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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SEPTA announced Wednesday evening that it would be moving trains and buses to Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County to meet increased demand on parallel routes, in the wake of service suspensions after the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional 188.
Most of the new West Trenton trains are expresses, running nonstop between Bethayres and Fern Rock TC, and running with D-stops between Bethayres and West Trenton. That is SEPTA-ese for “we don’t know how well these trains will hold a schedule, so show up a bit early and forgive us if we’re late.”
Amtrak riders can have their tickets cross-honored on the West Trenton Line, as well as the NJT bus shuttle, meaning both detour routes from New York to Philadelphia are fully cross-honoring Amtrak fares.
This comes after SEPTA ran longer trains and unscheduled extra trains on Wednesday to cope with the crowding. This new level of service is possible in part because the equipment normally assigned to the Trenton Line would otherwise be sitting idle, while SEPTA and Amtrak wait for the investigators to finish collecting evidence at Frankford Junction. Only in the off-peak hours does SEPTA have the equipment to run more trains under normal circumstances.
It is expected to be sometime next week before trains run can run on the Trenton Line again, and it is possible that the first hours or days after the reopening will only have one or two tracks available, in which case Amtrak may keep the limited operating slots for its own trains.
In the wake of the derailment of Amtrak train 188 Tuesday evening, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is shut down indefinitely while investigators pore over the crash site at Frankford Junction. In addition to the disruption to Amtrak service, SEPTA and NJ Transit services that run on Amtrak’s tracks through the accident area have been suspended indefinitely. This is going to create a lot of hardship for riders for the foreseeable future, and while SEPTA has some alternate service suggestions for every Regional Rail station in the system, they tend to be rather slow, and unattractive to suburban riders who own cars and want a time-competitive trip into Philadelphia. And driving in is not really an option; not ever, and certainly not while I-95 construction is ongoing. So while SEPTA’s instructions are valid and fine as far as they go, I want to take some time to point out some of the other options available.
NJT River Line
This will be the easiest and fastest way for people coming from Trenton, including connecting passengers from New York: From Trenton Transit Center, go outside and across Clinton Avenue to the Trenton River Line station.
From the Bristol/Croydon area, go over the Burlington-Bristol Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only, no pedestrian access), and turn right onto Broad Street for the Burlington South station. As an alternate route, take the Turnpike Bridge to US 130 south, for Florence station.
From River Wards and Tacony going to New York, take the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only). Drivers have a straightforward path down River Road to Route 73/Pennsauken station, while the few hardy cyclists and pedestrians who try this and who don’t enjoy the prospect of being squished by New Jersey’s finest stroad engineering can use Temple Boulevard and Cinnaminson Ave to Palmyra station.
South Jersey’s DLRT line takes an extra half hour or so compared to SEPTA, but is quite inexpensive: a flat $1.50 all the way from Trenton to Camden. From Walter Rand Transportation Center, connect to PATCO or a NJT bus to Center City Philadelphia. BE AWARE that the River Line has a late start and an early last run, to maintain temporal separation from freight traffic on the line. (It also takes the River Line a while to run end-to-end, so starting up and shutting down take time.)
SEPTA West Trenton Line
For many others, especially those with destinations in West or North Philadelphia, the SEPTA West Trenton Line will be the next best option. There is an NJT bus that connects West Trenton station with Trenton Transit Center, but it runs peak hours only, so use that at your own risk. Passengers connecting to and from NJT may want to co-ordinate and share cabs. Since station parking lots will be oversubscribed all along the line, park-and-ride customers should probably consider backup parking locations, especially Oxford Valley and Neshaminy Malls. Both malls have an mediocre but serviceable bus connection to the West Trenton Line: Oxford Valley to Langhorne via the 14, and Neshaminy to Neshaminy Falls via the 58. Neshaminy Mall to Neshaminy Falls station should be walking distance, but Bristol Road is narrow and fast and has no sidewalks, so I can’t recommend it in good conscience.
SEPTA Local transit
If you’re coming into the city from Torresdale, Holmesburg, Tacony, or Bridesburg, then congratulations, your local bus service doesn’t entirely suck. Busing to Frankford Terminal and picking up the El is not the most fun thing in the world, but it will have to do for now.
SEPTA Chestnut Hill Lines
The Chestnut Hill West Line does not run through Frankford Junction, but it is suspended for now due to sharing an electrical circuit with the accident site. If they manage to turn on the power to Hill West before the NTSB releases the site, that will be a big boon to the Northwest, but as long as it’s down, riders should switch to the Chestnut Hill East line or to local buses. CHW riders should keep a close eye on SEPTA news sources for updates.
Atlantic City Line passengers, who have been blissfully immune to the vagaries of PATCO’s frequently-altered schedules, should prepare to connect at Lindenwold. Have nextpat.co bookmarked to keep track of the mess. Pennsauken riders should take the River Line to WRTC and connect via bus or PATCO.
