City Branch Transit: the Transit Equity Express

Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.

Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.

But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.

The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:

Route 48 through Fairmount

Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.

Route 32 map section
Route 32 is only slightly better.

Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.

I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.

But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.


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.

Weekly Roundup: Pay as you enter, IBEW settles, police body cams, Greenlee may be a fool, and Previdi definitely is

Another edition brought to you by the World’s Worst Blogger:

  • In the end of an era, SEPTA has announced that, beginning on September 1, pay-as-you-leave will be abolished on the Suburban Transit routes out of 69th Street Terminal where it is currently the rule. This will standardize the entire SEPTA transit system on the more logical and familiar pay-as-you-enter rule, ostensibly in preparation for NPT. One hopes that it will be the precursor to other steps to bring further sanity to SEPTA’s fare system. Dare we suggest abolishing the $1 transfer fee and adjusting the base fare to compensate in 2016? We can recapture the efficiencies of open boarding at 69th Street while retaining the simplicity and sense of pay-as-you-enter by putting bus and trolley boarding areas at 69th Street inside the faregates. Think on it, SEPTA!
  • A SEPTA electrical worker participating in the Trolley Tunnel Blitz apparently misjudged the distance to the adjacent active MFL tracks, and was struck by an El train in the tunnel at 22nd Street Monday afternoon. The worker, who was rushed to Hahnemann University Hopsital with injuries to the head and knee, is expected to recover soon; the Monday evening rush hour, already disrupted by the Trolley Blitz, was snarled by an El shutdown, followed by single tracking around the accident site.
  • Speaking of SEPTA electrical workers, the IBEW local representing Regional Rail workers reached a tentative contract agreement with management yesterday. IBEW was one of the two unions that staged a 24-hour-long strike this past June; the other union, representing Regional Rail’s engineers, is still in talks, and is making pessimistic statements.
  • The eyes of the world are riveted on the absolute failure of policing in Ferguson, MO, where riots and police riots have ensued after the fatal shooting of a unarmed young man by police officer. The body camera that could have told us much about that initial encounter, instead reportedly sat in a box in Ferguson PD headquarters, as North St. Louis County police officers, like many around the country, are resistant to adopting them. Meanwhile, in a display of what policing should look like, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel thinks body cameras are the awesomest thing ever, and cannot wait until all of his officers are wearing one. Kudos, Chief!
  • The #SEPTAWILM petition is still going, having passed the 1,500 signature mark last night. And as petition starter David Curtis notes, the riders and potential riders already know that expanding off-peak Wilmington service is of mutual benefit to both Delaware and Pennsylvania: the ratio of petition signers from DE to petition signers from PA is less than 1.02:1.
  • As if the ongoing ad blitz and the swirling rumors of an imminent naming rights deal with Verizon for Suburban Station weren’t enough, Verizon’s archrival Comcast has found the name of its headquarters scrubbed from SEPTA signage throughout the concourse.
  • An extension of the 22nd Street Bike Lane from Spring Garden to Fairmount is being held up because Councilman Bill Greenlee’s office is afraid of numbers. Actually, maybe not, but that’s one of the more charitable interpretations. The space on the pavement for the bike lane is there, and it’s not taking away a legal car travel lane, just an unmarked, illegal, car travel lane.
  • Bob Previdi needs to shut up forever. The way to bring Amtrak into Suburban Station (and Market East!) already exists, and it’s called the free transfer onto SEPTA Regional Rail (Ctrl+F “Amtrak”). Quit trying to spend scarce money to fix something that isn’t broke, and especially don’t waste money trying to do something in hardware that is best taken care of in software.

Wednesday Roundup

Things that are happening that I haven’t been able to catch up on yet:

  • If you live or work in West Philly, your trolleys have been diverting to 40th/Market since Friday night, and will continue doing so for the rest of this week, next week, and the weekend after that. Why? SEPTA Media Relations explains what is going on in the trolley tunnel:
  • The SEPTA Night Owl Subway trial has been extended from Labor Day to November 2nd, to see if the spectacular ridership numbers stay high enough to make rail service a permanent feature of our Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Friend of the Blog David Curtis is meeting with the arithmetically-challenged CEO of Dart First State, John Sisson, to discuss the petition Curtis spearheaded to make SEPTA service in the First State not resemble a giant middle finger.
  • Rep. Chaka Fattah wants to rename 30th Street Station after his mentor, Bill Gray. It would be a better tribute to Rep. Gray if he had something named for him that had a snowball’s chance in hell of actually associating with his name; every Philadelphian I’ve talked to has said that they intend to refer to the station as 30th Street in perpetuity, regardless of what Congress thinks. Meanwhile, Bennett Levin eviscerates the idea on the merits, or lack thereof.

