SEPTA’s Regional Rail fare collection contortions are a symptom of a system that is strategically adrift

Ever since last summer’s Silverliner V equalizer beam crisis, SEPTA has been collecting Center City outbound Regional Rail tickets at the platform stairs in the evening rush.  On Tuesday, SEPTA announced that beginning July 10th, it will modify the procedure to punch tickets only, but have passengers retain their tickets and have them displayed throughout their journey.

The reason is simple: without a subsequent on-board check, it is possible for anyone to ride for any length after presenting a Zone 1 ticket to the fare collectors, or for that matter just a Transpass if your train boards at the same platform location as the Airport Line.  And to make the latter loophole even worse, SEPTA’s ambassadors check SEPTA Key cards for Transpass validity rarely to never.  SEPTA remains completely paranoid about revenue leaks from fare evasion, so they are moving to plug the hole now that trains and platforms are no longer quite so overcrowded.

Unfortunately for SEPTA, rush hour trains remain crowded enough that they cannot be easily swept by conductors for ticket checks until a significant number of riders have disembarked, meaning that the ambassadors checking for some form of fare instrument are still necessary to forestall an even more damaging form of fare evasion that was common before last summer: simply carrying one ticket in the knowledge that conductors will not be able to reach you to punch it.  Even riders without nefarious intent simply weren’t always able, or inclined, to seek out a conductor to get their ticket punched.

SEPTA, like most American commuter rail operators, including all of the Northeastern railroads as well as Metra in Chicago, insist on the obsolete and incredibly expensive method of fare collection where multiple conductors per train manually check every passenger’s fare by hand.  This system has been retained virtually nowhere else in the developed world outside of the United States, cast aside in favor of full faregating, or proof-of-payment, either of which dramatically reduces the employee headcount per train, which in turn allows for much less expensive provision of transit service, which in turn means either lower government subsidies and/or lower fares, and usually also allows more frequent and more useful service for riders.  There is a straight line to be drawn between the massive expense of conductors and the sparseness of our train schedules.

SEPTA is at least making a half-measure towards faregating with the upcoming rollout of SEPTA Key on Regional Rail.  The five Center City stations — University City, 30th Street, Suburban, Jefferson, and Temple — will be equipped with bidirectional faregates, requiring a fare to enter or exit.  Platform validators will be posted at the outer stations; when a Regional Rail rider only taps once, they will be charged the maximum fare.  This defeats the disadvantage of the July 2016-July 2017 system, since the default is to the most expensive fare, and can’t be defeated with a cheaper ticket.

But the main advantage of installing faregates will be lost if SEPTA continues to retain low platforms at so many stations, which necessitate the retention of conductors for their other function, raising and lowering the traps for low-platform stations.  SEPTA is still only installing high platforms at one or two stations per year, rather than the mass installation it needs in order to gain the economies from rationalized train staffing, higher train performance from lower boarding delays, and compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of the ADA.  It has not even prioritized engineering for that program, instead wastefully diverting in-house engineering resources to an unnecessary project to extend Market-Frankford Line stations to eight cars long, on the off chance that this President and this Congress decide to do a helicopter drop of money to shovel-ready infrastructure.  Even though MFL ridership is higher than the entire Regional Rail system combined, the potential financial and ridership return to high-leveling entire Regional Rail lines is much higher, and can be done in phases or batches scaled to the amount of money available.  SEPTA does not even prioritize high-leveling stations with high ridership like Elkins Park, which can shave entire minutes from schedules, nor stations like Eastwick or Fox Chase which are the only low-level stations on the Airport and Fox Chase Lines, respectively, which would allow for fewer conductors on those trains.

That said, it is entirely possible that SEPTA’s experiment with partial faregating will fail.  There are notable station chokepoints at all five Center City stations that may simply be incompatible with masses of humanity trying to filter through faregates, in one direction or the other or both.  Time will tell.  If it does fail, the only reasonable option left will be conversion to proof-of-payment, although the platform/door safety function will necessitate conductor overstaffing for decades at current rates.

