Places where SEPTA Regional Rail shares track with freight

Commenter Tsuyoshi asked, “Are there any [SEPTA Regional Rail tracks] shared with freight?

That’s a bit of an involved question, but the short answer is: “yes, quite a few”.  As asked, the real answer is that all of the Regional Rail network could be used for any potential freight customer on-line, and virtually every line sees at least some freight, but as a practical matter, only some track segments see regular freight service.  Fewer still see freight in the daylight hours, in mixed traffic with SEPTA passenger service.  A handful, including the Center City Tunnel, and the Airport Line between 90th Street and the Terminals, are unlikely to ever see a freight train for reasons of geography and geometry.

This is as comprehensive a listing of where freight routes intersect with the Regional Rail network, as I can assemble:

  • SEPTA runs on CSX tracks between West Trenton and Neshaminy; the TIGER-funded track separation between the two will be done by the end of next year.  Farther down the same line, CSX and SEPTA between Newtown Jct. and Cheltenham Jct. were separated in 2004, during the Faye Moore era, and the way it was done (single-tracking both, removing flexibility without adding any capacity to compensate) is still grounds for salty language, ten years on.
  • The short line Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad serves industrial customers in Montgomery and Bucks Counties on the ex-Reading side of the system, and acts as a bridge line between other local short lines and CSX.  Its main yard is just north of Lansdale Station, visible from the platforms.
  • NS runs on the Manayunk/Norristown Line for a very short distance to access the Trenton Cutoff from its Philadelphia-Reading mainline; someone with a good arm could hit both ends of the shared segment with thrown baseballs from the platform at NTC.
  • NS and CSX retain trackage rights over the Airport Line from CP 60TH STREET to CP 90TH STREET, and use their four-hour window to move unit trains of Bakken crude oil to the new terminal in Eddystone.  When the Class Is recently asked SEPTA to run oil trains during the day, SEPTA told them to pound sand.
  • Trains carrying stone for track ballast from the quarry in Glen Mills stopped running on the Media/Elwyn line in 2011.  Those trains stopped running because of deteriorating track conditions west of Elwyn, which are due to be rehabilitated as part of the Wawa service restoration project.  The West Chester Railroad would like that connection restored so that it might serve potential freight customers in Chester County.
  • NS uses the Amtrak Northeast Corridor in Delaware to access its lines serving the Delmarva Peninsula.
  • Conrail Shared Assets will run trains on the NEC between SHORE interlocking and Brewerytown in North Philadelphia, to interchange trains to and from South Jersey via the Delair Bridge.
  • It is very rare for through-freight to use the NEC, as opposed to a parallel mainline owned by one of the Class Is, but it does still happen on rare occasions.

Given all of that, it’s critical to be aware, as we advocate for rapid transit-level frequencies on Regional Rail, that we cannot and should not try to impose other rapid transit standards; SEPTA’s railroad is a railroad, and has all of the functions of a railroad.  Freight may be incredibly unsexy, and sharing tracks with freight is a frustration for passengers and dispatchers alike, but keeping freight on the rails is as critical for a sustainable transportation system as any passenger rail project.

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8 thoughts on “Places where SEPTA Regional Rail shares track with freight”

  1. So post West Trenton seperation, are there any instances of non-temporally separated service? I suppose SEPTA can’t guarantee full separation on the NEC, but do you think that this could lead to an “alternative compliance” European EMU as Silverliner VI, leveraging the Caltrain waiver to run Silverliner V and VI in mixed traffic?

    Maybe even a bilevel EMU, though the 48 inch ATOR platforms make that difficult (though not impossible, NSW OSCARs are 50inch ATOR bi-level EMUs).

      1. 1. I’ll believe in FRA safety reform when I see the NPRM, though the RSAC meeting presentations from March say it’s coming. (https://rsac.fra.dot.gov/meetings/20140306.php)
        2. Complete temporal separation is not necessary for Alternative Compliance waivers (see Caltrain), it just helps. I agree that FRA safety reform is preferable, but if it doesn’t happen, your post gives me hope that the freight/passenger interaction is limited enough for a waiver.

  2. In the “pound sand” article, I couldn’t help but notice this:
    “SEPTA trains operate every half hour from Philadelphia’s 30th Street station to the airport, and Knueppel said the agency would like to offer service every 20 minutes.”

    Which suggests that PATCOization is in the minds of at least some in SEPTA.

    1. I think SEPTA’s current management are smart people who know what the victory conditions are. Going from 2 tph to 3 tph on the Airport Line is a modest and reasonable goal, although it wouldn’t be my first priority (that would be Norristown). Although it might happen first just because it’s easy.

  3. What do you mean by “other rapid transit standards” exactly? Aside from frequency, it would be nice to see off-board, fully automatic fare control (which doesn’t even really exist on the el/subway/bus yet). And then obviously, OPTO, so all the more frequent service wouldn’t cost so much. I’ve seen both of these on transit systems in other countries that share tracks with freight, so it’s presumably possible.

    But, much more ambitiously, I wonder if some of the lines that do not have any freight service could be converted to branches of the Broad Street Line. Norristown, Doylestown, Warminster, West Trenton, and Trenton appear to be unsuitable. So the possible lines, I guess, would be Chestnut Hill East, Chestnut Hill West, or Fox Chase. I assume that if it’s even possible, a bit more track has to be constructed, but it ought to be much cheaper than constructing whole new subway extensions.

    1. We’re a long ways away from OPTO; 2PTO is the bare minimum for the next long while, at least until the entire system is high-leveled. Not that 2PTO is anything to sneeze at in the marginal-cost-reduction arena! But I’m not at all optimistic about the rate at which SEPTA can ramp up its high level platform construction, at least in the next 5-10 years. (LIRR and MNRR high-leveled much faster, at least in electric territory, back in the 1960s, but they didn’t have the additional cost burden of making stations fully accessible at the same time. Those elevators and crossovers are a killer.)

      There are only two directions it makes any sense to go for fare collection: fully gated, like JR, and fully POP, like most of Europe. SEPTA is trying a weird hybrid of both, with gating Center City, and I am not optimistic about it. Were it not for all of the stations that are surrounded by town center and at a grade level crossing (think Morton), I’d say that gating the system is the way to go (if you have to eat the cost of high-leveling the system, might as well do it all the right way, at once). I don’t really know what you can do with what we have, though.

      The idea of converting one or the other Chestnut Hill Line to a Subway branch is one that comes up perennially. If the junction between Hill West and the NEC were in close proximity to the tail tracks that were intended for Henry Ave or Roosevelt Blvd, I’d guess it would have already been done, but instead the former is at North Philadelphia, and the latter is at Erie. As it stands, I think there’s too much tunneling involved for not enough benefit, but I’m happy to have my mind changed on that.

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