Strike update: TWU signals no strike Monday, will play the uncertainty game

WHYY/Newsworks is reporting that TWU Local 234 will not strike against SEPTA immediately after its strike authorization vote on Sunday. Union local president Willie Brown will instead launch TWU’s PR campaign at a press conference Monday afternoon, attempting to convince a skeptical public why TWU is justified in walking off the job for the first time in six years. WHYY reports that TWU will not walk off the job before that press conference

There is nothing holding TWU to not walking out Monday night, should it vote to authorize a strike on Sunday. In fact, there is nothing that holds it to the word of the anonymous sources of WHYY’s story. But there are two major reasons to think that the story will prove accurate. One is that it would be a very odd thing for the union to miscommunicate to or burn a journalist so flagrantly. The other is an analysis of the union’s rational self-interest. The union creates minor disruption every day it could strike but does not, while suffering none of the legal or financial consequences of an actual strike action. On the other hand, if they walk out now, they risk alienating what little remains of its public sympathy, even in the pro-labor political environment of Philadelphia. SEPTA management is credited with a renaissance at the transit agency, and TWU still bears the black reputation of the many strikes it waged against SEPTA in the 1990s and 2000s. TWU is simply holding a weak hand, and needs to draw better support before a showdown with SEPTA. Good luck to them, I suppose. They’ll need it.

Posted in SEPTA, Service Disruptions | Leave a comment

STRIKE WARNING: SEPTA City and Suburban Transit Divisions (TWU 234)

After working without a contract since April, Transport Workers Union Local 234 has called a strike authorization vote for 3:00 PM this Sunday, October 26th.  If it passes, and there is no reason to suspect that it will not, a strike may occur at any time afterwards.  This will be the first TWU 234 strike since October-November, 2009, and the second SEPTA strike overall this year, after the 24-hour Regional Rail strike in June.  In 2009, TWU maximized disruption by postponing the walkout for a few days after the strike vote, and then striking immediately after the World Series left town.

In the event of a strike, all bus, subway, and trolley service will be suspended.  Regional Rail service will still continue, as BLET and IBEW (the unions that struck last June) have agreed to contract terms with SEPTA.  (This removed the leverage that came from threatening a simultaneous strike of all divisions, possibly precipitating TWU’s move to an authorization vote.)  Other providers such as PATCO, Amtrak, and NJ Transit will be unaffected.

SEPTA management has finally given its standard signal of expecting a transit strike, and is preparing for massive crowds at Center City Regional Rail stations.

Keep an eye or ear on local news media beginning Sunday night, as SEPTA transit service may run or not run on very little notice, and prepare alternative travel arrangements accordingly.

Posted in SEPTA, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment

Platform Screen Doors NOW

The new hotness today comes from the unlikely place of the office of City Councillor David Oh (R-At Large), who told free-tabloid Metro yesterday that South Korean company TIS Inc. wants to install platform screen doors on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines.

Platform screen doors (PSDs) are an old and mature safety technology in Asia and Europe, but they have yet to see a major deployment in the United States, apart from a handful of airport circulators and the Las Vegas Monorail.  (The Honolulu Metro, under construction, will open with them in 2017.)  They often go hand-in-hand with driverless systems, since PSDs require a signaling system that can stop the train in exactly the same spot (to within an inch or two) every single time, and also remove the possibility of a person falling, jumping, or being pushed onto the tracks, which removes the necessity of having a person watching out to apply a (probably futile) emergency brake.  In addition to the obvious and well-promoted safety features, PSDs also keep trash and detritus off the tracks, which SEPTA would otherwise have to remove during the off-hours, or risk having it become fuel for a third-rail-sparked track fire.  In addition to the increases in reliability, PSDs also allow for more aggressive train-handling, which shaves time off of the schedule and makes everyone’s trip faster.

TIS’s pitch to SEPTA is that they will install PSDs on SEPTA’s platforms gratis, in exchange for the right to sell advertising on the doors to recoup their investment.  If this is true, even in broad outlines, then SEPTA should be looking to sign on the dotted line as fast as it can find a pen.  Because if subway frequencies are uncoupled from labor costs, then SEPTA can run trains as frequently as the signal system permits, throughout the service day.  Other writers, including Jarrett Walker and Emily Washington, have delved into the link between driverless operation, high frequency (especially high off-peak frequency), and higher ridership, but suffice it to say that having a train that shows up every 5 minutes or less is pretty much the ideal scenario for transit.  And if TIS weren’t offering to foot the bill, and there weren’t a slew of other things SEPTA needed to take care of before they break (trolleys, trains, bridges and viaducts, substations), I’d rank PSD installation as a strong candidate for #1 Capital Budget Priority.

The devil, of course, will be in the details.  The signal systems on the Subway and El might need upgrades to be compatible with automated operation, as might the control systems on board the M-4 and B-IV fleets.  There is also the slim chance that the system turns out to be buggy or just a lemon, like the CBTC system installed by AdTranz in the Subway-Surface tunnel years ago.  If that happens, which is unlikely, but possible, SEPTA would need an exit clause to tear out or replace the PSDs, without getting sued for TIS’s expected revenue from future advertisements.  Speaking of advertisements, some people will hate them, but they’re for a good cause, and are hardly as disruptive as renaming an entire station.