Prioritizing the reduction of staffing is not an anti-union or even anti-employment position.  Right now the main obstacle to SEPTA providing real transit service on its Regional Rail lines is the chronic, acute shortage of engineers.  The best and easiest source of ready candidates for training as engineers, which is a months-long and high-attrition process in the best circumstances, is the conductor corps.  SEPTA can use literally anyone they can get through the training program to add service for riders.  The next time you are caught in bad traffic on I-76 or I-95, the failure of the Manayunk/Norristown or Trenton Lines to capture mode share away from driving due to their inadequate, once-hourly schedules, will be the main root cause.  We need approximately the current overall staff levels, just shifted, in order to protect out regional prosperity from predictable congestion.

Meanwhile, we are about to witness the worst of all possible worlds: overstaffed trains, multiple redundant fare checks, and a system that cannot get out of its own way and does not have a sense of urgency about getting better.  This is SEPTA in 2017.  May the Great Maker have mercy on us all.

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Should SEPTA add free Wi-Fi to the Regional Rail fleet?

septa-wifi-signal-symbol

With schedules back to normal after the summer’s Silverliner V debacle, thoughts are turning to how SEPTA can regain the ridership it’s hemorrhaged over the last three months of misery (which isn’t quite over yet; trains are still shorter than quota).  Jason Laughlin, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, collected a few suggestions on the Inky’s transportation blog.  A Facebook comment thread discussing his article then brought up the idea of introducing free wireless internet on trains.

Now, normally I’m a skeptic about trying to lure riders on to transit with gimmicky perks.  NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s risible plan to lure younger riders onto New York City’s slow and unreliable buses with USB charger ports (and also wi-fi), instead of creating bus lanes and enforcing them, is an egregious example.  But wi-fi on regional rail and intercity trains has a reasonably solid track record of being a popular feature, that doesn’t cost the transit agency very much at all to provide.  The usual complaint is that one gets what one pays for; Amtrak’s wi-fi is notoriously slow internet, slower than one can get tethering through one’s own phone, if you’re paying for that feature.  But at the very least, the experience of slow internet, while frustrating, does not drive away any passengers who would not have also been driven away by the experience of no internet. But bad internet does reinforce public narratives about transit agencies being incompetent and feckless, especially about IT (a reputation that is not entirely undeserved, in many cases).

So, should SEPTA leapfrog a generation of mobile internet solutions (which are now mostly just a cell router in a cabinet)?  My comment on the subject was this:

Amtrak recognizes that its wifi system is considered subpar, especially by Acela customers who want the premium service that they’re paying for. So they’re currently working on divorcing Northeast Corridor wifi from the commercial mobile internet, building our their own network of trackside antennas dedicated to handling their own data. The expected cost of this is expected to be $30 million for the trackside network, and $2 million for upgrades to the Acela fleet, all starting last year and running through 2019, at the end of which the bandwidth caps are expected to come off, so Acela riders can Netflix to their heart’s content.

Using those numbers to estimate what it would take to bring the same system to SEPTA Regional Rail, we’re talking about $11.4 million-$18.5 million for trackside network infrastructure (depending on how much piggybacking on Amtrak’s system is possible and how much redundancy SEPTA will have to build), and a worst-case scenario of $6.667 million to retrofit the entire Regional Rail fleet, which I think is realistically an overestimate, since retrofits are more expensive than including features in the original design, and we’re about to turn over most of the Regional Rail fleet. We’re now talking about a $20-25 million project that would take 3-4 years, after ridership will have already recovered as much as it was going to from this summer’s debacle, and not a $5 million project that takes six months to a year, starting to pull back riders out of their cars then. Is it a sufficiently better alternative that SEPTA should take it? Maybe. I don’t know. But I think either is better than the status quo.

SEPTA capital dollars are still scarce, so neither the cheap route nor the expensive route are slam-dunk cases.  1234 Market Street has been ruthlessly prioritizing its core services, as it rightly should.  But if SEPTA can make more money (whether through increased ridership or increased willingness to pay for fares) by introducing Wi-Fi, than it will cost it to provide, then it should do so.  And by the standards of SEPTA capital projects, which range up to $1.1 billion for the King of Prussia Rail project, a $5 million project, or even a $20 million project, is small.  I predict that arguments over the wisdom of introducing Wi-Fi will continue, even long after the introduction of the service on the SEPTA fleet, should that ever happen.

