Sandy Smith may be the most awesome man in Philadelphia. I tend to refer to Sandy as “the man who’s forgotten more about Philadelphia transit than I’ll ever know”, which is illustrative but slanderous: I’ve never known him to forget anything. I am reminded of his awesomeness frequently, given his prolific writing as editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, contributor to Philadelphia Magazine, and being generally ubiquitous in any place online where Philadelphians gather, where he’s identifiable by his usual sobriquet “MarketStEl”. I got to reconnect with Sandy last month, at the Urban Geek Happy Hour at Frankford Hall in Fishtown, the next edition of which is tonight at 6:00. (I won’t make it tonight due to other holiday commitments, but if “Urban Geek Happy Hour” sounds like your thing at all, you should totally drop by.) Talking with Sandy in meatspace is always pleasant, but I was reminded that there is one topic on which he and I are on opposite sides.
Background: On July 25th, 2010, SEPTA renamed its Regional Rail lines, removing the R1-R8 numerical designations they had borne since the opening of the Commuter Tunnel in 1984. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. Including, rather publicly, by Sandy Smith.
Now, it’s undeniable that SEPTA handled the transition from Dr. Vuchic’s numbers to names very poorly. At the very least, it should have retained at least some of the colors for visual identification of trains and printed schedules. It didn’t, and then had to backtrack and re-add colors to printed timetables that had, for the most part, no continuity with the recent past. (Signage on trains or in stations is still monochrome.)
But the basic idea behind scrapping the R-numbers was fundamentally sound, which was that they had ceased to function effectively as a customer communications tool, if they ever had in the first place. During my undergrad years, every time I went into Philadelphia and came back on SEPTA, some poor lost soul trying to get to Yardley or Somerton would always have to be put off of our R3 train at 49th Street, to either wait a desolate hour for an inbound train, or navigate back to 30th Street by other means (which they were rarely competent to do on their own, for obvious reasons). The frequency of people getting lost by taking the right R-number in the wrong direction was astonishing and disturbing, and bad for anyone like me who wants to be the kind of person who assumes basic competence in the general public. And note that, in my example, the appearance of an inbound train wasn’t the end of a person’s troubles, because not once since I came to Southeast Pennsylvania in fall of 2000, has an ex-R3 Media/Elwyn train run through to the ex-R3 West Trenton on the weekend. That train back from 49th Street would either short-turn at Market East, or run through to Chestnut Hill.
Moreover, it’s not as though Philadelphians are averse to names for their transit lines. When the Vuchic Plan was being implemented, we never considered going Full German and redesignating the El and the Subway the U1 and U2. Most Philadelphians can’t even bring themselves to verbally acknowledge that the El and the Subway have consistent color schemes; “Blue Line” and “Orange Line” are shibboleths that immediately mark one as an outsider. No, it’s the Market-Frankford Line, or the El, and the Broad Street Line, or the Subway. We do names here.
So, I say that things not getting better when SEPTA scrapped the R-numbers is because of how SEPTA did it, not because the R-number status quo was any good. And the top two things SEPTA can do to fix it are: 1) expanding the use of colors to differentiate lines visually, and 2) picking better names that don’t suck. Because the names SEPTA gave its lines are horrible.
Now, there are reasons that led SEPTA down the path of nomenclatural bungling, and most of them are actually quite understandable. What was the PRR Paoli Local has extended well past Paoli for decades, but Paoli still has a strong brand. The Norristown line gained Manayunk as a double-name, to distinguish it from the Norristown High Speed Line and to advertise the best destination on the line. But ultimately, these names are too long, too wordy, and nearly impossible to use well in normal conversation. And I say this as someone who uses verbose names all the time, as readers of this blog have probably figured out by now.
So I would say that SEPTA needs to come up with new names for its Regional Rail lines, so that we can actually refer to them when speaking without completely interrupting the conversation. And because I care enough about it, I have suggestions as to what to change them to.
