This, too, is America: Burlington Route edition

I’m on the California Zephyr, on my way home from Denver, and the big stories back home are about the continuing lack of Silverliner Vs, and the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden that the Federal Government will be providing $2.45 billion in loans to Amtrak for the next generation of high speed trains on the Northeast Corridor.  Since I saw plenty of Silverliner Vs running merrily along at Denver Union Station on RTD’s A and B lines, and conventional-speed transcontinental trains are both close cousins and as far from sleek, Pendolino-derived HSTs as you can get, I’ve definitely been feeling this weekend as though I’ve been looking at American passenger railroading through a glass, darkly.

The Acela Express has the dubious distinction of having been such a success that it removed fast train travel in the Northeast from the reach of many ordinary people, since even the Northeast Regional trains that are meant to hold the middle of the market are regularly bid up to the sky and/or sold out.  The Avelia Liberty trainsets, which will be the successor to the original Acelas, are going to be an attempt to implement the aphorism that “the main problems with Amtrak can be solved with more Amtrak”.  28 trainsets (a 40% increase), and 9 passenger cars per trainset (a 50% increase), will result in a doubling of availability for high-margin HST seats.  That will give Amtrak some breathing room to continue making money on the Northeast Corridor, although it may suffer from a lack of ambition (9 cars is barely into the range of respectable length by international standards, but will still require expensive alterations to Amtrak maintenance facilities in Boston).  The tractive power on these new trains will be capable of 165 mph, with ambiguous mention of upgradability beyond that (although that might have been marketing targeted at the California High Speed Rail Authority), but the real trip time improvements will come from replacing the Acela’s “flying bank vault” design, and bespoke tilting mechanism, with mature European designs for both crashworthiness and tilting.  The key to going fast will be not going so slow.

Speaking of going “slow”, my current location obviously indicates that I have no intrinsic problem with it.  Conventional trains, whether day or sleeper, have their place, and will continue to do so even after true HSR begins to roll out across the country.  But this trip has been a painful reminder of American national priorities.  Crossing Iowa on the ex-CB&Q, much of the trip is within sight of US 34, a four lane divided highway with virtually no traffic.  Also frequently in sight is “Old Hwy 34”, a two-lane strip of battered concrete that is nevertheless <em>entirely adequate</em> to handle the observed traffic on both roads, or would be with proper maintenance.  Meanwhile, there is plenty of slack intermodal capacity on the railroad, something easily deduced from the evidence that Amtrak is suddenly and consistently running on time or early, both on 5/6 and nationwide.  That’s always a morbid sign that freight traffic is down significantly, in this case from the Death of Coal.

BNSF’s track department really needs to work on their switch installations.  Every one we went over west of Galesburg felt like a cannon shot fired into the bottom of the train.

I still want my 200+ mph HSR from Chicago to Omaha via the Quad Cities and Des Moines.  That’s where the population is, that’s where the travel markets are.  No offense to the CB&Q, BNSF, or the few, but proud, residents of southern Iowa.  And being able to make the Chicago-Omaha hop in 3 or 4 hours instead of 9 or 10 would be game-changing, including for those continuing to Denver or points west.  As amazing a time as I had in Denver, I don’t think it’s worth it to build HSR from there going either east or west to replace the current conventional service, although a north/south corridor along the Front Range would be promising.

The Silverliner V crisis continues; the latest measure will be express buses from select stations, to relieve pressure on crowded trains after Labor Day weekend.


The Silverliner V fleet is grounded. How you can avoid the mess.

SEPTA Silverliner V #807 boarding at Temple University Station.
A SEPTA Silverliner V in happier times. All 120 cars in the class have been withdrawn from service. By O484~enwiki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A defect in the trucks of the SEPTA Silverliner V has rendered 120 cars of the Regional Rail fleet inoperable until replacement parts can be fabricated and repairs can be made, a process which is expected to take the rest of the summer.  With approximately 1/3 of the fleet illegal to run, SEPTA Regional Rail will be on an enhanced Saturday schedule until further notice.  Complete schedules are posted on SEPTA’s website.