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.

Advanced tips for how to get in and out of Center City during the SEPTApocalypse: Glenside Combined

After two days of travel woes due to the Silverliner V crisis, some patterns have been established in terms of where the worst delays are, and how best to avoid them.  This series will be a listing of the best strategies to avoid the worst.

These will all assume an origin or destination in or beyond Center City Philadelphia. Directions will be for inbound travel, and will be reversible unless noted.  There will be some assumption made that money is available to exchange for time and/or comfort.

Generic inbound

If you are one of many standees on your train at Fern Rock, change there for the Broad Street Line.  Silverliner IVs are not designed for more than one or two standees, and there will be major delays in offloading at Temple University (at least) if you remain on board.  This will keep you safer, and will keep the system from melting down (further).  This instruction does not work in reverse; outbound trains may skip Fern Rock unannounced.

Glenside

Take the 22 bus on Easton Road.  It will be more crowded than usual since it’s one of the best alternatives for the beleaguered Warminster Line, but there hasn’t been a major reported increase in ridership yet, so you should ultimately be fine.  Change at Olney TC for the Broad Street Line.

Jenkintown

Take the 55 bus on Old York Road.  Change at Olney for the Broad Street Line.

Elkins Park, Melrose Park

Take the 55 to Olney, or the 28 or 70 bus to Fern Rock TC.

Fern Rock TC

Do not attempt to board an inbound RRD train here.  If you drive here, please consider carpooling; parking is massively overstretched.

Wayne Junction

Do not attempt to board an inbound RRD train here.  If you use Wayne Junction as a transfer point, consider using a bus route such as the 26 or the 77 to move circumferentially between branches at farther outlying stations.  All of the surface transit routes that directly serve Wayne Junction (23, 53, 75) connect to the Broad Street Line.

Advanced tips for how to get in and out of Center City during the SEPTApocalypse: Manayunk-Norristown Line

After two days of travel woes due to the Silverliner V crisis, some patterns have been established in terms of where the worst delays are, and how best to avoid them.  This series will be a listing of the best strategies to avoid the worst.

These will all assume an origin or destination in or beyond Center City Philadelphia. Directions will be for inbound travel, and will be reversible unless noted.  There will be some assumption made that money is available to exchange for time and/or comfort.

Norristown

Take the NHSL, take the NHSL, take the NHSL.  This is not hard.  Why are people still trying to take Regional Rail here whyyyyyyyyyy….

Conshohocken

Many options from here.  Take the train back one stop to Norristown for the NHSL.  Take the 95 bus to Gulph Mills for the NHSL, 124, or 125.  If you drive here, drive instead to Plymouth Meeting Mall for the 27 bus to Center City, or the L bus to Chestnut Hill.

Manayunk

Take the 61 bus.  You can stay on, or change to the 9/27/62/124/125 at Wissahickon, or change to a crosstown at 33rd/Dauphin Loop for the BSL, or change directly to the BSL at Fairmount.

Wissahickon

Another case of “you have such good options, why would you even try?”  The 9, 27, and 62 are Expressway buses; the 124 and 125 also take the Expressway but are premium-service routes, so have your Zone 2 Trailpass ready (and be kind about leaving seats in the outbound direction for those continuing on to King of Prussia).  All the buses other than the 9 and 27 stop at Wissahickon TC, a short walk down the hill from Wissahickon RR station.

East Falls

Give up, take the bus.  Best option if you can get there is to walk down to 33rd/Allegheny for the 60, but the 1 or R to Hunting Park Station BSL, or the 61 down Ridge, are also good choices, so choose depending on where in the neighborhood you are.

Allegheny

Please re-evaluate whether whatever reason you have for not taking the 33 or the 60 is really still applicable.

Advanced tips for how to get in and out of Center City during the SEPTApocalypse: Media-Elwyn Line

After two days of travel woes due to the Silverliner V crisis, some patterns have been established in terms of where the worst delays are, and how best to avoid them.  This series will be a listing of the best strategies to avoid the worst.