TWU 234 will also be a stumbling block, insofar as they can be expected to object to anything that is potentially the first step to automating any of their members out of a job.  However, automation, even driverless operation in daily service, does not mean the elimination of all train driver positions.  For example: trips in, out, and within train yards are typically always handled by humans.  Also, TWU leadership might want to talk to veteran operators among their rank-and-file about the psychological toll of being at the controls of a train involved in a passenger fatality incident.  Mostly, it will be worth whatever fight SEPTA and its riders have to wage with the TWU, to get to driverless operation. I hope it won’t require much of a fight, but if it should even precipitate a strike, so be it.  PSDs are the best improvement SEPTA can make for itself, its workers, and (most importantly), the public it serves.

Posted in Broad Street Subway, Market Frankford Subway-Elevated | 11 Comments

Places where SEPTA Regional Rail shares track with freight

Commenter Tsuyoshi asked, “Are there any [SEPTA Regional Rail tracks] shared with freight?

That’s a bit of an involved question, but the short answer is: “yes, quite a few”.  As asked, the real answer is that all of the Regional Rail network could be used for any potential freight customer on-line, and virtually every line sees at least some freight, but as a practical matter, only some track segments see regular freight service.  Fewer still see freight in the daylight hours, in mixed traffic with SEPTA passenger service.  A handful, including the Center City Tunnel, and the Airport Line between 90th Street and the Terminals, are unlikely to ever see a freight train for reasons of geography and geometry.

This is as comprehensive a listing of where freight routes intersect with the Regional Rail network, as I can assemble:

  • SEPTA runs on CSX tracks between West Trenton and Neshaminy; the TIGER-funded track separation between the two will be done by the end of next year.  Farther down the same line, CSX and SEPTA between Newtown Jct. and Cheltenham Jct. were separated in 2004, during the Faye Moore era, and the way it was done (single-tracking both, removing flexibility without adding any capacity to compensate) is still grounds for salty language, ten years on.
  • The short line Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad serves industrial customers in Montgomery and Bucks Counties on the ex-Reading side of the system, and acts as a bridge line between other local short lines and CSX.  Its main yard is just north of Lansdale Station, visible from the platforms.
  • NS runs on the Manayunk/Norristown Line for a very short distance to access the Trenton Cutoff from its Philadelphia-Reading mainline; someone with a good arm could hit both ends of the shared segment with thrown baseballs from the platform at NTC.
  • NS and CSX retain trackage rights over the Airport Line from CP 60TH STREET to CP 90TH STREET, and use their four-hour window to move unit trains of Bakken crude oil to the new terminal in Eddystone.  When the Class Is recently asked SEPTA to run oil trains during the day, SEPTA told them to pound sand.
  • Trains carrying stone for track ballast from the quarry in Glen Mills stopped running on the Media/Elwyn line in 2011.  Those trains stopped running because of deteriorating track conditions west of Elwyn, which are due to be rehabilitated as part of the Wawa service restoration project.  The West Chester Railroad would like that connection restored so that it might serve potential freight customers in Chester County.
  • NS uses the Amtrak Northeast Corridor in Delaware to access its lines serving the Delmarva Peninsula.
  • Conrail Shared Assets will run trains on the NEC between SHORE interlocking and Brewerytown in North Philadelphia, to interchange trains to and from South Jersey via the Delair Bridge.
  • It is very rare for through-freight to use the NEC, as opposed to a parallel mainline owned by one of the Class Is, but it does still happen on rare occasions.

Given all of that, it’s critical to be aware, as we advocate for rapid transit-level frequencies on Regional Rail, that we cannot and should not try to impose other rapid transit standards; SEPTA’s railroad is a railroad, and has all of the functions of a railroad.  Freight may be incredibly unsexy, and sharing tracks with freight is a frustration for passengers and dispatchers alike, but keeping freight on the rails is as critical for a sustainable transportation system as any passenger rail project.

Posted in Legacy Infrastructure, SEPTA | 8 Comments

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Michael Noda:

Itinerant Urbanist looks at how high frequency service makes PATCO an entirely different beast from SEPTA Regional Rail, even with very old data. One note to add; the recent PATCO debacles with the bridge construction schedules can be interpreted as PATCO being forced to give up its major attraction, its high frequency. And in that light, the PR nightmare that ensued was entirely predictable.

Originally posted on Itinerant Urbanist:

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to…

View original 691 more words

Posted in Organization before Electronics before Concrete, PATCO, SEPTA | 11 Comments

The Blog is Back! What happened while we were gone?

Oh, yes, right.

EVERYTHING

It’s been eventful.

