Center city, or Wilmington via Center city. In the future, I’d like to see more trains sent through to the airport (say, every 15 minutes, one from Landsale, Warminster, West Trenton, Norristown ever hour…those trains also serve the hospital complex). The r designations and pairings have nothing to do with through routing in particular and I do think SEPTA believes they can offer more for less in this plan. SEPTA still needs improvement but Mr. Casey has done a reasonably good job turning around Faye Moore’s inepta. The fact they are even considering this change is good news, IMO, in an agency that is known for never changing anything unless it’s cutting service.

  • david vartanoff

    @ Jim and all. There were two completely different connections. The staircase you describe was from street level 30th St to fare control mezzanine Septa. The OTHER access route was down from the (now) Amtrak platforms across to a different route to the Septa concourse. This was a very FAST route from Septa to a NYC bound Pennsy train. In the late 60′s I often was making the trip weekly– I worked every angle to save time. Nine out of ten times the NB (RR EB) trains came in on the same track. These stairs/tunnel connections were also an end run on platform control for the Metroliners which I presume led to closure. In that era the regular trains were very informal — trains would leave without all vestibule doors closed, there were NO reserved seats.

  • John Desmond

    Salutations, gentlefolk!

    I’ve done a good deal of suburb-to-suburb riding on Septa Regional Rail. Have found that ‘Murphy’s Law’ applys:
    1 – the trip you want to make always involves a change downtown.
    2 – you will always have 1 minute to transfer between trains at 30th (hown stairs, 20 yards to next platform, up stairs; or a 57 minute wait (on weekends, usually an hour and 57 minutes). ‘Twould be ideal if all off-hour trains pulled into 30th or Market East at once, stopping long enough for unhurried train changes, then went on way.

    The 30th St Subway to 30th St RR connection: I used this sometimes in a commute I made in ’71. Went down stairs from subway station, through tunnel under RR tracks (below Schuylkill water level – unpleasantly damp), up non-functioning escalator. Much less inviting than walking across street.

  • eldondre

    such a connection might work for Keystone trains

  • Tacony Palmyra

    I’ve done suburb-to-suburb via CC SEPTA commutes a number of times before and as has been noted, the frequency of service on the RR keeps it from being a realistic option for pretty much anyone. If you do manage to catch a train that happens to be through-routed to your destination, it still takes double the drive time and is only really useful to a tiny niche of transit-dependent riders.

    Yonah, your statement that the lack of better through-routing is “a waste of transit capacity on a grand scale” could describe SEPTA in general. Philadelphia has transit infrastructure most cities would kill for, but SEPTA’s done an excellent job of mismanaging it into uselessness over the past 40 years. Matthew Mitchell, you sound okay with that in your dismissal of “European” service levels, but there’s no objective reason that Philadelphia’s transit should pale in comparison to New York and DC. 50 years ago Philly had similar transit ridership per capita to New York and DC’s Metro didn’t even exist.

    • I have to agree with the general sentiment here. Any improvement of any SEPTA services would be more of an improvement than SEPTA itself has done in all of its existence. SEPTA has taken the greatest transit system outside of New York City in the United States and ran it into the ground. I say this for serveral reasons:
      1)They canceled many of the regional rail services that they inherited. Most of these they have let fall into complete disrepair. Now recently they have allowed the track on some of the lines to be ripped out and sold for scrap metal. They are now letting these prime ROWs that they own turn into bike trails.
      2)There is no machines to buy tickets for regional rail services in the stations. What an inconvenience and how out of date.
      3)They haven’t constructed any new capital major projects in the last 20 years unless you count rebuilding what they already have which was done so shoddily it has pieces falling off.
      4)They constantly have strikes shut down all service.

      Anyway Yonah’s idea is fairly creative and I’m glad that SEPTA is at least considering finally making some changes.

  • AlexB

    From reading the post and all the comments, it seems like this is mainly just a question of branding, graphics and signage. I’ve never used SEPTA so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s confusing. I’d probably just look at a schedule.

    My main criticism is: why does SEPTA only move 130,000 people a day? When you look at a map, the system looks pretty extensive. To only attract 130k makes it seem like SEPTA is failing, and it can’t just be the branding. Do they not have bad auto traffic in Philly? Is it really easy to drive? Do people not work downtown?

  • Total daily ridership is actually 1.1 million.

  • Andy

    What I find most frustrating about SEPTA is how the system is laid out. Regional rail is really only for suburban commuters. It never runs more frequently than 30 minutes (except maybe on the Main Line) and generally only every hours during non-peak hours. There are not enough stops in Philly. Unlike other major cities, the subway is not coordinated with regional rail outside of Center City overall. While parts of South Philly and North Philly are the densest in the city, the only rapid transit are the two subway lines, which cover little of those areas.

