» 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.