These will all assume an origin or destination in or beyond Center City Philadelphia. Directions will be for inbound travel, and will be reversible unless noted.  There will be some assumption made that money is available to exchange for time and/or comfort.

Wallingford and west

Stations west of Swarthmore are already being bustituted for the Crum Creek Viaduct replacement project; the reduction in trains to Swarthmore is just heaping one tribulation on another.  If the prospect of a shuttle bus to an overcrowded train does not appeal, the 101 trolley is the best alternative. The trolley can be reached on foot on State Street from Media or Moylan-Rose Valley, or driven to at Springfield Mall, the most underrated park-and-ride in SEPTAland even in the best of times.

The 111 express bus is another underrated alternative for Elwyn riders, but the best place to park-and-ride for it was Granite Run Mall, and having not been there since the mall was closed and demolished, I cannot give good advice as to how to ride it.

Swarthmore

The 109 bus is a decent option in its own right for reaching 69th Street, or it can be used to connect to the 101 at Springfield Mall, or the 102 at Baltimore Avenue in Clifton Heights.  Be aware that the buses stop on the south side of the mall, and the trolleys stop at the northeast corner of the property.

Clifton-Aldan through Morton

Switching to the 102 at Clifton-Aldan is not the fastest strategy, but if your train is dangerously crowded, it’s not the worst idea.  From Clifton-Aldan itself, it might be a superior option just on wait time.

Inner stations

Lansdowne has three bus options (109 to 69th Street, 113 to 69th Street, 113 to Darby TC), one of which should be approaching at any given time.  Fernwood-Yeadon has the 108, again in both directions, and eastern parts of Yeadon borough may be walkable to subway-surface trolleys 34, 13, or 11.  If you are one of the few dozen non-reverse-commute riders from Angora and 49th Street, congratulations on finding my blog, it’s an honor to have such a rare visitor as yourself, now please take the 34 or 13 trolley, respectively.  Unless you need level-boarding for accessibility reasons from 49th, in which case, take the 64 bus to 46th Street Station MFL, which is inconvenient but will at least physically allow you on board.

Advanced tips for how to get in and out of Center City during the SEPTApocalypse: Paoli-Thorndale Line

After two days of travel woes due to the Silverliner V crisis, some patterns have been established in terms of where the worst delays are, and how best to avoid them.  This series will be a listing of the best strategies to avoid the worst.

These will all assume an origin or destination in or beyond Center City Philadelphia. Directions will be for inbound travel, and will be reversible unless noted.  There will be some assumption made that money is available to exchange for time and/or comfort.

Outer Main Line

Amtrak’s Keystone Service is already the best bet from Paoli, Exton, or Downingtown, but if you are within walking distance of Malvern, Whitford, or Thorndale, you can use SEPTA for local travel to an Amtrak station, and catch America’s Railroad for the trip in.  This is actually best for outbound trips in the evening, which are exhibiting greater peakiness of crowding and delays.

West Chester residents used to driving to Exton to catch the train there might want to instead take the 104 bus from Downtown West Chester to 69th Street.

Middle Main Line

Daylesford, Devon, and Berwyn riders might consider a wrong-way trip to Paoli to pick up Amtrak there.  Otherwise, riders from east of Paoli and west of the Blue Route should consider taking the train to Radnor or Villanova, getting off there, and walking to the NHSL stations of the same names.  Take the NHSL in from there to 69th Street for the El into Center City.

Inner Main Line

As surface transit options proliferate with proximity to Philadelphia, the optimal alternative changes rapidly.  For Bryn Mawr and Haverford, I would suggest the 20 minute walk to the NHSL.  At Ardmore, Amtrak is making extra stops, but I recommend the 103 bus to Ardmore Junction instead, fulfilling its traditional role from its origin as a Red Arrow trolley.  In Narberth, the 44 bus to Center City  is likely the best.  And in Overbrook, the walk to 63rd and Malvern for the 10 trolley is far better than fighting through the crowds on the train.