OK, PATCO’s kind of fucked

I hate kicking someone while they’re down (unless the someone is the Dallas Cowboys or the Atlanta Braves) but man, PATCO is having a rough time of it, and it strengthens the argument that it needs to be killed and its corpse fed to SEPTA. Since January 18th, they’ve been running a limited schedule from midday Fridays to late Monday nights, so that they could take out an entire track over the Ben Franklin Bridge for heavy maintenance work.

The effort to only impact three out of ten rush hours a week is noble, but the extent to which schedules are fucked during those three is very high (don’t even think about anything involving reverse-commuting), and the implementation is falling well short of what the schedules promised. Yesterday’s version was a particular nightmare, starting with a westbound train breaking down on the approach to the bridge during the AM rush, and having to be backed into City Hall station and evacuated, meanwhile stoppering the entire system with backed up, crush-loaded trains. After that, PATCO riders could hardly be faulted for wanting their evening to go better, but instead they were treated to an eastbound train having a traction motor die and catch fire, filling two train cars with smoke and leading to a frantic evacuation into the dark and shuttered Franklin Square Station.

While we’re in the part of winter where the cold degrades the reliability of every mechanical device known to man, it is also true that PATCO plans to be even more aggressive with its track closure schedule after the spring thaw. Bad news for everyday riders. People with actual jobs they need to get to, can’t be at the mercy of what PATCO is putting them for even one weekday per week, much less a full seven day week as the spring has in store. Also, I’m told that some people work on weekends, or during nontraditional hours, or in the suburbs. And FSM knows, PATCO riders certainly can’t put up with this nonsense for the next two years (the expected length of the bridge reconstruction) without putting their employment at grave risk.

Now, it should be pointed out that, even in light of the advanced age of the PATCO fleet, we should not dismiss the real possibility that this is just a run of terrible luck on PATCO’s part. Things happen, and they tend to happen in bunches, not well spread out. I could possibly be piling onto an agency that has done nothing wrong. Be that as it may, PATCO needs to be able to cope with misfortune like anyone else in this broken world, and they are not showing strong competence in doing so. The bad luck scenario is possible, but increasingly unlikely as failure mounts on failure. The anecdotes of communication failure coming out of the smoke-filled train under Franklin Square are harrowing.

PATCO needs to step up with a plan to restore transit reliability across the Delaware River, whether that’s its own constricted train service, or contracting with someone (or someones) else for a bus bridge. (If PATCO was repatriated to SEPTA, SEPTA would be capable of arranging bustitution internally!) In light of the continuing ignorance of transit issues in Drumthwacket, I’m not hopeful that anyone who matters is going to hold DRPA’s feet to the fire. So in the meantime, PATCO riders are going to have to take measures to protect themselves from PATCO’s unreliability. For as many as possible, I hope that some combination of NJ Transit buses, the Atlantic City Line, and other conventional common carriers will be a dominant strategy, and that people won’t resort to (shudder) driving over a DRPA bridge into or out of Philadelphia. But I’m a blogger, not dictator. I can only write things, and hope that the things I write help people.

By Thursday night, I hope to have as comprehensive a guide to non-PATCO transit across the river written up as I can. I would encourage anyone with information on, ah, less conventional alternatives that I may have failed to mention, to leave them in the comments of this post.

After all, we may be getting ~6 more inches of snow here in the city by Thursday, and people going home during the next single-tracking period Friday evening, might want to actually get home before Saturday.

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