The Long and Short Of It

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Why limit this to the city – provide similar service to Bryn Mawr and possibly Glenside and somewhere on the Delaware line (Ridley Park?). I’d also think about adding Ivy Ridge. My gut is that the Media line isn’t as high a priority for this kind of upgrade due to development patterns around the Victory division alternatives.

    My initial thought was that this was awfully Reading-side heavy, especially with Swampoodle, but I’m warming to it. Specifically, run none of these trains through – turn them all in the yards (here, being Reading-heavy is a plus, since Powelton is much closer to the presumed end of the line than Roberts) and eliminate the long dwells at Suburban for the crew changes. Getting rid of the schedule padding at the three downtown stations will be a must for making this work.

    1. The problem with running similarly aggressive service upgrades on the long lines is that you’re either gumming up the line with mid-line short turns somewhere (Bryn Mawr style), or running all the way out to terminals, which explodes your costs. Amtrak isn’t even going to listen to your proposal for <0:30 headways on the NEC lines (and why would you short-turn either of them?). Media/Elwyn could probably use a return to 0:30 off-peak headways, but it's not critical (except to soak through-service from the Reading side without touching Amtrak; Media Yard helps here). The other issue is that you need the density to support walk-up passengers, and even the densest suburbs are too spread out and own too many cars (there are a bare handful of exceptions, and more can be created with time, but for now). When any STD bus route is running 0:06 headways, even just at rush hour, we'll talk about going aggro in the suburbs, but the short-term promise is in the city.

      Conversely, my look at Manayunk/Norristown will call for 0:15 headways, as soon as I can be confident in the ability to turn trains that fast at Norristown with reliability. (0:20 if it's not possible; I know that can be done.) Not only is that the beanstalk on which you can hang service and route reform for NW Philadelphia west of the park and the Frontier Division, but it's also the key to I-76 relief (that, and tolls). Hence my very-carefully-worded Swampoodle proposal: I think I already need the outbound flyover off the Reading Trunk, so folding CHW into that isn't a big step up, and frees NEC slots for Trenton and/or Atlantic City.

      I'm not *sure* that the schedule padding in the tunnel and on the Reading Trunk out to Jenkintown is the the Cancer That Is Killing the RRD, but it's sure as hell a prime suspect.

  2. First, you’ve hit on the distinction between the German S(tadt)-Bahn and R(egional)-Bahn networks; S-Bahns are “short” and “medium” lines; R-Bahns are “long” lines. S-Bahn headways are typically :15 or :30, depending on context; interlined segments nearly always get :15 headways or better, while medium segments nearly always get :30. R-Bahn schedules are designed around a :60 clockface–that is, hourly service. By the way, because of this R-Bahns generally also tend to be responsible for short-distance and corridor intercity lines (as if the Thorndale express and Keystone Service were run by the same agency or division within an agency).

    Second, the logic of that requires that medium service operate on half-hour headways (long S-Bahn service) while long service operates hourly (short R-Bahn service). A :15 headway to Norristown is probably not tenable (whereas it is, if capacity is available, for the Chestnut Hills).

    Third, I agree that by considering only lines that are, in themselves, “short” and “medium”, you shortchange “short” and “medium” aspects of other lines. In your own classification, Glenside and Bryn Mawr would both classify as “short” runs (Glenside would be in fact an interlinining with locals structured to fill in takt gaps), while Paoli/Malvern and (Chester/)Marcus Hook would be “medium” runs. Again, this is a feature of existing S-Bahn-type networks. Appealing to autocentrism is just not a very strong claim; I’m sure the Bryn Mawr-Ardmore corridor has about the same mean level of auto ownership as Mt. Airy (one being considered a low-car-ownership suburb and the other a high-car-ownership urban neighborhood).

    By the way, from Pts (I) and (II), I would suggest that reviving Cynwyd to Ivy Ridge as a “short” line would be a better way to service Manayunk–although the “medium” Norristown line has a better neighborhood stop.

    Finally, I would definitely go about maximizing capacity on the Powelton-Roberts trunkline. As a four-track mainline, it should have the same signaling capacity as its European equivalents. Improving signal capacity frees up slots, which can then be used for new service, which in turn drives equipment increases.

