SEPTA Delays Expected to Last Through Summer

From Daily Local News By Lucas Rodgers:

TMACC’s Executive Director, P. Timothy Phelps, spoke with Daily Local News about the SEPTA Regional Rail problems last week.  Below, is the article Phelps is featured.  Enjoy!

On an average day, the trains on SEPTA’s (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) Regional Rail lines carry about 130,000 people back and forth between Center City Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, according to SEPTA’s Revenue and Ridership Report for fiscal year 2016.

However, SEPTA’s daily ridership and schedules for the Regional Rail will be anything but average for the foreseeable future, as more than 100 railcars are out of service, due to a structural defect in the newer trains.

SEPTA announced on July 3 that it had identified a defect in the Silverliner V railcars and would remove all 120 of them from service. The structural defect – cracking in the main suspension systems on the railcars – was first discovered in the early morning on July 1, by SEPTA railroad vehicle maintenance personnel.

SEPTA has since inspected all of its Silverliner Vs and found that one of the cars had a fractured beam, and all but five of the other cars had fatigue cracks in their suspension systems. The Silverliner Vs comprise about one third of the Regional Rail fleet, and contain 13,000 seats that will now be unavailable.

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The reduction of railcars in SEPTA’s Regional Rail fleet is already causing plenty of headaches for commuters who rely on the trains to travel in and out of the city for work, school or other reasons. Trains are running less frequently, and it has led to delays and crowded railcars, with some trains even having to skip stations if they’re filled to capacity.

Rob Henry, executive director of the Greater Valley Forge Transportation Management Association (GVF), said the reduced service is certainly affecting commuters in the area. He said the heaviest impact is probably on residents traveling from suburban areas to Center City, as opposed to people traveling out of the city.

Henry said there are a lot of people in the area who commute both ways, so GVF advocates for people to utilize alternative forms of transit or ride bikes if they can. He said delays on Regional Rail are really heavy during the peak travel times, like in the morning and evening rushes, so it helps if businesses allow their employees to telework or use flextime. There is a need for companies to plan ahead, and have a long-term strategy thinking about how people get to and from work, and where they’re coming from, and have systems in place for when things like this happen, he said.

SEPTA announced on Friday that it would be implementing an interim weekday schedule for Regional Rail lines starting Monday. The interim schedule will be in place until at least Labor Day, SEPTA officials said during a news conference on Friday at SEPTA’s headquarters in Center City.

Eight of the Regional Rail lines will operate on the interim schedule during the week: Trenton, Manayunk/Norristown, Media/Elwyn, Lansdale/Doylestown, West Trenton, Chestnut Hill East, Wilmington/Newark, and Paoli/Thorndale. Under the interim weekday schedule, each of those lines will have an extra train that will run earlier than the normal Saturday schedule, and additional trains will be added to the a.m. and p.m. travel periods, but all available equipment has to be spread out over SEPTA’s entire railroad network so the extra service will not reflect normal weekday frequency levels, according to SEPTA’s website. Amtrak will also increase the capacity of its Keystone trains, which run along the Paoli/Thorndale Line.

“Customers should be prepared for crowding on trains,” SEPTA said. “Because of the continued reduced seating capacity and out of a concern for the safe travel of customers, some trains may not be able to stop to pick up additional riders, especially at stations closer to Center City.“

Four of the Regional Rail lines will operate on a current Saturday schedule during the week, with no additional enhancements or adjustments: Airport, Chestnut Hill West, Fox Chase, and Warminster. The Cynwyd Line is operating shuttle buses, which will make stops at Cynwyd, Bala, Wynnefield, and 30th Street Station.

In an effort to bolster its Regional Rail fleet without the Silverliner Vs, SEPTA has leased equipment from other companies, including: two locomotives and five passenger cars from Amtrak; one locomotive and eight passenger cars from New Jersey Transit (NJT); and five passenger cars from Maryland Area Regional Commuter Train Service (MARC). SEPTA is adding a set of leased vehicles to the Paoli/Thorndale Line, as well as three additional Bryn Mawr local trains to Philadelphia and reverse trains.

