About the engineer lawyering up

I’ve seen quite a lot of nonsense being written about the engineer of Amtrak 188 lawyering up and not giving a statement to the Philadelphia Police, and I can’t let it all slide. So here’s a few words on the subject.

In the Navy (American or anybody else’s), if a ship away from the pier touches anything other than water, the ship’s captain is automatically court-martialed. The captain might be subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, but he’s definitely going to trial first. In much the same way, if a train touches anything other than rails, the engineer and conductor responsible for that train are going before a disciplinary hearing of some sort. Everyone knows this. Even if there were no possible criminal or civil jeopardy, anyone who’s been around a railroad for any length of time would know to lawyer up immediately.

Moreover, the reports of what the engineer has said, indicate that he has an incomplete memory of the crash itself; the NTSB says he activated the emergency brakes, he says he doesn’t remember doing that. That’s not evidence that the engineer is lying; the windshield of locomotive #601 is spiderwebbed in such a way that strongly suggests that it was broken when the engineer’s head struck it with considerable force. Quite honestly, I’d be surprised if the engineer could remember anything about the crash. That said, it’s still a truism that nobody in an interrogation room ever talked their way out of charges, so in the interests of justice, I’m glad that the engineer has the access to legal counsel he deserves. Because he’s going to need it.

Posted in Amtrak, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment

SEPTA surging extra service to to West Trenton Line and other routes to accommodate displaced NEC riders

SEPTA announced Wednesday evening that it would be moving trains and buses to Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County to meet increased demand on parallel routes, in the wake of service suspensions after the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional 188.

The centerpiece of the new plan is a near-doubling of service on the West Trenton Line. Free NJT-operated bus shuttles will connect Trenton Transit Center and West Trenton Station throughout the day.. Additionally, Route 14 bus service has been augmented, bus shuttles are running from Cornwells Heights to Frankford TC, and auxiliary parking lots near some stations have been opened. Details of the emergency plan are available on SEPTA’s website.

Most of the new West Trenton trains are expresses, running nonstop between Bethayres and Fern Rock TC, and running with D-stops between Bethayres and West Trenton. That is SEPTA-ese for “we don’t know how well these trains will hold a schedule, so show up a bit early and forgive us if we’re late.”

Amtrak riders can have their tickets cross-honored on the West Trenton Line, as well as the NJT bus shuttle, meaning both detour routes from New York to Philadelphia are fully cross-honoring Amtrak fares.

This comes after SEPTA ran longer trains and unscheduled extra trains on Wednesday to cope with the crowding. This new level of service is possible in part because the equipment normally assigned to the Trenton Line would otherwise be sitting idle, while SEPTA and Amtrak wait for the investigators to finish collecting evidence at Frankford Junction. Only in the off-peak hours does SEPTA have the equipment to run more trains under normal circumstances.

It is expected to be sometime next week before trains run can run on the Trenton Line again, and it is possible that the first hours or days after the reopening will only have one or two tracks available, in which case Amtrak may keep the limited operating slots for its own trains.

Posted in Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, Service Disruptions, Trenton Line, West Trenton Line | 7 Comments

Surveillance video strongly suggests Amtrak 188 derailment due to overspeed

A surveillance video in Port Richmond caught a brief glimpse of Amtrak 188 Tuesday night, and what it saw strongly suggests that the train was well over the maximum speed for the track segment immediately before it derailed.

The video, which was obtained and broadcast by CNN, shows the doomed train pass seconds before a series of flashes from arcing electricity announces the destruction of the electric catenary:

In the event that the video is taken down, let me briefly list the critical moments:

  • At 9:23:40, the train comes into view, led by ACS-64 locomotive #601.
  • At 9:23:44, the seventh and last Amfleet I car disappears from view.
  • At 9:23:46, the first flash is visible.

(I am relying on the accuracy and precision of the timestamps in the video itself, but I see no reason to suspect any inaccuracy.)

An ACS-64 is 67 feet long, and an Amfleet is 85 feet. This gives a total train length of 662 feet. (The actual train is slightly longer, but we will ignore this to get a more conservative figure.) If we call the elapsed time it takes the train to pass the camera 4.5 seconds, we can convert feet to miles and seconds to hours, and come up with an average speed of 101 mph, less than 10 seconds before the derailment.

The curve at Frankford Junction is limited to 50 mph, or was as of 2009.