    Much of SEPTA’s money is put into serving middle class and wealthy suburban commuters. I remember reading that the regional rail lines are very unprofitable. I feel the need for more rapid transit within the city to serve lower income people. Since Philly often has traffic lights on every corner, the buses move very slowly. And I’m sure everyone in the area is aware that Roosevelt Blvd needs light rail or a subway at least until Cottman Ave.

    • Andy, those claims that SEPTA favors one community or another are a long way from the truth.

      –The RRD has more stations in Philadelphia (49, not counting Center City) than any of the suburban counties.

      –Even excluding Center City, there are more passenger boardings in the city than in any of the suburban counties.

      –Four of the 13 lines are entirely within city limits.

      –35% of RRD ridership is African-American.

      –Operating cost recovery ratio of the RRD is better than that of the transit system, and the highest cost recovery ratio of any route on the entire system is that of the R3 Media line. 12 of the 13 RRD lines have higher cost-recovery than the average City Transit Division line.

      –The in-city RRD lines rank #8, #9, #10, and #12 of 13 in cost-recovery.

      –SEPTA charges reverse commuters on the RRD lower fares than it charges peak-direction commuters.

      –The Great Valley Flyer (one train) picks up more riders at Exton than total all-day ridership at 17 stations.

  • eldondre

    Well, to be fair, I think, the city hasn’t been very forceful about pushing projects. they studied the blvd subway in 04 I believe and just dropped it. Maybe Mr. Mitchell knows more but the study was very positive.

  • The rapid transit line to Northeast Philadelphia (see http://www.svmetro.com/projects/roosevelt-blvd.php for an archive of project documents) would have had a lot of potential riders, but the estimated cost was $3.4 billion, so it wasn’t going to advance to the construction stage any time soon, regardless of the level of enthusiasm the city showed for it.

  • eldondre

    could they not have broken the project up into phases?

  • Jim

    @ M. Mitchell – “the assumption was that more oil crises would lead to a great increase in demand for rail service, and a European-style transit network with 10 or 20 minute service frequencies on all the lines. Obviously, things turned out differently”

    I don’t think things turned out differently so much as they took a lot longer to happen than people thought.

    When was the last time you’ve heard of transit ridership growing through a recession?

  • Chris

    Would SEPTA consider changing its City-only Lines (Airport, Chestnut Hill East and West, and Airport Lines) to rapid transit along the lines of the MFSE and Broad Street Subway? I feel this would better utilize these lines for moving people around in the city.

    I know it is more complicated than that because of where interlockings are and shared stations, but it may be more effecient.

  • Chris, the point of SEPTA-style service is that it treats regional rail as a type of rapid transit. Rapid transit can run on shared tracks with overhead catenary and mainline rail loading gauges; what distinguishes it is the service level.

  • Jason

    Alon,

    You are right, but the operation and regulation of railroads is different than transit lines.

    For instance, turnstiles or proof of payment systems are usually used in transit, instead of buying/checking tickets on board. On railroads, a conductor is responsible for the train, but most transit systems use a driver/operator as the sole personnel.

    If you have access to Transportation Research Record, check out these papers:

    Allen, John G. 1998. “From Commuter Rail to Regional Rail: Operating Practices for the 21st Century.” Transportation Research Record 1623. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.

    Allen, John G. 1999. “Inter Zone Commuter Rail as an Opportunity for Light Rail: Lessons from Boston’s Riverside Line.” Transportation Research Record 1677. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.

  • >>Would SEPTA consider changing its City-only Lines (Airport, Chestnut Hill East and West, and Airport Lines) to rapid transit along the lines of the MFSE and Broad Street Subway?

    A lot of SEPTA people, particularly those from transit backgrounds, think along these lines, but it is not feasible because of federal regulations. Period.

    It could be possible eventually to operate more cheaply with one-person operation and still meet FRA requirements, but a considerable capital investment would have to be made first, for high platforms at every station, automated fare collection, etc.

    What is practical and appropriate for in-city rapid transit with high ridership per station isn’t necessarily appropriate for commuter rail lines where some stations see only 100-200 passengers per day. Higher frequencies may significantly increase ridership, but would it be enough to cover all the additional costs?

    • Nathanael

      SEPTA is fundamentally going to need to go all high-platform eventually anyway, and is doing so bit by bit; just buy a huge pile of prefab platforms and do an entire line at a time. It’s quite legal to have trains running OPTO from Airport to Chestnut Hill West even if they still have more conductors on the Warminster Line.