A bicyclist’s guide to Delaware Carmageddon

As the I-495 bridge closure passes its third day with not even a hint from DelDOT that they are considering expanding transit service, Reddit user /u/wild-tangent has created an excellent overview of bike facilities in Northern New Castle County, especially those that interface with SEPTA Regional Rail stations. Check it out. If you use Reddit Enhancement Suite, you can view the map images inline, which helps a lot in reading comprehension.

Be aware that there is some misinformation in the section on transit: SEPTA passes and tickets are sold at Wilmington and Newark train stations.

Two cities separated by a common everything: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would probably be inextricably linked together even if history hadn’t lumped them together into the same state. As it stands, though, we have a lot more than an ugly blue flag and a bunch of corrupted mountebanks in Harrisburg in common. Both cities fell hard from the heights of their industrial power. And today, both are experiencing rebirths as centers of health care and education, and attracting young adults hand-over fist as leaders in the national urban renaissance, and heavily leveraging their legacy industrial assets to do it. There’s certainly plenty of demand for cross-Pennsylvania travel.

So why is it so hard to get there from here?

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s oldest superhighway, and wasn’t built first because Pennsylvania’s government was any more enterprising or innovative in 1940 than it is today. Over the last decade, toll rates have more than doubled, but traffic counts and VMT are flat (PDF, page 125/140), just as VMT has remained steady nationwide on mostly free-at-point-of-use roads. Driving from Center City to the Golden Triangle (or vice versa) via the Parkway East, the Turnpike, and the Schuylkill Expressway, is about 5 hours with minimal traffic, which of course there never is. Also, only the hardiest road warrior would ever drive such a distance non-stop; most have to take a break somewhere on the way for gasoline, food and drink, or avoiding deep vein thrombosis. That adds an indeterminate amount of time to the drive; the various intercity bus services generally put the trip at around 7 hours, including traffic and intermediate stops. And once you’ve finished the drive, you’re still stuck with a car in the middle of a dense major city. Even if you’re fine with that, the city shouldn’t be.

In the last decade, Southwest challenged the incumbent US Airways on the route between its Philadelphia hub and its Pittsburgh focus city — and lost. If anybody could offer a cheap flight from PIT to PHL, it was the short-haul specialists at Southwest, but no dice. Plane tickets on US Airways remain expensive, and the casual flyer spends just as much time in line for security screening at the airport as in the air. And PHL airport is congested, and airport and airlines both would much rather add flights to Glasgow and Doha than the short-haul market of Pittsburgh, even as a commercial air monopoly.

And meanwhile, the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, is the last passenger train on the NS (ex-PRR) Main Line west of Harrisburg. After the the rises in Turnpike tolls and the price of gasoline, Amtrak’s coach fares are actually very competitive with driving. Many people would love to take the train, but it’s slow (7 hours 23 minutes, vs. about 5 hours driving and 7 hours by bus), and terribly infrequent. The Corbett Administration, the Legislature, and PennDOT had to be strong-armed into accepting responsibility for sponsoring the Pennsylvanian in March 2013, under the new Federal rules regarding short corridor Amtrak services, but they did do so, and the state is now underwriting the train to the tune of about $3.8M per year (more accurate figures will be available next winter).

So we have a state of affairs where it’s either expensive or abominably slow to travel between the two largest cities in the Commonwealth, despite the fact that they are very similar cities, with identical major service industries, and longstanding political, economic, and cultural ties. The road isn’t getting any faster or cheaper, and flying is a profligate expense. Someone is clearly falling down on the job, and the fact that we share a common state government means we can point the finger straight at PennDOT. If there’s going to be improvement in getting there from here, it’s going to have to come from the rails. Fortunately, while the Pennsylvania Railroad is no more, its legacy remains. Part II tomorrow will cover the options for how to take better advantage of that legacy.

This post has been crossposted to This Old City.

Philadelphia needs driverless subways

Tying a few recent threads together, there have been a lot of jokes on the internet in the wake of the recent derailment of a CTA Blue Line train at O’Hare Airport station in Chicago. But of course, as Eric Jaffe pointed out in The Atlantic Cities, we have the luxury of laughing because the train went off the end of the trackway in the dead of night, with a relative handful of people on board, resulting in none of the 30 injuries being life-threatening. We can also avoid the sorts of knee-jerk responses we see after accidents with nonzero death tolls, like last year’s derailment at Spuyten Duyvil in New York.

