We’re getting late night subways, maybe! Is it really all that exciting?

(spoiler alert: maybe)

Never let it be said that SEPTA doesn’t listen to feedback. Local found-art blogger Conrad Benner (a/k/a Streets Dept.) posted a change.org petition to restore 24/7 rail service to the Subway and the El on Tuesday. On Wednesday, that petition had 1,000 signatures. And today (Thursday), SEPTA’s GM Joe Casey and CFO Rich Burnfield are on the record with Paul Nussbaum in the Inquirer about extending Subway and El service to 3:00a on Friday and Saturday nights. So much for change.org being the McDonalds of slacktivism! That’s got to be a new record for progress.

But it’s not really all that surprising. As Sandy Smith pointed out in the comments section of Phillymag, this is a Back to the Future move, since the BSL and MFL ran 24/7 until 1991. SEPTA bustituting its main rapid transit lines every night was not originally sold as a budget-trimming measure. It was because, in the recession of 1990-91, the homeless flooded into stations and concourses for shelter, and because train conductors handled fare collection overnight and station gates were left open (the practice still survives today at Chinatown Station in off-hours), there was no legal recourse to clear squatters off the platforms. This was a nuisance to riders and a perceived safety and security threat, so SEPTA ran up the white flag and switched to buses. The fact that Benner and so many of the other petitioners are citing the perceived security of station platforms being higher than the surrounding streets, would be completely fantastical to the proverbial Rip Van Winkle who spent the last 20 years in a coma.

It’s actually somewhat obscure what the bottom line impact is, for buses vs. rail. In 1991, the El and Subway still ran two-person train operations, and the massive bank of supercapacitors reclaiming electricity from braking trains was still science fiction, so the operations cost of running trains was much higher then as compared to now. (The sluggish and worn-out M-3 Almond Joys were still running on the El, too.) And the demand for overnight transit was far lower in 1991: Center City and the neighborhoods around it weren’t yet in the midst of a national urban renaissance as they are today. Nor did 1991 have the advanced policing techniques and cheap and ubiquitous CCTV cameras that we have today, which provide an alternative to having a SEPTA policeman on every train and every platform.

What I can testify to from personal experience, is that today the Owl buses do a very brisk business, all night, despite their unattractiveness to choice riders. My fiancée’s morning commute often involves taking the last Broad Street Owl bus of the morning to Suburban Station, and sometimes I’m right there with her. (The 5:00 Subway train from Fern Rock doesn’t get to City Hall in time to make the 5:26 RRD train to Delaware.) That bus is standing room only at Girard Avenue. While the people staggering out of bars at closing time are a loud constituency for overnight train service, the vast majority of the travel demand during those hours comes from people just trying to get to or from work.

So, full speed ahead for restoring SEPTA’s subways to their rightful former glory? Not so fast. There are a lot of factors that go into a decision like this. One reason SEPTA is in better shape today than it was 23 years ago, is that it’s made good use of all those overnight closures to bring the system back to a state of good repair, without reliance on frequent weekend closures or single-tracking. Compare this to PATCO, which retains 24/7 service but is now paying for that with an inability to conduct vital repairs to the Ben Franklin Bridge without melting down. Also, SEPTA is not going to open up its platforms overnight again; and that necessitates the existence of over 60 booth trolls to handle fare collection duties during the graveyard shift. Even if those were non-union positions, and they’re not, that’s a lot of cash to spend on salaries. Now, it’s true that a lot of those positions might be dispensed with after the full rollout of NPT, but that might negate the security advantage of being off the sidewalks in the middle of the night. There are other positions that SEPTA doesn’t currently need to staff overnight, like dispatchers in the subway control center at 1234 Market Street.

Some of the cost considerations are actually in favor of restoring rail service; still others are of indeterminate valence. With service every 15 minutes, El service can be covered by six train operators, as opposed to ten bus drivers. The wear and tear of operating a full six-car train is definitely more than the cost of running a single 40-foot bus, but is it 67% higher? Probably yes. Is the cost of electric traction higher than the bill for diesel fuel? Probably not, given regenerative power and off-off-peak electricity costs. Can SEPTA offset maintenance costs by running shorter trains? It would require breaking up sets in 69th Street Yard, which would require additional labor there, but you could start doing that at 9:00p, and not wait for midnight. The M-4s have been run in 4-car sets on Sundays in the past, but nobody outside SEPTA knows if 2-car sets can be run on the El. The Subway ought to be able to run the two-car trains that run on the Ridge Spur during the day, assuming that trains don’t gap out and lose contact with the third rail at the crossover north of Pattison Station.

And even with SEPTA Police being awesome and cameras being festooned off of every piece of property SEPTA owns, it’s still true that we don’t know for sure that stations are safer than street corners at 3:00a. They might, but they might not. Perceptions are one thing, statistics are another. And not all perceptions are created equal; as I pointed out in a comment to Phillymag, I feel perfectly safe taking the Owl buses at whatever hour, “because I have the privilege associated with being a 30 year old, 5’10”, 200+lbs. man of visually indeterminate ethnicity”. Not everyone is so fortunate. And it’s cynical, but somebody at SEPTA has to have noticed that they bear no liability for anything that happens to anybody waiting on a lonely stretch of sidewalk, while they can and certainly will be sued for anything that happens on a station platform.

With all this legitimate uncertainty about the pros and cons, it’s no surprise that SEPTA is playing it very safe, and is only talking about a pilot program to extend train service until 3:00a on Friday and Saturday nights. (The speed with which they responded, though, indicates it was something already being tossed around conference rooms at 1234 Market St.) Given the friction involved in the changeover from rail to bus and back, with buses covering routes 40% slower than their steel-wheeled counterparts, and given that the trains start service at 5:00 sharp, I fully expect any extension to 3:00 to actually be an all-night service. There’s no benefit to be gained from closing for two hours, except possibly spite. I also expect a Friday-Saturday pilot to succeed, since SEPTA’s other nightlife-oriented service pilot, the late night trains on the Manayunk-Norristown, Trenton, and Paoli-Thorndale Lines on Friday and Saturday nights, are still running after several years. And those serve a much smaller market, bringing the barhoppers of Manayunk and Center City (only) back to their dorms in Overbrook, Villanova, and New Brunswick. (Yes, I’m stereotyping. But so was whoever cooked up the schedule, and they were right.)

Am I in favor of restoring overnight rail service the other five nights of the week? Not really. I can make a solid argument that there’s enough nightlife on Thursday to treat it equally with the traditional weekend, and I would really like it if the trains ran even a half hour later at night and earlier in the morning.

But hats off to Conrad Benner, for moving the Overton Window for this far enough for SEPTA to seize the opportunity to be the good guy. After all, #SEPTA247 makes a great hashtag and great slogan; “SEPTA 20/4 and 24/3” doesn’t get the blood going quite so well. See you all on the late train to Fern Rock.

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    1. Can the stations really not get through the weekends only on the strength of the cleaning they can get while open? Honest question: I don’t know how often power washings or other such “heavy” cleanings take place, and would be rather surprised if they happened nightly. Weekly, I might buy.

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