First, let me give my heuristics as to what constitutes a good name. Mostly, it should be short and memorable. My guidelines for brevity are maximums of two words and three syllables. Also, to save Alvin Elliott’s voice from too much abuse, there should be no need for glottal stops or other awkward pauses to separate words.
Next, a quick listing of the names that are working well enough that there’s no question of different names: Airport, Cynwyd, Warminster, Fox Chase, Trenton. Single names, single words (except the two-syllable, eight letter Fox Chase). These names work. Let’s not mess with them.
The ex-R2 Wilmington/Newark Line, near and dear to my everyday life, is one of the worst offenders today. The two adjacent ‘n’ sounds in the double name must either be slurred together or awkwardly disconnected. Fortunately, there’s an obvious replacement candidate: the Delaware Line, which usefully refers to all three of the River, the County, and the State. This saves nine characters written and two syllables spoken, and also removes any confusion related to Newark and its New Jersey homograph.
The ex-R3 Media/Elwyn Line, near and dear to my heart, should either omit the “Media/”, and end confusion with the 101 Trolley, or find a better name that encapsulates more of the line than its termini. In a rare moment of homerism for my alma mater, I might suggest “Garnet Line”, but honestly Elwyn Line ought to suffice until such time as the line is extended to Wawa or West Chester.
The ex-R5 Paoli/Thorndale Line is the Main Line, full stop. I’m aware that SEPTA thinks that its main line goes up to Glenside, but they’re wrong, and anybody in this region with the barest grip on geography, history, or sanity could tell them that. And while we’re at it, let’s bring an end to real estate brokers listing Newtown Square (!) and Wallingford (!!!) addresses as “Main Line”, once and for all.
The ex-R6 Manayunk/Norristown Line should stop trying to use its name to recruit barhoppers and start using it to recruit sad and angry car commuters, and redub itself the Schuylkill Line. That ought to be a giant flashing sign to people that if they don’t enjoy the parking lot that is I-76, in both directions, in any daylight hour, then this train is the civilized alternative.
The ex-R7 and ex-R8 Chestnut Hill Lines are a problem. They’re long (24 characters, 3 words), and frequently mistaken for each other. (SEPTA has taken to putting “EAST” and “WEST” in all-caps on the Silverliner V electronic signs). Unfortunately, they really are a pair, and there’s no better name readily available. Both lines also serve the neighborhoods of Mount Airy and Germantown, but neither of those offers a superior alternative. I’m going to grit my teeth and let them go, but you might have better ideas which you should leave in the comments.
The ex-R5 Lansdale/Doylestown Line has a couple different strong options. The simplest is to simply truncate the name to Doylestown Line, which would be fine except that less than half of the trains serving the line actually make it to Doylestown. The other obvious option is to use the name of the premier daily train on the line that SEPTA has recently stopped using, the North Penn Limited, and call it the North Penn Line. The only catch here is historical accuracy. While SEPTA’s North Penn Limited goes (went?) express to Fort Washington and local to Doylestown, its Reading Railroad predecessor ran express to Lansdale and local to Bethlehem. Still, the precedent has already been set, and with revival of service to Quakertown or beyond on ice, confusion is unlikely to be an issue anytime soon.
Lastly, the ex-R3 West Trenton Line is an odd case. It does get confused with the Trenton Line more often than it should, but there’s no strong alternative, and it’s not overly verbose. For one, West Trenton has no short turns on the line, so every outbound train is either a West Trenton local or a West Trenton express. I’m inclined to leave it as is (change for the sake of change and for no other purpose is considered harmful), but I’m sure someone will tell me why I’m wrong in the comments. (Am I being sufficiently unsubtle here, or need I break out the sledgehammers?)
So, that’s the extent of my one major disagreement with Sandy Smith. I’m sure this is hardly enough get me expelled from future social gatherings. But honestly, it’s a source of anxiety for me that we don’t agree on a major issue; it greatly raises my priors that I’m just wrong. Right now, I don’t think I’m wrong, but I’d be vastly more reassured by convincing Sandy than convincing SEPTA. Make of that what you will.