Both the O’Hare crash and the Spuyten Duyvil derailment have been linked, in early media reports, to operator fatigue. While there are many technical safeguards in place, and more coming online in the next few years, to prevent operator errors from causing accidents, it’s clear that those measures are not yet 100% effective. As SEPTA prepares to join CTA in the elite club of 24-hour subways, it’s worth noting that people are more fatigued overnight than during the day, and that there is a straight line between fatigue and error rates. (I have plenty of experience with this phenomenon, being someone who sees quite a lot of the other side of midnight.) SEPTA is going to see an increase in operator error rates if it runs overnight; that is an unavoidable fact.

Except, of course, that it is entirely avoidable, by removing the operator from the circuit entirely. This is a drum that Stephen J. Smith has been banging on for quite some time, but he’s right that the time is long overdue for automated trains to come to America. Automating trains, unlike automating cars, is a mature and well-understood technology, and has not only been installed on many new-built transit lines, but has been retrofitted to older lines. One of the better-known examples of a retrofitted line, at least among transit nerds, is the Paris Métro’s Line 1, which first opened in 1900, seven years before the Market Street Elevated, and completed the changeover to automated operation in 2012.

Like many automated lines, new and old, Line 1 paired automation with the installation of platform edge doors (PEDs), which is not a technical requirement of automation. Still, PEDs are a big safety and liability-reduction upgrade that comes relatively cheap bundled with automation, especially at the claustrophobic deathtrap that is City Hall Station BSL, as well as other platform pinchpoints throughout the system, mostly caused by poorly-placed stairways and elevators down to track level. We may have avoided the New York City Subway’s critical design error of placing ubiquitous support columns in close proximity to the platform edge in most places, but not quite everywhere. If PEDs can make the passenger experience at the Broad Street Line’s busiest station better, without bringing the eponymous building down, then I’m all for installing them at the first opportunity. About a dozen or so people per year die after being struck by SEPTA trains, and cutting into that number is also a worthwhile enterprise, although it’s noteworthy how much smaller that number is compared to the traffic violence on the streets and highways.

Driverless trains also provide financial encouragement to transit agencies to operate far more frequent service in off-peak hours. This effect is strongest in systems where train length can be adjusted based on hourly demand, as SEPTA theoretically can, but currently does not. With driver compensation out of the marginal cost equation, it’s approximately the same amount of money to run three two-car trains as one six-car train, but three times as many train departures is obviously much more attractive to riders, even if they have to walk down platforms a bit more than they already do.

But this week, there’s another issue that insistently argues in favor of automating Philadelphia’s rapid transit lines: industrial action. Labor negotiations between SEPTA and TWU 234 are continuing, and the rumor mill surrounding the process (TWU head Willie Brown is talking to reporters; SEPTA is not) suggests that, despite there not yet having been a strike authorization vote presented to the TWU 234 rank and file, the two sides are far enough apart that a strike sometime in the month of April is likely. In response to the imminent threat of the third SEPTA strike in eight years, State Representative Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) has introduced legislation that would completely remove TWU’s right to strike. Nevermind that TWU is reaching Italian levels of triggerhappiness when it comes to industrial action, and thus has a public approval ranging somewhere between Jack the Ripper and the United States Congress. I strongly believe that completely revoking TWU’s right to strike is an overreaction to its abuse of that right. It also might endanger SEPTA’s federal funding, to the detriment of labor and riders alike, although that’s more ambiguous. But driverless subway trains, while not actually laborless, can be run with skeleton crews of management replacements, which is an infamously bad idea for human-operated trains. Driving a train is highly specialized skilled labor, but cleaning a train at its terminal is not. If the subways kept running, even perhaps at reduced capacity, during a strike, alongside (mostly) strike-proof Regional Rail and a bikeshare system coming online a year too late to pick up slack during this round of troubles, then Philadelphia would be functional in a way that it is not during a transit strike today. That reduces the power of TWU’s bargaining position, but not nearly as much as it would be reduced by Rep. Harper’s bill, or by a clone of New York State’s Taylor Law, which may be the alternatives facing TWU. This is not a surrender by labor so much as it is nuclear disarmament; if conflict is inevitable, as Willie Brown seems to think (and this is his second act at the helm of TWU 234), then conflict should be thinkable. The other route, the nuclear deterrence option of Mutual Assured Destruction, doesn’t seem to be enough to keep TWU off the picket lines.

So yes, let’s add automating the subways to the queue of capital improvements in the Catching Up plan. It’s a nontrivial investment, but it will be paying dividends in blood, fortune, and labor relations for decades to come.