There is a part of me that wishes that the sentence that makes up the subject line of this post wasn’t true, but in many ways it is objective reality. Because people prefer to ride trains over buses, as an almost universally revealed sentiment. Of course, people still ride buses, even when given a direct choice between the two modes, but that choice is usually driven by a confounding factor: the bus is cheaper, or closer, or cleaner, or accessible, or takes a more direct path, or runs more often. But the person standing at the corner of Broad and Allegheny and going to jury duty at City Hall who chooses to take the 4 or 16 bus is a rare person indeed.
Trains are also good policy:
- Trains can be powered by electricity, which can be generated from any number of sources and is priced stably, instead of diesel fuel which is increasingly expensive and subject to wild price swings based on world events. (It worth noting that SEPTA, despite being located near the heart of the Northeastern US natural gas boom/glut, has studied adopting CNG as a bus fuel and has not found any savings to be had over diesel-electric hybrids.)
- Trains scale better than buses. Each traincar can hold more people than a bus, and trains can be run at long lengths and at higher frequencies than buses. The number of buses required to fully replace the capacity of a full subway line at rush hour frequencies exceeds one per minute. Every bus requires a driver, and skilled human workers cost scarce money. Six-car subway trains are operated by lone motormen on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, and Regional Rail trains only require an engineer and a conductor, although longer trains have assistant conductors for revenue collection purposes.
- Trains are not subject to traffic conditions, nor do they contribute to congestion, which is a critical advantage to anyone who has found themselves caught in Center City or on the Schuylkill at rush hour.
- Trains are physically durable objects. The surviving Silverliner II Regional Rail cars were retired this year; they had been originally delivered in 1963. Running a bus for 30 years, much less 49, is an act of insanity almost on the level of wearing a Tony Romo jersey to an Eagles game.
The main problems with trains are the lack of flexibility (once the tracks are in one location, they don’t move, ever, even when travel patterns change) and the high costs of startup capital required to build rail lines in the first place, orders of magnitude over running buses over pre-existing streets. This is not to entirely dismiss other problems like accessibility, but those are the main reasons we don’t have more rail lines than we do. But, as I laid out in my basic thesis, we get to reap the benefits of many generations of rail investment, and generally do not need to find the hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars to build new lines (although there are obvious candidates should SEPTA ever chance upon a stray billion).
What trips SEPTA up, as it tries to exercise effective stewardship over this legacy, is a lack of institutional flexibility. It is not used to being anything other than an agency with an unstated mission of managed decline. Its internal culture does not encourage experimentation and innovation. As an example, bus routes make curious detours or stop just short of major destinations because that’s where the old streetcar lines that the buses replaced used to run, despite the buses being advertised as not being tied to the fixed routing of the street trackage. SEPTA is a multimodal agency, and does better in its multimodality than many comparable agencies, but it must do even better.
The primary low hanging fruit for improving SEPTA is comprehensive fare reform. SEPTA’s fare system is notoriously complex, but it creates many unhelpful incentives. The most obvious is the very high ($1.00) cash transfer fare, which incentivizes people to take long bus rides to and from their destinations, instead of changing to a subway train and only using the bus as a feeder. Other problems include the low service frequencies on Regional Rail, and the high fares to be found outside the traditional peak-hour-peak-direction service, a facet that has seen negative progress in the last decade. The New Payment Technologies project under way at SEPTA is an excellent opportunity to try new approaches to fare policy, an opportunity SEPTA shows no signs of wanting to take advantage of. This subject can (and will) be the focus of an entire series of posts.
One final note on the steel wheel vs. rubber tires issue: Philadelphia was once a city built around its streetcar lines. For the most part, those lines are no longer with us, having been replaced by buses. While that loss is a major tragedy (and an unpunished crime), it’s sadly the case that restoring those losses is not a wise use of scarce transit capital funding. Even when the rails are mostly intact, as on Route 23, it is my position that streetcars compatible with Philadelphia loading gauge are not a superior enough option to warrant the spending. Again, this will be a future focus on this blog, with particular attention given to the remaining trolley lines in West Philadelphia, on Girard Avenue, and in Delaware County, and to the particular problems of Route 23 as one of the longest and most heavily used lines in the system.