In order to make up the deficit of ~13,000 seats, SEPTA (and perhaps other agencies TBA) are laying on alternative services to try to avoid a complete rush hour meltdown.  As of now, SEPTA has already extended rush hour service levels on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, the cancellation of the Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel maintenance blitz, additional service on the Norristown High Speed Line and Media and Sharon Hill trolleys, and has additional buses on standby to augment service.

So what should the savvy commuter do in these circumstances?

SEPTA’s Trainview status board as of 8:40 AM, July 5th, as screen-captured by scotty269 on the forums

1. Leave early, stay late, travel off-peak.

No matter what, peak capacity is going to be slammed.  Everything is taking longer than normal to get from A to B.  Take this into account, and also be aware that there will be both unexpected delays to published transit schedules, as well as extra transit service on little to no notice.  Allow plenty of time for everything, and stay connected to service alerts.  Off-peak trains seem to be running reasonably uncrowded, so if you can shift your travel plans, do so.  I expect happy hours across Center City to be well-patronized.

2. Other transit services are your friend.

If you have the option of taking an alternate service into or out of Center City at peak hours in the peak direction, whether that’s Amtrak from Chester County, the NHSL from Norristown or the Main Line, a suburban trolley from Delaware County, or a CTD bus from large swathes of Northwest Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia and Cheltenham and Abington Townships, please do so.  Not only will you make your own trip far more comfortable, but you will free up a seat (or one quarter of a square meter of standing room floor) for someone who may not have an alternative.  We are all in this together, and we can only get through by working together.  (Speaking of which, Amtrak needs to get it together as to whether or not it’s cross-honoring SEPTA passes on the Keystones.  They should, but they also need to be consistent.)  The least-crowded alternative service is the Broad Street Line from Fern Rock and Olney Transportation Centers.

3. Carpool, casually or otherwise.

SEPTA has opened up additional parking lots near the Sports Complex and has suspended parking fees at Frankford TC’s garage, and opened up additional parking in other locations, but a few hundred parking spaces isn’t going to do much in the face of a few thousand missing railroad seats.  If you must drive in, please try to bring along a few other people from your area.  Casual carpools, a/k/a “slug lines“, have yet to spring up in the absence of HOV restrictions on local highways, but are a good solution to the coordination problem of inadequate transit; if anyone hears of one setting up, or wants to start one, tell me and I will signal-boost it.

4. Lyft and Uber are still taxis.  Use them accordingly.

Taking an e-hail taxi into the city is not a systemic solution to the crisis, although it might be the one-off solution to making an important appointment on-time when transit is running very late.  Do consider them for bridging the gap to alternate services, especially in the suburbs, e.g. from Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore, to Ardmore Avenue Station on the NHSL, if the 103 bus isn’t practical; or from Malvern (where Amtrak doesn’t stop) to Paoli (where it does).  Uber’s cross-promotion with SEPTA, offering 40% discounts on Uber rides to or from 11 selected Regional Rail parking lots, is still good even if you board a bus afterwards instead of a train.

5. Don’t take your frustration out on SEPTA.

SEPTA unquestionably did the right thing in taking the Silverliner Vs out of service.  The defective part can fail catastrophically, causing a derailment, and nobody wants that to happen on a crowded train.  Whether they did the right thing in buying them from Hyundai Rotem in the first place is a long story and controversial subject, but everybody involved in that decision has since retired, so the beleaguered conductor or customer service rep isn’t responsible (and isn’t in a position to fix it now).  So take a deep breath, and save your anger for a worthier target.

Reminders for today, Pope Friday

  • SEPTA Regional Rail is on a Saturday Schedule, except for Wilmington/Newark and Cynwyd which are on special schedules.
  • Suburban Station is closed until 4 AM Monday.
  • 5th St/Independence, 15th St, and City Hall stations are closed until 5 AM Monday.
  • City transit is running, but lots of buses are being detoured around the secure vehicle perimeter around the Parkway and City Hall.  Dimensions of secure areas can be found on Lauren Ancona’s Philly Pope Map.
  • Tokens and regular passes are still good on subways and buses, and will remain good through the duration.  Special passes are only for Regional Rail, suburban trolleys/NHSL, and PATCO, Saturday and Sunday only.
  • Other agencies are adjusting schedules today.
  • The Traffic Box around Center City goes up at 6 PM this evening.  Boundaries are South Street river-to-river, Spring Garden Street, Ridge Ave, and Girard Ave.
  • The secure vehicle perimeter around Independence Hall goes up at 10 PM.  More detours.
  • The Traffic Box in University City goes up at 10 PM.  Boundaries are Powelton Ave, 38th St, and University Ave.
  • Highways (incl. I-76, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge) start closing at 10 PM.

