It’s almost treated as impolite to mention, but SEPTA’s Regional Rail system has a definite class structure to it. This is apart from, or perhaps parallel to, the actual class divides that separate the communities served, but I’m referring here to the differences created by the most fundamental attribute of the individual lines: length. Short lines and long lines are not in any sense equal. They operate differently, serving different purposes and different markets, and the determination to treat them as equals actually creates distortive effects to the detriment of the entire system.
The Regional Rail Division has 13 lines, which can be broken down into six long lines: Wilmington, Paoli, Doylestown, Warminster, West Trenton, and Trenton, and five short lines: Airport, Cynwyd, the Chestnut Hills, and Fox Chase. Elwyn and Manayunk/Norristown are mid-length lines that stand in between; it can be taken as read that they incorporate a blend of the characteristics of both types, but since the point of this post is to point out contrasts, and both lines are sufficiently unique as to warrant special consideration, I’ll put off talking about them for another post.
The long lines terminate in the suburbs, in Zones 4, 5, or 6, and serve a primarily suburban market. If they did not exist, the great majority of their riders would drive; each has a significant amount of park-and-ride traffic. Peak hour express trains exist to provide a faster (and thus more attractive) trip for outer zone riders, and secondarily to load-balance crowded trains.
The short lines terminate geographically in Zone 2, either within the Philadelphia city limits, or less than half a mile away in Cynwyd. They exist to provide a premium transit service to city residents, based on speed and comfort. If they went away, while some of their riders would drive, many would take buses like the 44, 23, or 37, or would otherwise connect to the Broad Street Subway.
Of course, the SEPTA Zone system I just mentioned as a descriptor of line length is based on a uniform metric: each Zone, staring with Center City and proceeding outward, is a ring formed by uniform concentric circles around Philadelphia City Hall (with the exceptions of the Airport and the New Jersey and Delaware stations). The admirable effect is that any two stations that are the same distance to the heart of the city at Broad and Market will have the same fare into the city, ignoring any historical accidents like the directness of the rail journey, or the time taken to complete it, or whether intercity service survived on your line.
But not all equidistant stations are created equal: there is an important difference between a Zone 2 rider boarding at Sedgwick and a Zone 2 rider boarding at Tacony. That difference is that the cost to provide a seat for the Sedgwick rider is only the cost of running that seat out to Chestnut Hill East (Zone 2), and back, while the seat for the Tacony rider needs to run out to Trenton (Zone 6) and back. Put another way, when these two riders return home in the evening, the Sedgwick rider can only displace a rider who would have paid as much as she did for her ticket or pass, while the Tacony rider might be taking a seat that could have been sold for $4.25 more (single ride advance purchase), or $64 more per month (Trailpass). That loss of potential revenue hurts the cost recovery of the line.
When SEPTA brought in Dr. Vukan Vuchic to plan the post-Tunnel Regional Rail system in the early 1980s, he took as his model the German S-Bahn systems, that ran frequently, and served as the transit spines of the entire metropolitan area. When he paired lines as part of the R-numbering system, he paired lines that were roughly equal in ridership, so that trains of the same length could run back and forth all day. But that did not happen, because SEPTA never had the financial wherewithal to run trains so often, and the off-peak ridership that would justify running 4+ car trains at noon never materialized. So all SEPTA got from running trains from Thorndale to Doylestown were operational nightmares, and the inability to save money by adjusting consists to conform to the time-dependency of demand. SEPTA, at the urging of DVARP among others, eventually abandoned the strict line-pairing, even before abolishing Vuchic’s R-number nomenclature, just because the operational pressures were incompatible with fiscal reality. Maximum consist flexibility comes from the proximity of short line terminals to Roberts and Powelton Yards, so maximum system flexibility is achieved (ceteris paribus) when long lines run through to short lines, and vice versa.
If SEPTA is really serious about getting the most bang for its buck, it needs to go back to the one aspect of Vuchic’s plan that was neither falsified nor canonized: making the short lines the core of its transit system. The Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines alone are not enough of a system for a city our size: they are even shorter than the short Regional Rail lines (three of the four terminals are geographically in the RRD Zone 1 ring; Frankford is barely in Zone 2), and fail to cover large sections of the city. SEPTA needs to stop discouraging ridership on the short RRD lines through infrequent schedules and high fares, especially in the off-peak and reverse-peak hours when the cost to provide service is low. Nearly empty trains should not be running outbound to Chestnut Hill parallel to 23 buses stuffed to the gills. Instead SEPTA should:
- Bring peak hour fares down on the short RRD lines, and bring off-peak and reverse-peak fares down to where they are competitive with the transit division base fare plus transfer. This necessarily means the abandonment of the concentric ring Zone system; so be it.
- Run service as often as possible on the Fox Chase, Cynwyd, and Airport lines (however often that is, given the constraint of single-tracking), and run service no less often than every 20 minutes, and preferably every 15 minutes, on both Chestnut Hill Lines (which are double tracked).
- Reconsider building a version of the Swampoodle Connection that includes a flyover for outbound Manayunk/Norristown and Chestnut Hill West trains over the ex-Reading Main Line.
- Aggressively high-level the Cynwyd and Chestnut Hill Lines, to speed boarding and leaving trains, critical for timekeeping on an all-local service.
- And most importantly, make a concerted effort to publicize improved RRD service to existing CTD riders, and convince them to try the increased service. With a superior service, competitively priced (and cheaper for SEPTA to provide than CTD buses can ever match), riders will vote with their feet.