SEPTA is recommending that commuters make use of its other transit services besides the Regional Rail lines, including the Norristown High Speed Line, the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines, trolley lines and buses.

Mike Bowman, president of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, said the Regional Rail delays have not been much of an issue for most commuters in the area because a lot of the commuters use the Norristown High Speed Line, which hasn’t really been affected by the removal of the newer Regional Rail cars. The Norristown High Speed Line is a light rail service that runs from Norristown to the 69th Street Transportation Center, with stops in the Main Line area in Montgomery and Delaware counties. Riders can take the Market-Frankford Line into Center City from 69th Street.

Bowman said a lot of employees at businesses around Norristown and King of Prussia take the Norristown High Speed Line to get to work. He said the King of Prussia area supports about 50,000 jobs, and quite a few of those are in retail.

Bowman said he has heard nothing but compliments about how SEPTA is handling everything with communications. SEPTA did what they had to do, and they did the right thing by pulling the defective trains off the lines, he said.

Some commuters may choose other options for traveling to and from the city, such as driving, carpooling, biking or using a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft.

In a joint news conference between Uber and the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) on Wednesday, the two organizations announced they had reached an agreement to allow Uber to operate legally in the city through Sept. 30. Uber and PPA have had a somewhat adversarial relationship, as Uber had previously operated on uncertain legal grounds in the city, but PPA has pledged not to take action against Uber for the time being. Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, was not officially included in the agreement, but Lyft currently offers its services in Philadelphia.

Tore Fiore, executive director of Destination Delco, said commuters taking the Media/Elwyn Line in and out of Delaware County were not only dealing with the dilemma of SEPTA pulling some of the railcars off the line, but also a massive overhaul of a section of the tracks, which began a few weeks ago.

SEPTA has suspended service west of the Swarthmore station to continue reconstruction of the Crum Creek Viaduct, but SEPTA is now running shuttle buses to stops from station to station: Swarthmore to Wallingford to Moylan-Rose Valley to Media to Elwyn, and vice-versa. Service west of Swarthmore is set to resume September 4.

Fiore said residents of Delaware County have handled strains on public transportation services in the past, such as when Pope Francis visited Philadelphia last September, and they’ll get by in the meantime. “We have a certain record of resiliency here in Delaware County … we can figure it out,” he said.

SEPTA is also preparing for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, which runs from July 25 to 28, and off-peak travel is expected. Enhanced service is still being added to the Broad Street Line subway service, and the Airport Line service is still scheduled to run every half hour.

Tim Phelps, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Chester County (TMACC), said the reduced schedule is putting some stress on trains on the Paoli/Thorndale Line during peak hours, and causing service delays farther down the line. He said Chester County has the benefit of having the trains start in either Thorndale or Malvern, so riders in the county can board the trains before they fill up as they get into the Main Line area. He said TMACC is encouraging commuters to look into using Amtrak, which runs its Keystone trains through the Paoli/Thorndale Line, or carpooling or ridesharing.

Phelps said commuters taking Regional Rail into Center City have been affected by the reduced schedule, but he hasn’t heard about as many issues for folks taking trains out of Center City to work at businesses in Chester County, such as Vanguard and other companies in the Great Valley Corporate Center. He said the primary source of public transportation in Chester County is train service. “It’s a transportation spine for us,” he added.

Phelps said the issues with the Regional Rail service can be an inconvenience for folks, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. “It could cause three months of heartache, but it could potentially save a life down the road,” he said.

Hyundai Rotem, the South Korea-based company that manufactured the Silverliner V railcars, is currently performing comprehensive computer modeling of the equalizer beams on the cars, and metallurgical testing is being utilized to determine the cause of the cracking, SEPTA said. The Silverliner Vs were placed into service on the Regional Rail lines in 2013.

Follow Digital First Media staff writer Lucas M. Rodgers on Twitter @LucasMRodgers and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/lucasmrodgers.

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