And last but not least:

  • The streets are safe and the weather is beautiful.  Go walking outside!


July 4 Holiday notes

Just as a reminder, the Independence Day holiday brings with it a suite of service changes. Four of the five local major transit services (SEPTA, PATCO, NJT, Amtrak) will be operating on Sunday or Major Holiday schedules tomorrow, July 4th. DART First State will be shut down entirely except for Routes 201-208 and Route 305.

Extra SEPTA Regional Rail trains will leave Center City after the fireworks. As July 4th is a Friday, the Subway and El will be running train service all night.

My Independence Day plans involve changing from the Capitol Limited to the Empire Builder in Chicago, and maybe catching some of the fireworks from trackside at St. Paul Union Depot. I hope your holiday is, Arthur willing, as fun as mine will be. Happy Fourth!

Labor Day service advisory reminders

Good morning, and happy Labor Day! Just a quick roundup of service changes for the holiday:

  • SEPTA Transit and Regional Rail are running Sunday schedules today.
  • Trolley service is restored on Route 10, and Route 15 west of SugarHouse Loop. New transit schedules are in effect as of yesterday.
  • Bus detours related to the Made In America festival remain in effect until noon, as cleanup and stage teardown continues on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
  • PATCO is running a special schedule, available as a PDF here.
  • NJ Transit Rail and Amtrak are on Major Holiday schedules. NJ Transit buses may or may not be on special schedules; consult printed schedules or
  • DART First State is not running at all today, with the exception of Resort Routes 201-208 and Beach Connection Route 305.
  • UPDATE: Here in the US, we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September, instead of May 1st like the rest of the world, because of our long and ignoble history of Red Scares. Americans, especially left-identified Americans like Labor Unionists, are scared to death of anything that smacks of communism. This apparently does not include the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which does not enforce meter parking today.

Many thanks to the dedicated employees of this region’s transit services, especially those taking the time out of their holiday to keep the trains, buses, and trolleys running for us.

Don’t know what you got, ’til it’s gone

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I moved this summer, and I had a six week period in between when my old lease in Point Breeze ran out and when my new place in Francisville was ready for move-in. In the meantime, I crashed in the spare bedroom of a friend and former flatmate in Swarthmore Borough. And, while I’m immensely grateful for the hospitality, it was a soul-crushing experience to be constantly reminded, for the entire time I was out there, how terrible it is to be transit-reliant in the suburbs.

The sad part is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Swarthmore has comparatively excellent transit service for a suburb. It’s traditionally the top station on the Media/Elwyn Line by ridership. The 109 bus, which runs through Swarthmore on PA-320 on its way from 69th Street to Chester, is one of the best in the Victory Division for frequency (and, relatedly, ridership). And yet service, by absolute standards, is just not that good. The Media/Elwyn Line runs once-hourly outside of the rush hour peaks, which is fine for a pre-planned trip to a scheduled event in Center City, but no good for a more spontaneous walk-up trip. The 109 has the speed and comfort drawbacks of buses, and only goes to the asphalt wasteland of the Baltimore Pike STROAD corridor in one direction, or Chester in the other. Chester is either the region’s most distressed or most undervalued asset; one can connect to almost anywhere in southeastern Delaware County, as well as the Airport, Wilmington, and Newark, but the density of lines on the map belies their inconvenience. Most of the bus routes at Chester TC run once an hour; the Wilmington/Newark line runs once an hour to Pennsylvania points, and less often than that to Delaware. Meanwhile, the rider experience of actually making a transfer at Chester TC is marred by the obvious signs of severe and prolonged economic distress that confront you in literally every direction in Pennsylvania’s oldest city.

