SEPTA surging extra service to to West Trenton Line and other routes to accommodate displaced NEC riders

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.

The centerpiece of the new plan is a near-doubling of service on the West Trenton Line. Free NJT-operated bus shuttles will connect Trenton Transit Center and West Trenton Station throughout the day.. Additionally, Route 14 bus service has been augmented, bus shuttles are running from Cornwells Heights to Frankford TC, and auxiliary parking lots near some stations have been opened. Details of the emergency plan are available on SEPTA’s website.

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.

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Surveillance video strongly suggests Amtrak 188 derailment due to overspeed

A surveillance video in Port Richmond caught a brief glimpse of Amtrak 188 Tuesday night, and what it saw strongly suggests that the train was well over the maximum speed for the track segment immediately before it derailed.

The video, which was obtained and broadcast by CNN, shows the doomed train pass seconds before a series of flashes from arcing electricity announces the destruction of the electric catenary:

In the event that the video is taken down, let me briefly list the critical moments:

  • At 9:23:40, the train comes into view, led by ACS-64 locomotive #601.
  • At 9:23:44, the seventh and last Amfleet I car disappears from view.
  • At 9:23:46, the first flash is visible.

(I am relying on the accuracy and precision of the timestamps in the video itself, but I see no reason to suspect any inaccuracy.)

An ACS-64 is 67 feet long, and an Amfleet is 85 feet. This gives a total train length of 662 feet. (The actual train is slightly longer, but we will ignore this to get a more conservative figure.) If we call the elapsed time it takes the train to pass the camera 4.5 seconds, we can convert feet to miles and seconds to hours, and come up with an average speed of 101 mph, less than 10 seconds before the derailment.

The curve at Frankford Junction is limited to 50 mph, or was as of 2009.

Needless to say, this is well ahead of NTSB findings, and says absolutely nothing as to why the train was going so fast, but we can say with reasonable certainty that we now know the major proximate cause of Tuesday night’s wreck.

(Acknowledgments for this post go to @sandypsj, @sunnyswords, and @apocalypsepony for helping double check my arithmetic.)

How to go around the Northeast Corridor shutdown after the Frankford Junction derailment

UPDATE 5/14: As of Thursday morning, SEPTA and NJT are co-ordinating detour service via the West Trenton Line.  SEPTA will be running a new weekday schedule with about twice as many trains as normal.  NJT will be providing free shuttle buses between West Trenton station and Trenton Transit Center.  SEPTA is also providing extra parking at West Trenton Line stations, extra Route 14 bus service, and peak-hour shuttle buses from the Cornwells Heights park-and-ride to Frankford Transportation Center.  Amtrak tickets will be cross-honored on NJT and SEPTA for the duration of the service outage.


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

NJT's River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton
NJT’s River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton

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

The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush
The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush

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.

As of 8:52 Wednesday morning, SEPTA has announced that it is adding cars to trains and running unscheduled extra trains on the West Trenton Line to deal with the crowded conditions.

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.
Chestnut Hill West service is operating as of Wednesday morning.

South Jersey

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.

Systemwide cascade

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.

Cross-honoring

As of 7:30am Wednesday, NJT is cross-honoring Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor Line between New York and Trenton, and on the River Line between Trenton and Camden. After a communications delay, PATCO is cross-honoring NJT Atlantic City Line and Amtrak tickets. So Amtrak ticket holders who don’t mind taking quite a long time to get where they’re going can get completely around the suspension with their existing tickets.

Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia tonight

According to initial reports, Amtrak train 188 has derailed at or near SHORE interlocking, near Frankford Avenue and Wheatsheaf Lane in North Philadelphia.  Former Congressman Patrick Murphy has tweeted photos from the inside of a cafe car that has rolled on to its side, showing injured passengers and first responders at the scene.

The Philadelphia Fire Department has declared the derailment a “mass casualty incident”.

SEPTA Trenton and Chestnut Hill West service is suspended indefinitely, as is Amtrak service on the NEC between Philadelphia and New York. NJT hasn’t made an announcement suspending the Atlantic City Line, but I assure you it’s also closed west of Pennsauken. (Update 22:01: ACL suspended.)

I will update this post as information comes in.

Update 22:30:  Police sources are saying this may have been a collision between the Amtrak and a freight train; it is not yet clear what basis they have for saying this.  Freight is a common sight at SHORE, since it acts as the sole gateway for freight rail between South Jersey and the rest of the country, with the exception of the NJT River Line in the off-hours.  Conrail Shared Assets stores freight cars in a small yard a short distance from the junction.

Update 23:30: Amtrak reports that 238 passenger and 5 crew were on board.  ~50-60 have been taken to local hospitals, another ~15 “walking wounded” are on a SEPTA bus at the scene awaiting transport.

Update 23:45: Mayor Michael Nutter confirms five deaths and six critically injured.  120 firefighters and 200 police responded to the scene.

Update 0:00: CSX confirms that none of its trains collided with anything or were otherwise involved in the derailment of Amtrak 188.  SEPTA is saying the Trenton Line will be suspended indefinitely, and they expect that to last throughout the day on Wednesday.

Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.