      I suspect the real barriers to OPTO are union.

  • Lionel Ruberg

    I am afraid Mr. Freemark is correct. I just wrote an article for Pennswood Village, the continuing care community where I live. I had to point out that the only way for residents to know which R3 West Trenton trains go to the airport is to consult the R1 Airport schedule. The R3 schedule does not show this.

  • For instance, turnstiles or proof of payment systems are usually used in transit, instead of buying/checking tickets on board. On railroads, a conductor is responsible for the train, but most transit systems use a driver/operator as the sole personnel.

    The operation and regulation issue does not preclude turnstiles or POP. PATH is regulated as a railroad, but has turnstiles. The Staten Island Railway is a railroad, too, but it uses turnstiles for trips that are not free.

    This is ultimately a service issue, not an infrastructure issue. SEPTA can and should implement systemwide proof of payment on its regional rail. So should every other rail system in the US that isn’t Amtrak or a subway. Trains don’t have extra conductors in Japan or France or Germany, and they shouldn’t in the US. If the government wants to employ more people, it should strive to increase transit ridership, not to increase the number of employees per train.

    I don’t have access to the TRR – I’ll look the papers up when I do.

    It could be possible eventually to operate more cheaply with one-person operation and still meet FRA requirements, but a considerable capital investment would have to be made first, for high platforms at every station, automated fare collection, etc.

    One-person operation requires proof of payment, which requires replacing n conductors with one fare inspector checking tickets at random. The capital investment needed is one ticket vending machine per station, which I believe most of SEPTA already has.

    • Nathanael

      “One-person operation requires proof of payment, which requires replacing n conductors with one fare inspector checking tickets at random. The capital investment needed is one ticket vending machine per station, which I believe most of SEPTA already has.”

      Actually, the single biggest complaint about SEPTA is that some of the stations do *not* have ticket vending machines. Getting one at *every* station is generally considered a very wise use of capital investment — but has somehow been avoided for years.

      So yeech, we’re back to management.

      SEPTA management seems to have a strong bias against improving anything, although they’re usually OK at conserving what they have (apart from the lines to Quakertown and Bethlehem, which are a shameful loss). Not sure where it acquired this attitude, as it certainly wasn’t on display when the Center City Tunnel got built — but since then, practically the only changes have been either (1) mandated by law, or (2) forced by decaying structures, and SEPTA has rarely even taken advantage of the opportunities generated by the need to reconstruct things (though to be fair it did take advantage of some of those opportunities when redoing the Market Street El, but the design choices seem to have been driven by the City of Philadelphia, and represent 20-year-old thinking).

      They were still tearing out trolleys when other cities were building new ones, and tearing out trackless trolleys just as the manufacturers started building new ones again — but to be fair, they did relent on both somewhat after public pressure. However, no attempt was made to massively improve the Girard Street line during the reopening! Which is what nearly anywhere else would have done. There seems to be something intensely conservative going on at SEPTA. Too conservative.

  • Chris

    The Girard Ave Line (rt 15) originally was going to be upgraded to a more modern version like the one in Portland, with dedicated stops every couple of blocks. Additionally at the widest portions of Girard Ave it was intended to run in dedicated lanes. However SEPTA cut the funding (shocker) in the late 90′s, and when it did reopen in 2005 nothing essentially changed in its operation. Bad decision on SEPTA.

  • Jason

    @Alon Levy (00:36)

    I agree, I just wanted to point out for many of the readers that it isn’t a simple thing to switch. From an operational standpoint, converting a RR line to OPTO would allow headways to be halved without a significant increase in costs. It would also allow former conductors to maintain a job as a train operator or a fare inspector.

    It might make sense to switch some of the RR lines to use LRT rolling stock. This is what was done in the 50s with the MBTA green line branch to Riverside. It used to be a commuter line, but was converted to LRT. One of the papers I mentioned is a case study of this line.

    The problem/difficulty of this idea is intermingling LRT and commuter rail vehicles in the city center…or finding another way for the LRT vehicles to access the city center.

  • >>The problem/difficulty of this idea is intermingling LRT and commuter rail vehicles in the city center.

    It cannot be done. Period. That’s a hard and fast FRA rule which isn’t gonna be waived any time soon. If anything, regulations will be made more strict. Any modernization of the system has to be done within the FRA framework(*).

    Other options would be suboptimal. The Schuylkill Valley study envisioned running trains down the City Branch, and then on-street down to Market, but all of the potential alignments were found to be unsatisfactory because of short blocks and traffic conflicts.

    *–the alternative would be to try and isolate the RRD from the ‘general railroad system,’ but then that would mean the Wilmington, Paoli, and Trenton lines would all have to terminate at 30th Street lower, and you’d lose all the benefits of the tunnel.