Riders not on the suspended lines who have a marginal decision between two transit options should be aware of how their commutes may be affected by crowding and associated delays. Park-and-ride customers who live roughly halfway in between the West Trenton and Warminster Lines may want to ride Warminster this week. Not many LaSalle University students take the Chestnut Hill East line at Wister, but for those who do, the 18 bus to Olney Terminal may be particularly attractive for the rest of the week, and so forth. SEPTA probably doesn’t have much in the way of rolling stock trapped on the Trenton Line, but checking that hasn’t been anybody’s priority yet.
The Times of Trenton reports that Ewing, NJ is looking into transit upgrades centered on West Trenton Station, which lies in the township’s borders. Mostly this consists of direct bus service from the station to Downtown Trenton, Trenton-Mercer Airport (the back side of which is a stone’s throw away), and New Brunswick. The station itself is to be renovated, and the parking lots are to be expanded.
The SEPTA/CSX West Trenton Line, on which the station sits and marks the end of SEPTA territory, was formerly the Reading/Central Railroad of New Jersey’s intercity route from Reading Terminal to Jersey City and Newark. This service, whose flagship trains were the New York supercommuter-oriented Wall Street and Crusader, outlasted both of its host railroads. Through-service ended in 1981, and NJDOT-operated connecting service on the New Jersey side only lasted another year afterwards. As you might expect, the slightest glance of attention has caused the usual railfan suspects to light up in excitement and call for the reactivation of train service north of West Trenton. Much as I admire where they’re coming from, that would be a waste of resources that are just as scarce east of the Delaware as they are west of it. The proposed bus connections, done right, are a much better deal for riders.
First, there’s the route. North from West Trenton, the freight-only section of the line passes through mostly rural and sparse exurban portions of Mercer and Somerset Counties, before joining up with NJT’s Raritan Valley Line at Bound Brook. The population available today for walk-up service to West Trenton Line stations is epsilon. While in Pennsylvania, SEPTA West Trenton Line has superior catchment and ridership than the Trenton Line, in New Jersey the ex-Reading route misses the population and job centers of Princeton and New Brunswick well to the west. The first truly major destination on the line is the terminal, Newark Penn Station. This does not bode well for potential ridership, and since terminal capacity at Newark, Hoboken, and New York is limited, West Trenton service would have to come at least partly at the expense of Raritan Valley Line service west of Bound Brook.
The second problem is speed. No train via Bound Brook is ever going to beat a bus connection to the Northeast Corridor for speed. Neither the State of New Jersey nor CSX has any interest in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to upgrade West Trenton Line tracks to handle passenger trains faster than 79 mph. In fact, CSX would prefer to keep passengers off its mainline as much as possible, to prevent congestion and interference on its line. SEPTA has given up trying to thread the needle with CSX, and sought and received a $10 million TIGER grant to separate its tracks from CSX’s between Neshaminy and West Trenton. Meanwhile, ALP-46A-hauled trains are approved for speeds up to 125 mph on the NEC. And until the Gateway project is built, NJT is completely slot-constrained at New York Penn Station, and would prefer to run fewer, longer trains, as much as possible. The purchase of the ALP-45DP dual-power locomotive now gives a technical possibility of direct service to New York from non-electrified lines like Raritan Valley (or West Trenton), but NJT is being very conservative about where and when it uses its limited fleet of ALP-45DPs. In any event, an ALP-45DP hauling eight Multilevel cars from West Trenton is a significantly worse deal for NJT than an ALP-46 hauling ten. And West Trenton probably can’t generate enough traffic to fill eight cars.
So frequent, direct bus service from West Trenton to Trenton seems like an ideal compromise between the status quo and a restoration that isn’t happening. The present bus connection is a slow local bus that takes far too much time to go such a short distance. The additional connection to New Brunswick is just a faster connection for Pennsylvania residents to the mid-corridor job centers, bypassing downtown Trenton traffic. And the link to Trenton-Mercer Airport opens that transit-inaccessible airport up to non-drivers for the first time, just as its main runway has reopened and Frontier Airlines is announcing new routes (and airport parking is no longer free). Running that as a short extension of the Trenton-West Trenton shuttle is a no-brainer.
The proposal to expand parking raises its own concerns. The first is, always, whether private transit-oriented development would be a superior use of the land. It almost always is, (park-and-ride is considered harmful), and the only reason I’m skeptical of its being able to succeed in Ewing, is that there’s already a large, walkable settlement in Southern Mercer County with a good transit connection to Philadelphia. It’s called Trenton, and it doesn’t attract much private-sector development, and not for lack of trying, nor for natural advantages. More and more bimetropolitan households (one earner commuting to the New York MSA, a second commuting to the Philadelphia MSA) are choosing to locate in Bucks County instead of Mercer County, a reversal of the historical trend, and Ewing Township doesn’t bring enough to the table to reverse that shift by itself. Still, one has to wonder at the amount of space being given over to parking at West Trenton, and ask how many Jakriborgs would that be?
The other concern, which is somewhat contradictory to the first, is the legalization and regularization of ride-and-park at West Trenton Station, which is increasingly popular as the reverse-commute market from Philadelphia to Mercer County grows. If West Trenton Station and its parking lots aren’t going anywhere, then we ought to get the best value for them, and that involves getting more than one rider per parking space per day, and leveraging our transit network to get cars out of Central Philadelphia where they do the most harm.