Thomson’s ghost

SEPTA had a rough morning yesterday on the Paoli/Thorndale Line, with a broken rail taking one track out of service during the morning rush. Shuttle buses provided service between Thorndale and Downingtown, but the eye-opener of the morning came from this tweet SEPTA sent out:

That made quite a bit of sense; it let SEPTA concentrate on shuttling peak-direction passengers out of Thorndale parking lot, and Amtrak got to be a good host to SEPTA passengers on its line. And on Amtrak as on SEPTA, peak direction is towards Philadelphia in the morning, so there were plenty of empty seats on Keystone 605, although it did arrive in Harrisburg 19 minutes late.

But this co-operation in a pinch, while admirable, points out a defect in our transit system: it doesn’t happen every day. On the outer Main Line, Philadelphia-bound commuters are forced to choose between SEPTA, which is cheaper, more frequent, makes the local stops Thorndale, Whitford, and Malvern, and directly serves Suburban and Market East Stations, versus Amtrak, which is significantly faster and more comfortable, but more expensive and less convenient to Center City. This makes little sense for the riders, and less sense for the Commonwealth, which is subsidizing both services. A better system would permit passholders to ride either SEPTA or Amtrak. Metrolink and Amtrak California co-operate like this in Los Angeles: they call it the Rail2Rail program. It makes more sense there to let Metrolink passholders on Amtrak trains, since the prices are closer and the schedules sparser. But letting Amtrak riders ride SEPTA trains that fit their needs better is a win all around.

The Thomson of my title is Edgar Thomson, first Chief Engineer of the PRR. Needless to say, when Harrisburg trains and Paoli trains all ran under the PRR/PC banner, Paoli-Philadelphia passholders could ride any train they pleased. A sad reminder that, despite how far we’ve come since the age of steam, a few things really were better.

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  1. IIRC, there was discussion (or maybe it was just fantasizing) about running Keystone service into Surburban when it was re-electrified. This probably is unnecessary for all Keystone service, but would be a useful addition to peak hour service if there was a cross-honoring agreement in place.

    Also, Amtrak isn’t much more expensive on the Keystone corridor. Amtrak’s base fare is $6.50, SEPTA’s advance-paid weekday fare is $6.25. A 10-trip on Amtrak to 30th St is $59, one dollar more than a SEPTA 10-trip from zone 4 or 5. Monthly passes are more expensive on Amtrak – $35 more from Paoli and $45 more from Exton or Downingtown.

    1. Running Keystones into Suburban doesn’t strike me as terribly necessary, as long as there is open capacity on SEPTA RRD between 30th Street and Market East, which there always will be, since the employment pattern is shifted farther west than even when the tunnel opened.

      You make a fair point that per-ride ticketing is much closer to parity than pass pricing, but that’s a broken incentive structure; both SEPTA and Amtrak should be encouraging passes, since that discourages driving much more. SEPTA’s oft-quoted statistic that passes are the majority of ridership but the minority of revenue may be skewing mindset in 1234 Market, but passholders are more loyal in the long term.
      Easy prediction for the next two years: I expect the precise fare numbers to change with NPT. At least, the incentive to hold zone 4 and 5 10-trips disappears with paper 10-trip tickets, which I assume are an endangered species.

  2. What you are getting at is what Pedestrian Observations’ Alon Levy calls “organization before electronics before concrete” (or “Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton” in the original German). The idea is that European rail is better not because they have more toys, but rather they have more toys because they have better organization (at least on the passenger side). One of the major successes of organizational improvement is extensive fare-coordination, like what you suggest but on a grander scale.

    1. Please note the categories this post is filed under (and yes, they’ve been there since this post was published). 🙂 While I identify as more of a political than a technical transit writer, the Germans who came up with that wonderful phrase that Levy later stole appropriated were simply stating something that is true whenever and wherever money is a scarce resource, i.e. 100% of the time. Since, as I’ve noted, we operate under more constraints here than in our peer cities, the need for this philosophy is even greater. Of course, Philadelphia in general, and SEPTA in particular, has a reputation (deserved, as far as I can tell) for being institutionally conservative and hidebound, so it’s an uphill climb.

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