Needless to say, this is well ahead of NTSB findings, and says absolutely nothing as to why the train was going so fast, but we can say with reasonable certainty that we now know the major proximate cause of Tuesday night’s wreck.

(Acknowledgments for this post go to @sandypsj, @sunnyswords, and @apocalypsepony for helping double check my arithmetic.)

Posted in Amtrak, Service Disruptions | 2 Comments

How to go around the Northeast Corridor shutdown after the Frankford Junction derailment

UPDATE 5/14: As of Thursday morning, SEPTA and NJT are co-ordinating detour service via the West Trenton Line.  SEPTA will be running a new weekday schedule with about twice as many trains as normal.  NJT will be providing free shuttle buses between West Trenton station and Trenton Transit Center.  SEPTA is also providing extra parking at West Trenton Line stations, extra Route 14 bus service, and peak-hour shuttle buses from the Cornwells Heights park-and-ride to Frankford Transportation Center.  Amtrak tickets will be cross-honored on NJT and SEPTA for the duration of the service outage.


In the wake of the derailment of Amtrak train 188 Tuesday evening, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is shut down indefinitely while investigators pore over the crash site at Frankford Junction.  In addition to the disruption to Amtrak service, SEPTA and NJ Transit services that run on Amtrak’s tracks through the accident area have been suspended indefinitely.  This is going to create a lot of hardship for riders for the foreseeable future, and while SEPTA has some alternate service suggestions for every Regional Rail station in the system, they tend to be rather slow, and unattractive to suburban riders who own cars and want a time-competitive trip into Philadelphia.  And driving in is not really an option; not ever, and certainly not while I-95 construction is ongoing.  So while SEPTA’s instructions are valid and fine as far as they go, I want to take some time to point out some of the other options available.

NJT River Line

NJT's River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton

NJT’s River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton

This will be the easiest and fastest way for people coming from Trenton, including connecting passengers from New York: From Trenton Transit Center, go outside and across Clinton Avenue to the Trenton River Line station.

From the Bristol/Croydon area, go over the Burlington-Bristol Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only, no pedestrian access), and turn right onto Broad Street for the Burlington South station. As an alternate route, take the Turnpike Bridge to US 130 south, for Florence station.

From River Wards and Tacony going to New York, take the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only). Drivers have a straightforward path down River Road to Route 73/Pennsauken station, while the few hardy cyclists and pedestrians who try this and who don’t enjoy the prospect of being squished by New Jersey’s finest stroad engineering can use Temple Boulevard and Cinnaminson Ave to Palmyra station.

South Jersey’s DLRT line takes an extra half hour or so compared to SEPTA, but is quite inexpensive: a flat $1.50 all the way from Trenton to Camden. From Walter Rand Transportation Center, connect to PATCO or a NJT bus to Center City Philadelphia. BE AWARE that the River Line has a late start and an early last run, to maintain temporal separation from freight traffic on the line.  (It also takes the River Line a while to run end-to-end, so starting up and shutting down take time.)

SEPTA West Trenton Line

The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush

The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush

For many others, especially those with destinations in West or North Philadelphia, the SEPTA West Trenton Line will be the next best option.  There is an NJT bus that connects West Trenton station with Trenton Transit Center, but it runs peak hours only, so use that at your own risk.  Passengers connecting to and from NJT may want to co-ordinate and share cabs. Since station parking lots will be oversubscribed all along the line, park-and-ride customers should probably consider backup parking locations, especially Oxford Valley and Neshaminy Malls.  Both malls have an mediocre but serviceable bus connection to the West Trenton Line: Oxford Valley to Langhorne via the 14, and Neshaminy to Neshaminy Falls via the 58.  Neshaminy Mall to Neshaminy Falls station should be walking distance, but Bristol Road is narrow and fast and has no sidewalks, so I can’t recommend it in good conscience.

As of 8:52 Wednesday morning, SEPTA has announced that it is adding cars to trains and running unscheduled extra trains on the West Trenton Line to deal with the crowded conditions.

SEPTA Local transit

If you’re coming into the city from Torresdale, Holmesburg, Tacony, or Bridesburg, then congratulations, your local bus service doesn’t entirely suck.  Busing to Frankford Terminal and picking up the El is not the most fun thing in the world, but it will have to do for now.