    • hammersklavier

      Actually, I’ve always wondered why SEPTA doesn’t run Chinatown trains, via the City Branch and the Pennsylvania Avenue tunnel, to Girard Avenue. 90% of the grading for this type of line already exists–meaning laying track and platforms (and not creating the ROW) would be the major expenses–and CSX only uses one track on a ROW built for four to six tracks, as well as the fact that I don’t think it would take too much effort to seal the freight tunnel off from the passenger one (cinder blocks, watertight coatings, etc.)

      The main expense of such a project would be connecting the extant Broad-Ridge spur and City Branch cut together–but it shouldn’t be too ridiculously hard to just build under that part of Noble.

      It would also use the same equipment as the current Broad-Ridge trains do, so that’s another expense X’ed away, and would finally get us a line that properly services key Parkway destinations and that corner of the city.

      Just an idle thought. Neither here nor there.

  • hammersklavier

    I feel in my gut that this change will only make things MORE confusing.

    1. Making all destinations the same color will make it more difficult at stations, e.g. Wayne Jct. and Fern Rock especially, where there are no announcements telling you what trains are incoming, so you have to rely on the actual signage present on the train to figure out whether a train is going to e.g. Warminster or Doylestown.

    2. The schedules will still likely fail to tell you a train’s ultimate destination if it’s not on the usual operational run-through (i.e. Warminster-Airport, Norristown-Wilmington, etc.) An improvement I can imagine without the Regional Rail network would be the ability to schedule run-throughs based on highest demand, something that the RR system does constrain against a bit. Lansdale-Elwyn, Fox Chase-Bryn Mawr, Trenton-West Trenton, etc., are runs currently not made that the current RR schema is a psychological force against scheduling: but this can only work if the schedules clearly show a train’s end-destination.

    3. One of the major reasons why RR ridership has contracted so much since the ’50s is the fact that the network has contracted from the extent it had in those “halcyon” days to the current electrified-territory-only extent. Another major reason is the shifting of population concentrations away from the commuter network and towards greenfields: Chester County, very rural throughout most its history and not heavily serviced by the PRR, is now Philadelphia’s choicest suburb. Hence, the long-term service plan ought to be to bring several of those older commuter rail lines back online, in some form or another–in addition to focusing on bringing the mass transit to where the people are.

    @Adirondacker: You do realize that 30th Street Station is bilevel, right? It’s fairly simple, if SEPTA were ever to so choose, to route trains from Wilmington/Newark, Media/Elwyn, or the Airport towards Paoli/Thorndale or Trenton (or, yes, Chestnut Hill East and Cynwyd as well) and vice versa: just skip the University City stop and run these through trains through Amtrak’s lower-level station throat. Of course, this would mean that SEPTA trains would board on the lower concourse and that these trains would skip Suburban and Market East as well, so perhaps we can quickly figure out why SEPTA is somewhat adverse to the idea. (Not that it’s a bad one, though.)

  • Lucre

    I moved to Philly exactly at the time they made this change. I can’t help but think if they had kept things the way they were, or gone with a route map, I would have ridden the regional rail by now.

  • Drewski

    Without taking enough initiative to go look at SEPTA’s website, this sounds like what was done to route numbering on the Vienna S-Bahn. I think it was changed so that all trains to the same destination have the same route number, regardless of point of origin. It’s immensely confusing, because the way I understand it, you can travel to a destination on one line, but your return on the same track to the same original station is by a different-numbered train. And that’s assuming that you have a one-seat return ride.

    In Philly’s case, it just sounds like the most recent effort to put lipstick on a pig. SEPTA can’t work as long as Philly and its suburbs are in a non-stop battle of wills regarding funding. SEPTA becomes the regional operator, SEPTA City Division is renamed, and suburban services are either renamed or operated by new subsidiary agencies. This is what happened in LA, when RTD was broken up. It was hard enough to get LA County cities to agree on services, let alone including Riverside, San Bernardino, and the OC. The SEPTA brand can be restricted to regional rail services. No other US city has seen the cuts in all categories of rail service that Philly has. No other city has just given up on so much streetcar service since the 60′s or earlier. SEPTA’s decline won’t stop until its constituent counties stop squabbling, and they project all their neurosis and dysfunction onto a transit agency and choke themselves in the process. The route numbering thing is just another symptom.

  • Michael Schaeffer

    Sorry to bump this thread, but do you think it’s possible to open SEPTA Regional Rail Service to New Jersey? I know it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, but technically, what would be good routes, and which lines should be tied into the New Jersey Service?

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by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

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