Whose roads? Our roads! An introduction to American highway blockade

As the country recoiled Monday night from the injustice of the non-indictment in Ferguson, something genuinely new happened. At first, here in Philadelphia, it was like any other of the sickeningly familiar outpourings of grief and anger that have motivated people into the streets before, with a large mass of people starting at City Hall and parading through the major streets of Center City: Broad, Market, South, Arch.

But then, as the marchers reached Old City, the protestors advanced onto an on-ramp to I-95, forcing Philadelphia Police to throw up a barricade at the top of the ramp. There is a large tangle of ramps in that area connecting local streets to I-95, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so there were plenty of access points, but the PPD successfully managed to keep the protestors off the highway mainlines. This in contrast to what happened simultaneously in St. Louis, where protesters shut down I-44; New York, where marchers shut down the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Triboro bridges; Seattle, where demonstrators shut down I-5; and Los Angeles, where I-10 and CA-110 were both shut down.

By the time dusk fell over America Tuesday night, the practice of invading or attempting to invade limited-access highways, had spread to protests in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Providence, Portland, and San Diego, to list the ones I could find news stories about in three minutes of Googling.

Blocking highways is a rarity in the arsenal of political protest in the United States, although it is more common in countries like France, and has played a critical part in the Occupy Central protests this year in Hong Kong. The experience from abroad shows that highway blockades are very effective at getting attention and achieving change. And now that it’s suddenly a nationwide phenomenon here, people are trying to wrap their heads around what it means.

The first thing to say is to reiterate a point Stephen J. Smith made on Twitter Tuesday night: “Reminder to urbanists watching highways being shut down: sometimes it’s not about you.” Nothing that follows should diminish the fact that the protests of the last two nights have been primarily about systemic racism, excessive force by police, and a judicial system rigged (with the consent of STL County voters) to make sure that Officer Darrell Wilson and those like him escape accountability for their actions. Those are important things, and it’s critical to not lose sight of them.

But sometimes, it’s about more than one thing, and there has to be a strong suspicion that this has become such a widespread tactic because of the resonances it holds with the particular case. Michael Brown was on foot, Officer Wilson was in a patrol car, and their initial encounter was a conflict over the extent to which the street is a public space. While walkable cities are certainly not immune to racism or high-handed policing, the particular sins of the Ferguson Police after the shooting seem alien to anyone whose mental model of bad, racist police comes from the NYPD, or even the LAPD. Charles Marohn’s article from August, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, points out that Ferguson is a town that is architected around the car, in a way that is guaranteed to immiserate its residents and turn its government against them. And in general, the message that things need to change seems to be more urgently directed at suburban drivers than urbanites, and the easiest way for urban residents to get that message in front of their faces is when they’re in their cars. The highway, unlike their homes in driving-only suburbs, is accessible.

The backlash has already started, at least if the comment section cesspools of local newspapers and TV stations are any indication, but backlash strongly implies that the strength of the protestors’ distress is coming through. In one incident, a driver in Minneapolis plowed through a crowd (on local streets), and there are already calls for that particular act of terrorism to be repeated. The thesis being presented, is that the ability of car traffic to flow freely is more important than any exercise of the freedoms of speech or assembly. (This is a related fallacy to the Ferguson PD’s assertion that, much as a shark must keep swimming to survive, the First Amendment stops working for anyone standing still.) I don’t know whether it’s my American identity or my humanity that recoils more at this sort of bullshit, but I do know that it should be strenuously fought, until a clear consensus has been established that this kind of thinking is immoral and vile. You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently we aren’t there yet as a society.

So, going forward, what should aspiring blockaders keep in mind? A few things, starting with the fact that it is a hazardous action, even before considering those who would deliberately ram you. All of the successful incursions I’ve read about have also involved a handful of arrests. It’s more effective to set up a preliminary blockade with vehicles first, and then move pedestrians into the empty zone in front. A moving blockade, where a line of cars across all lanes slow down to 20 mph or so, might be more achievable at times like rush hour, but requires more in the way of pre-planning and co-ordination. And lastly, it’s not necessary to actually reach the road; if you simply force the police to close the road, or all of the ramps to local streets in the inner core, in order to contain your credible threat of incursion, that’s as good as blocking it yourself. I’m sure other tactical suggestions will surface in comments.

As I wrote on Twitter Monday night, this is a new reality in America, and I’m sure that, as a society, like with all new things, we will deal with its arrival very badly. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and even if we were inclined to put it back in, which we shouldn’t be, we couldn’t.

The TWU deal resolves nothing, and that’s fine

When in doubt, punt.

The two year contract signed by TWU Local 234 and SEPTA at 11:00 last night is a truce, not a peace treaty. It includes a 5% raise over the two years of the contract term, which is higher than what management was offering and lower than what the union was demanding, but does not resolve any of the pension or benefits issues that were at the heart of TWU’s rhetorical justification for strike threats.

It doesn’t matter. TWU got as much as it could, and got the ability to come back in 18 months (contracts like this are backdated to the expiration of the previous contract, so this one runs to April 2016), with a presumptively better political environment to try another time. That is a good ending.

TWU 234’s rank and file will be voting on ratification of the contract sometime next week, so it’s not over, but unless Willie Brown has an unexpected (and futile) rebellion from his members, the drama should be done with.