SEPTA Chestnut Hill Lines


The Chestnut Hill West Line does not run through Frankford Junction, but it is suspended for now due to sharing an electrical circuit with the accident site.  If they manage to turn on the power to Hill West before the NTSB releases the site, that will be a big boon to the Northwest, but as long as it’s down, riders should switch to the Chestnut Hill East line or to local buses.  CHW riders should keep a close eye on SEPTA news sources for updates.
Chestnut Hill West service is operating as of Wednesday morning.

South Jersey

Atlantic City Line passengers, who have been blissfully immune to the vagaries of PATCO’s frequently-altered schedules, should prepare to connect at Lindenwold.  Have nextpat.co bookmarked to keep track of the mess. Pennsauken riders should take the River Line to WRTC and connect via bus or PATCO.

Systemwide cascade

Riders not on the suspended lines who have a marginal decision between two transit options should be aware of how their commutes may be affected by crowding and associated delays.  Park-and-ride customers who live roughly halfway in between the West Trenton and Warminster Lines may want to ride Warminster this week.  Not many LaSalle University students take the Chestnut Hill East line at Wister, but for those who do, the 18 bus to Olney Terminal may be particularly attractive for the rest of the week, and so forth.  SEPTA probably doesn’t have much in the way of rolling stock trapped on the Trenton Line, but checking that hasn’t been anybody’s priority yet.

Cross-honoring

As of 7:30am Wednesday, NJT is cross-honoring Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor Line between New York and Trenton, and on the River Line between Trenton and Camden. After a communications delay, PATCO is cross-honoring NJT Atlantic City Line and Amtrak tickets. So Amtrak ticket holders who don’t mind taking quite a long time to get where they’re going can get completely around the suspension with their existing tickets.

Posted in Amtrak, Chestnut Hill East Line, Chestnut Hill West Line, New Jersey Transit, PATCO, SEPTA, Service Disruptions, Trenton Line, West Trenton Line | 6 Comments

Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia tonight

According to initial reports, Amtrak train 188 has derailed at or near SHORE interlocking, near Frankford Avenue and Wheatsheaf Lane in North Philadelphia.  Former Congressman Patrick Murphy has tweeted photos from the inside of a cafe car that has rolled on to its side, showing injured passengers and first responders at the scene.

The Philadelphia Fire Department has declared the derailment a “mass casualty incident”.

SEPTA Trenton and Chestnut Hill West service is suspended indefinitely, as is Amtrak service on the NEC between Philadelphia and New York. NJT hasn’t made an announcement suspending the Atlantic City Line, but I assure you it’s also closed west of Pennsauken. (Update 22:01: ACL suspended.)

I will update this post as information comes in.

Update 22:30:  Police sources are saying this may have been a collision between the Amtrak and a freight train; it is not yet clear what basis they have for saying this.  Freight is a common sight at SHORE, since it acts as the sole gateway for freight rail between South Jersey and the rest of the country, with the exception of the NJT River Line in the off-hours.  Conrail Shared Assets stores freight cars in a small yard a short distance from the junction.

Update 23:30: Amtrak reports that 238 passenger and 5 crew were on board.  ~50-60 have been taken to local hospitals, another ~15 “walking wounded” are on a SEPTA bus at the scene awaiting transport.

Update 23:45: Mayor Michael Nutter confirms five deaths and six critically injured.  120 firefighters and 200 police responded to the scene.

Update 0:00: CSX confirms that none of its trains collided with anything or were otherwise involved in the derailment of Amtrak 188.  SEPTA is saying the Trenton Line will be suspended indefinitely, and they expect that to last throughout the day on Wednesday.

Posted in Amtrak, Service Disruptions, Trenton Line | 1 Comment

Indego launches tomorrow. Are you ready?

Philadelphia’s long-awaited bike share network launches tomorrow with a ceremonial ride-off from Eakins Oval.

Indego Founder keyfob.  That's right.

Indego Founder keyfob. That’s right.

It’s here.  It’s finally here.  GET HYPE.

Indego's initial station map.  Click for live version.

Indego’s initial station map. Click for live version.

YOU ARE NOT HYPE ENOUGH.  GET MORE HYPE.

Now if I could only figure out where the hell I put my bike helmet…

Posted in Bike sharing | 2 Comments

Jobs, job access, and building a strong, solvent city

I went to Young Involved Philadelphia’s City Council Candidate Convention last night.  As I talked directly with many of the candidates, there was a common refrain among many of them: “The city needs to rebuild its tax base by bringing more jobs back into the city.”  (The policy conclusions each candidates drew from that premise varied, of course.)  And that’s true!  But I think it focuses attention and energy in the wrong place, in part because I think that accomplishing that task as a first-order goal is hard, while the task “rebuild the city’s tax base by attracting new residents” is much easier, in part because it’s building on an already existing, successful, trend.

