Thomson’s ghost

SEPTA had a rough morning yesterday on the Paoli/Thorndale Line, with a broken rail taking one track out of service during the morning rush. Shuttle buses provided service between Thorndale and Downingtown, but the eye-opener of the morning came from this tweet SEPTA sent out:

That made quite a bit of sense; it let SEPTA concentrate on shuttling peak-direction passengers out of Thorndale parking lot, and Amtrak got to be a good host to SEPTA passengers on its line. And on Amtrak as on SEPTA, peak direction is towards Philadelphia in the morning, so there were plenty of empty seats on Keystone 605, although it did arrive in Harrisburg 19 minutes late.

But this co-operation in a pinch, while admirable, points out a defect in our transit system: it doesn’t happen every day. On the outer Main Line, Philadelphia-bound commuters are forced to choose between SEPTA, which is cheaper, more frequent, makes the local stops Thorndale, Whitford, and Malvern, and directly serves Suburban and Market East Stations, versus Amtrak, which is significantly faster and more comfortable, but more expensive and less convenient to Center City. This makes little sense for the riders, and less sense for the Commonwealth, which is subsidizing both services. A better system would permit passholders to ride either SEPTA or Amtrak. Metrolink and Amtrak California co-operate like this in Los Angeles: they call it the Rail2Rail program. It makes more sense there to let Metrolink passholders on Amtrak trains, since the prices are closer and the schedules sparser. But letting Amtrak riders ride SEPTA trains that fit their needs better is a win all around.

The Thomson of my title is Edgar Thomson, first Chief Engineer of the PRR. Needless to say, when Harrisburg trains and Paoli trains all ran under the PRR/PC banner, Paoli-Philadelphia passholders could ride any train they pleased. A sad reminder that, despite how far we’ve come since the age of steam, a few things really were better.