    1. As I said to Reldnahkram, the problem with running aggressive headways to Bryn Mawr and Glenside is how to do it without unacceptable fouling of longer-distance main lines. Bryn Mawr works today because schedules on all of the Main Line services (Bryn Mawr, Malvern, Thorndale, Harrisburg) are sparse enough that it doesn’t matter that Bryn Mawr locals cut across all four tracks of the line before sitting in Bryn Mawr station for 12 minutes. I would like to see enough service that that is no longer true, but maybe there is enough slack in a four track mainline that it doesn’t matter. I for one, would start my focus on the Main Line by skipping straight to improving the NHSL, which has a lower cost profile. Paoli/Thorndale might need to wait for the next round of upgrades, which is rumored to include a relocation of the inner local/express pivot (and the interlocking that supports it) to Villanova. A pocket track for laying up locals is possible at roughly that distance, while the ROW acquisition is more prohibitive in Bryn Mawr and Rosemont.

      Also, as a regular rider of the Wilmington Line, I assure you that extension of all Marcus Hook short turns to Wilmington would be the minimal acceptable standard on that line. Wilmington is its own destination, and the potential of the Wilmington Line lies in recognizing this and scheduling good service to both ends from Delaware County. Delaware is already funding or looking for funds for capital projects to relieve bottlenecks on its side of the Twelve Mile Circle; the real prize will be getting DelDOT to pay for actually using the capacity it is building.

      The reason I don’t like Ivy Ridge as a solution for Manayunk is because it’s a solution for *only* Manayunk, and doesn’t touch Wissahickon (and its valuable potential bus transfers), East Falls, Strawberry Mansion/Allegheny West, Conshohocken, or Norristown. Also, increasing Norristown service requires operating funds and will, and can be scaled over time, while Ivy Ridge requires a higher order of magnitude of capital funding, and is all-or-nothing. I’m unsentimental enough that I’m willing to hand the Manayunk Bridge over to the bicyclists to use and maintain for the next couple decades until there’s a more pressing need for it, and keep the terminal at Cynwyd.


      If there is anything I am *not* worried about, it is the *capacity* of the Powelton-Roberts core. There are plenty of slots to be had on a 35 mph four track line. The issue is in performance. Schedule pad needs to come out of each Center City station stop, as well as time elapsed in between each.


      To clarify my post: what I’m articulating here is not so much a ridership-growth strategy as a cost-containment and -management strategy. The “New” riders I’m targeting aren’t driving, they’re taking the 23, the 44, the 18, or the 36. Attracting drivers out of their cars will almost certainly happen, but it’s a happy side effect. I have other strategies aimed at that.

      1. If re-extending the Cynwyd Line has any benefit, it would be derived through making the formal connection to the RDG Norristown a la Swampoodle: to add flexibility in rebalancing through-running pairings, crucially if Swampoodle is built and subsequently overburdens the Reading main. It’d also probably allow you to run short-turn RDG Ivy Ridge trains at peak, and of course the SVM in some form or another. If there’s anything SEPTA could do with CYN short-term, it’s adding a Jefferson/52nd St station.

  3. I agree with all your recommendations for the Chestnut Hill line. All the same arguments apply to the Port Washington line in Queens. But, in both cases, those would dramatically change the character of the areas in ways that would broach serious political opposition.

    People in Chestnut Hill like it to be as convenient as it is, but no MORE convenient. If it were more so, more people would want to live there, and people would want to build them apartment buildings. It would no longer be a quiet rich country-esque community.

    I don’t know that it makes sense to throw around these ideas without a mind toward how they’ll ever be sold.

    1. There’s several ways to market this. First, to address the specter of Chestnut Hill NIMBYism, while some people will oppose anything anywhere near them (I understand a frozen yogurt stand was the most recent local victim of this mentality), Chestnut Hill is what it is in large part because of its access to Center City; unlike Great Neck, the residents chose to live inside the city limits, when they could just as easily have located in Haddonfield or the Main Line. I for one wouldn’t mind More Apartments and Economic Diversity Everywhere, but the existing zoning of Chestnut Hill, combined with the existence of many more context-appropriate (and devlopment-hungry) neighborhoods in the city makes it unlikely to happen in Chestnut Hill within this century, as a non-priority for both private sector investment and public sector regulation.

      Speaking of context-appropriate neighborhoods, Chestnut Hill isn’t the only neighborhood on its eponymous lines: Mount Airyans and (especially) Germantowners, have even more cause to want good transit service than Chestnut Hill does. Mt. AIry risks being a victim of its own success, while Germantown needs to anchor its own redevelopment in a way that makes it an attractive place to invest, in competition with closer in neighborhoods like Francisville and Newbold that have a more obvious case to present.

      As for the exact way to sell this plan to the Northwest, sell it for what it is: an attempt to get maximum value for the public’s tax and farebox money. If that’s not sufficient (which would be sad and entirely expected), I would recommend timing the rollout to be simultaneous with, or just before, major construction on a highway arterial like Lincoln Drive, Kelly Drive, or the Schuylkill Expressway, and let the congestion convince the holdouts.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: