All I want for Christmas is for the R-numbers to stay dead

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Opposition to the R-change wasn’t about the the R-names or the colors – it was about SEPTA abandoning the operational benefits of a the Center City Tunnel.

    If the old pairings weren’t working, the solution should be to develop new pairings that are better balanced and serve opposing destination pairs. Instead SEPTA deemed it not worth the trouble and scrapped the concept.

    Yes, I know the counterargument – “But hardly anyone transfers between lines.” The argument can be made, but I don’t believe the option to transfer was ever made attractive enough (strong pairings, higher frequencies, clear marketing) to live up to the potential of the tunnel.

    1. My addition to the “hardly anyone transfers between lines” argument would be “WHY doesn’t anyone transfer between lines?” Some of it is simple lack of robust walkable destinations in the suburbs. You have the Airport, a collection of small walkable town centers out the Main Line, and Trenton (mostly a transfer point). Wilmington works, despite still needing a bus connection for most of Downtown, never mind anywhere else. King of Prussia and Valley Forge don’t work, because they need way better bus connections from Norristown. City Line is a nightmare without a bus connection from any of Overbrook, Bala, or Wissahickon.

      But the other reason is that transferring between lines has such a huge time penalty, because the trains don’t run frequently enough. Anyone who transfers risks having to wait an hour in Center City for the next train, which is usually a deal-breaker. Somebody at SEPTA gets this; the Airport Line doesn’t run half-hourly because of its ridership! Running more often ought to actually help the schedulers maintain consistency with line pairings, but I’d rather make transferring feasible even without a one-seat ride. After all, the lines most likely to induce a transfer (Paoli, Trenton, Airport) are all on the PRR side of the system, and can’t run through with each other under any circumstances. You can only run a line through with one (or two) others, but that still leaves ten connections that focusing on the one-seat ride neglects. The network is, or should be, more powerful than point-to-point via the tunnel.

    2. A second reason few riders travel through instead of to Center City is because of the spatial arrangement of the network. I was one of that handful for a while when I worked in Yardley; I’d occasionally visit a branch of my credit union in Media after work, which meant an almost end-to-end trip on the R3.

      Thanks to the location of all the Reading-side lines and about half the PRR system, many of the station pairs accessible via through-routing are in locations where it would be faster to drive every time: Paoli to Lansdale, for instance. The two sides of the R7 and R8 roughly describe U- or V-shapes, and going from Chestnut Hill to Fox Chase would be faster by car. (I think that the crosstown buses that come closest to connecting the two points, the 18 and the 77, both miss Chestnut Hill. But the 18 does parallel the R7 Chestnut Hill East for a stretch, and where it does, a resident would get to Fox Chase faster using the 18 instead of Regional Rail.)

  2. I agree with most of your naming choices, except for North Penn. I don’t think it conveys geographical information (or if it does, it’s the false information that the line extends to northern Pennsylvania), and I don’t think there’s enough weight-of-tradition behind that term to convey much benefit – unlike Main Line. I don’t have a countersuggestion beyond sticking with Lansdale or with Doylestown, but North Penn just doesn’t work for me.

    The Chestnut Hills, however, I have a suggestion for: change the name of the final station on the CHE to Stenton, and call the line that; the other line can remain Chestnut Hill, with its terminal station losing its “West”. Stenton’s a major road that most CHE stations are as close to as they are to Germantown Ave, so I think it conveys the geography of that line adequately.

    My not-completely-crazy final proposal is that SEPTA work out an arrangement whereby the Wawa corporation gives a substantial contribution to the agency to help underwrite the extension of the Elwyn line – and then SEPTA renames it the Wawa line.

    1. Unfortunately, “Stenton” is already the name of a station on the CHE line; it’s about halfway up the line, at Vernon Rd. Granted, CHE Station is much closer to Stenton Ave than Stenton Station is, but as demonstrated by the fact that Philadelphia’s north-south subway is four tracks under Broad St instead of two tracks each under 8th and 20th, I don’t have a time machine with which to go back and fix egregious transit mistakes of the 19th century.

      And as for getting Wawa Food Markets Inc. to contribute capital for the Wawa extension in exchange for naming rights… YES, THIS.

      1. Wawa Inc. already made a capital contribution to the Wawa extension in the form of selling land it owned to Delaware County for $1, said land to be the site of the Wawa Station park-and-ride.

        Given that once this project is taken back off the shelf, the line will terminate at Wawa, the line should be called the Wawa Line anyway under the current system, so the company will get free advertising anyway unless some other deep-pocketed company – 7-Eleven, say? – ponies up a chunk o’change to rename the station at Wawa.

        Which would be a bad idea for the same reason the renaming of Pattison station, while fiscally brilliant, was a disaster from a customer-service perspective.

        And yes, I wrote about why it was a disaster too, back in July on Phillymag.

        1. While the land for the parkng lot is a big deal (the extension as planned is basically pure parking arbitrage), I do notice that the county owning the land hasn’t lit a fire under anybody to actually see the project through to construction. I think blame for that has to fall squarely on the Delaware County Council — the extension’s logic is a bailout of the Delco sprawlburbs west of Media, which are in trouble unless they can get better access to job centers than they have now. That’s important to the people who live there now, but isn’t really anyone else’s priority, unless it does serve as a down-payment to eventually reaching West Chester (which seems unlikely for now). Certainly capital-starved SEPTA wasn’t realistically going to take up the torch while there were more pressing needs like the viaducts, the frequency converters, and the Silverliner V and VI contracts.

          But while Delco can be faulted for sitting on their hands, it wouldn’t have hurt to have had Wawa Inc. providing verbal pressure on them to take the lead, which to my knowledge they haven’t. Wawa is going to get a lot of free advertising value, even after basically donating the land and probably paying some smallish fee to prevent the name from being sold to anyone else. They could help themselves by making some noise in public. Of course, I’m thinking like a political hack, in terms of “earned media” vs. “paid media”, which might not be a natural fit for corporate managers.

    2. “North Penn” refers to the specific geographical area around Lansdale, North Wales, and Hatfield. It also refers to the name of the railroad the Reading renamed the Bethlehem Branch when it leased it. So to my mind, despite the slight risk of incompetent people thinking it goes to Scranton, the North Penn Line is a very informative name since the region it goes to is called the “North Penn” region. Heck, my high school alma mater is “North Penn High School”.

      While your Chestnut Hill suggestion has merit, I’d like to suggest renaming CHW the Wissahickon Line. Four syllables, yes, but this line “broadly” parallels the Wissahickon Gorge for most of its length, and it’s not like Wissahickon is a name without tradition. CHE would remain Chestnut Hill.

        1. Objection! Not only is the name “Warminster Line” not broken (short, pleasing to the tongue, and the terminal station served by every train on the line), Horsham is actively misleading, as the Warminster Line misses the boundaries of Horsham Township by at least a kilometer at closest approach.

          1. Not so fast! The traditional terminus of what we know as the Warminster Line was Hatboro, today usually lumped together with Horsham Twp. (cf. e.g. the Hatboro-Horsham School District). Follow that train of thought (heh) through and what you get is “Horsham” as a contraction of the usual name of the Hatboro-Horsham region, which (in my mind) Warminster is part of.

            1. Eeeeugh. Hatboro hasn’t been the terminus since 1974, predating even the R-numbers by almost a decade. And I really do believe that change for the sake of change is not a good goal to have. Continuity really does count for a lot in public perception. And the link from Hatboro to Horsham is a serious reach. Let’s leave it be.

      1. Thanks for correcting me, Steve S.! I’m embarrassed to say I’ve actually heard of North Penn HS, but didn’t know it was an often-used geographic indicator. (Maybe my Phila-area place names are biased by which ones get mentioned in KYW’s traffic reports!)

      2. I did actually consider the name “Wissahickon” for the CHW, but the problem is that the neighborhood and the station named Wissahickon are on the other side of the creek, on the Manayunk/Norristown line. I think that opens up way too much room for confusion, (“Whaddayamean, the Wissahickon train doesn’t go to Wissahickon?”), so I’m saying it’s Not Recommended.

  3. I was also going to suggest renaming West Trenton to the Ewing Line. I ride the line frequently to visit my parents and almost every time there is someone en route to New York that got on the wrong Trenton Line. I can only imagine what it must be like for visitors who speak a different language, sacrificing a longer ride for less money by opting to use SEPTA and NJ Transit instead of Amtrak, juggling all of this transit and time information, just to have to get off at Fern Rock and take a train back into Center City because they didn’t realize the word “West” made such a difference. Also, the whole name of that little non-governmental village just needs to end. It’s a small crossroads community surrounded by rolling fields and suburban sprawl, it looks nothing like Trenton.

    I do like all of your other suggestions though!

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