The issue is that our extensively decentralized job market isn’t going anywhere in the short term, but that alone doesn’t actually draw people to live in the suburbs.  We live in an economy that is very, very short on job security, or any other form of loyalty between an employer and and employee.  This cultural shift seems like it’s permanent, and it’s arguably a good thing for an economy trying to create wealth.  A generation ago, a family might base a decision on where to live on minimizing commute time to the one or two specific jobs they already had.  Today, they must base their decision on minimizing commute time to the entire set of possible jobs throughout the region.  Even if most of those jobs are out in the suburbs, that pressure is going to bring a lot of educated, skilled workers into Greater Center City, and neighborhoods with fast and frequent transit access to Center City.  Center City’s importance is not only as a job center in its own right, but as a transportation hub with direct connections throughout the region.

If you’d like a visual representation of what places this kind of job-access pressure is going to bring new residents to, look no further than this map produced by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory.  (The project landing page, with links to their full 2014 report, methodology, and maps for other cities, is here.)  Maps like this one, which measure the absolute number of jobs accessible by transit and walking in 30 minutes, can help policymakers understand where residential development pressure is likely to spread to, and which neighborhoods are likely to remain affordable indefinitely.  It can also help transportation planners understand which areas are being poorly served by the existing transit network.  That can boost the priority given to projects like City Branch BRT, which will give better, faster access to underserved Strawberry Mansion; or to projects that connect peripheral job centers to the regional network, like BSL-Navy Yard or NHSL-King of Prussia; or to initiatives that boost frequencies on Regional Rail lines and reduce waiting times for neighborhoods like Germantown and Manayunk, like the city did during the PSIC era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overview Screenshot of UMN's transit accessibility map of Philadelphia

Overview Screenshot of UMN’s transit accessibility map of Philadelphia

Bringing residents back is obviously not a panacea for what ails the City of Philadelphia, but it’s a good, necessary start.  (Fixing the schools so that people don’t have to flee to the suburbs when their kids turn 5 is an obvious next step.)  But in addition to directly restoring the income and property tax bases of the city, more new residents will bring new jobs with them as a trailing indicator.  As I said, I don’t think the peripheral job centers are going anywhere anytime soon, but people generally eat, shop, and use services in the places that they live.  Residents are customers for city-based businesses, old and new.

Not only will a continuation of the residential renaissance create new retail-level businesses and jobs, but there’s another, slightly more cynical mechanism that will cause jobs to follow people into the city: our old friends, the 1%ers.  As Chester County native and proto-urbanist William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) noted in his 1989 book City, when corporate headquarters fled New York City to southwestern Connecticut in the mid-20th Century, there was no evidence to support the popular claim that businesses were fleeing onerous taxes in New York to lower taxes in Connecticut.  Even then, taxes in Connecticut were substantially similar to those in the City.  But there was a very strong relationship between the locations of the new suburban headquarters and where the CEOs of the companies lived; the average distance was eight miles.  The development of ultra-high-end housing (like the $17.6M penthouse that was the subject of false rumors involving Jay-Z and Beyoncé) in the Center City core might look a bit unseemly at times, but if those apartments get bought up by C-suite executives, we can expect more corporate office towers (and their associated jobs) to follow them into our most accessible location.  Maybe that process might involve a bit of promotion for our insanely competitive private schools, while we’re still working on the public ones.  It’s not an equitable solution in the short term, but the potential upside in the medium term is awfully hard to argue with.

All this matters because many of our longstanding civic problems, like funding our public schools, counteracting the effects of poverty and income inequality, reducing violent crime, improving our public transportation system, and even picking up trash and litter from the streets, are primarily issues of funding.  We simply can’t afford to do the basic tasks of city government with our current tax base in the long term.  We can keep trying to paper over the difference with state and federal aid, but that’s not a good strategy in the long term.  Making Philadelphia an attractive place to live makes all these problems tractable.  Attempting to lock out newcomers, which is as likely to displace longtime residents as it is to actually dissuade New Philadelphians, will keep real solutions out of reach, for all time.

Posted in Land Use and Zoning, Philadelphia City Hall, Politics | 3 Comments