Contrast this to my new flat, still piled high with boxes and disassembled shelves. I am literally around the corner from the Girard Avenue stop on the Broad Street Line, where locals run 5-8 tph through much of the service day, plus express and Ridge Spur service, often good for another 5 tph and 4 tph, respectively. The 4 and 16 buses provide additional service on Broad Street, and the 2 runs every 20 minutes off-peak on 16th and 17th Streets. The 15 trolley (currently bustituted for track and platform work, for the balance of August) is plainly visible, but barely audible, from my front stoop. It runs every 15 minutes. These are the frequencies at which I no longer even check to see when the next trip is, I just put my sandals on and start walking, unless I’m connecting to an infrequent Regional Rail line. The very act of checking schedules is as likely to prolong my wait time by causing me to miss a train, trolley, or bus, as it is to shorten my wait time at all.

Now, granted, this is a location that is fantastically well-served, even by city standards. That’s not an accident, given my search criteria. And maybe I’m just spoiled. But go back to that point I made about the service being so frequent that I don’t check schedules for ordinary, nonconnecting rides. This is the psychological hump that most people need to satisfy before they will consider living without access to a car. I recognize that I’m personally unusual in my willingness to choose transit over driving, even when I have the unrestricted choice (I live in a household with more than one working adult, but only one car, a slowly shrinking demographic, according to Jon Geeting’s crunching of Census Bureau data). But I think that the basic concept of transportation you don’t have to think about is the critical one, and that the personal details are going to be mostly trivial. In the city, in addition to walking or biking around neighborhoods, transit can fill that role. In the suburbs, even in dense, walkable/bikable suburbs like Swarthmore, it can’t. Or, more precisely, as of now, it doesn’t.

So, what frequency qualifies as “frequent enough”? Obviously, this is not going to be the same number for everyone, nor is it even going to hold equal across modes, nor should it. The average person is prepared to wait longer for a faster ride, a more comfortable ride, a more predictable and reliable schedule, or waiting in a place that offers more protection from the elements. Of course, on all of those points, it provides an edge to grade-separated rail over mixed-traffic bus routes, with intermediate-order transit modes occupying intermediate positions. But for guidance, we may do well to look to the great bus transit capital of America, Los Angeles. In 2006, LACMTA published a map of all routes that ran every 12 minutes or fewer at midday, on the stated assumption that it was the service frequency that allowed riders to dispense with carrying timetables. Later versions of the map, including this one from August 2012 [PDF], relaxed that condition to 15 minutes. The original 12 minute criterion is probably the best for local buses in city traffic, but the 15 minute criterion takes in all of LA’s skeletal rail transit system at midday, which would explain the change. So, as a first approximation, I would say that “frequent enough” headways here in SEPTAland are 12-15 minutes on local buses, 15-20 minutes on trolleys and light rail, and 20 minutes on short Regional Rail lines, and 30 minutes on long Regional Rail lines. Clearly, that’s a long way away for most of the system, outside of rush hour, but it’s a good set of goals for the highest-priority lines.

In home news, I’m going to still be digging out from boxes for the next while, but I’ll try to get back to a full posting schedule before Labor Day.

Midday service changes on Doylestown, Norristown Lines

Almost missed this entirely, but there were Regional Rail schedule adjustments that went into effect Sunday.  They come in two primary groups, both affecting only weekday middays.  

  • The first, to accommodate wire work, is the bustitution of the Doylestown Line east of Colmar.  Buses will leave Doylestown inbound 12 minutes before the train schedules, and will leave Colmar outbound 5 minutes after the arrival of the connecting train.  SEPTA has posted a bustitution schedule. (PDF)
  • The other is minor schedule adjustments on the Manayunk/Norristown Line, and the breaking up of through trains to the Wilmington/Newark Line into two halves at Center City, again to accommodate work schedules.  The Wilmington/Newark Line schedule has been reprinted, but no actual train times have been affected there, just the run-through origins (and, thus, the train numbers).  That is a tell that SEPTA expects on-time performance on the Manayunk/Norristown Line to degrade during these weekday middays, beyond the point where they’re willing to risk missing schedule slots on Amtrak’s NEC.  Bad news for Manayunk/Norristown riders, but that’s construction season for you.