Some technical problems related to a self-destructing laptop took down posting access to the blog, but they’re fixed now, and hopefully will never return. (Also: SHINY new laptop.) I hope I was able to keep those of you who follow me on Twitter informed, or at least amused in the interim.

And the blog really is returning to a Philadelphia a mini-Rip Van Winkle who slept through the last two months would only partly recognize.

And that was all just one day. (September 4th)

Since then, the hits have just kept coming, the latest being SEPTA’s declaration that its pilot program of overnight Subway and El service on weekends is a smashing success, and will be “extended indefinitely”. Late night revelers and graveyard shift workers alike have taken to the restored rail service, with average weekend ridership up 66% over the Nite Owl buses. Despite that added ridership not covering the increased cost of the service, a confident SEPTA is committing itself to being a public service, driving economic growth in Philadelphia. As of now, SEPTA cannot directly recover any of the myriad gains to the city that take the form of greater economic activity, decreased incidence of driving-while-impaired, or quality of life improvements like being able to cross 2nd Street in Northern Liberties between 2:00a and 3:00a without getting run over by a taxi. But the declaration that the public good outweighs the bottom line — from a SEPTA that is still under the stringent financial management of CFO Rich “Dr. No” Burnfield — is a demonstration of self-confidence that’s still surprising, and even staggering in the context of SEPTA’s precarious position before the passage of Act 89.

Writing this blog is going to be a lot more fun, going forward. I hope I get plenty of opportunity to do so.

Posted in Housekeeping, SEPTA | Leave a comment

Weekly Roundup: Pay as you enter, IBEW settles, police body cams, Greenlee may be a fool, and Previdi definitely is

Another edition brought to you by the World’s Worst Blogger:

  • In the end of an era, SEPTA has announced that, beginning on September 1, pay-as-you-leave will be abolished on the Suburban Transit routes out of 69th Street Terminal where it is currently the rule. This will standardize the entire SEPTA transit system on the more logical and familiar pay-as-you-enter rule, ostensibly in preparation for NPT. One hopes that it will be the precursor to other steps to bring further sanity to SEPTA’s fare system. Dare we suggest abolishing the $1 transfer fee and adjusting the base fare to compensate in 2016? We can recapture the efficiencies of open boarding at 69th Street while retaining the simplicity and sense of pay-as-you-enter by putting bus and trolley boarding areas at 69th Street inside the faregates. Think on it, SEPTA!
  • A SEPTA electrical worker participating in the Trolley Tunnel Blitz apparently misjudged the distance to the adjacent active MFL tracks, and was struck by an El train in the tunnel at 22nd Street Monday afternoon. The worker, who was rushed to Hahnemann University Hopsital with injuries to the head and knee, is expected to recover soon; the Monday evening rush hour, already disrupted by the Trolley Blitz, was snarled by an El shutdown, followed by single tracking around the accident site.
  • Speaking of SEPTA electrical workers, the IBEW local representing Regional Rail workers reached a tentative contract agreement with management yesterday. IBEW was one of the two unions that staged a 24-hour-long strike this past June; the other union, representing Regional Rail’s engineers, is still in talks, and is making pessimistic statements.
  • The eyes of the world are riveted on the absolute failure of policing in Ferguson, MO, where riots and police riots have ensued after the fatal shooting of a unarmed young man by police officer. The body camera that could have told us much about that initial encounter, instead reportedly sat in a box in Ferguson PD headquarters, as North St. Louis County police officers, like many around the country, are resistant to adopting them. Meanwhile, in a display of what policing should look like, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel thinks body cameras are the awesomest thing ever, and cannot wait until all of his officers are wearing one. Kudos, Chief!
  • The #SEPTAWILM petition is still going, having passed the 1,500 signature mark last night. And as petition starter David Curtis notes, the riders and potential riders already know that expanding off-peak Wilmington service is of mutual benefit to both Delaware and Pennsylvania: the ratio of petition signers from DE to petition signers from PA is less than 1.02:1.
  • As if the ongoing ad blitz and the swirling rumors of an imminent naming rights deal with Verizon for Suburban Station weren’t enough, Verizon’s archrival Comcast has found the name of its headquarters scrubbed from SEPTA signage throughout the concourse.
  • An extension of the 22nd Street Bike Lane from Spring Garden to Fairmount is being held up because Councilman Bill Greenlee’s office is afraid of numbers. Actually, maybe not, but that’s one of the more charitable interpretations. The space on the pavement for the bike lane is there, and it’s not taking away a legal car travel lane, just an unmarked, illegal, car travel lane.
  • Bob Previdi needs to shut up forever. The way to bring Amtrak into Suburban Station (and Market East!) already exists, and it’s called the free transfer onto SEPTA Regional Rail (Ctrl+F “Amtrak”). Quit trying to spend scarce money to fix something that isn’t broke, and especially don’t waste money trying to do something in hardware that is best taken care of in software.
Posted in Amtrak, DART First State, Fare policy, Legacy Infrastructure, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Philadelphia City Council, SEPTA, Service Disruptions, Threats to Life and Safety | 7 Comments