The End of an Era

At a ceremony this morning at the Hyundai Rotem assembly plant on Weccacoe Avenue in South Philadelphia, officials from SEPTA and Hyundai Rotem celebrated the construction of Silverliner Vs 881 and 882. When this pair of cars completes its testing period and is accepted by SEPTA, it will mark the end of the Silverliner V acquisition process. That period started, depending on how one counts, either on March 3 2010, when Rotem delivered 701 as the first of the 120 Silverliner Vs, or in June 2002, when SEPTA first issued the RFP for the new railcars.

And what a long, strange trip it’s been in the eleven years since those early days. The contract was awarded, sued over, rescinded, then re-awarded to the same bidder. (Oh, and we fought the entirety of the Iraq War.) Construction was delayed, delayed, and delayed again. (The poor sods at MBTA, who ordered bilevel commuter rail cars from Rotem after SEPTA gave them a foothold in the American market, have threatened cancellation over the delays that have cascaded to their order.) SEPTA waffled back and forth over whether they would have full cabs or half-cabs for their engineers, before settling on half-cabs. And when the Silverliner Vs first rolled out, they had to be pulled from service to correct assembly defects that caused cracked shells, and design errors that compromised the climate control performance.

We hope MBTA had a penalty clause in their contract like the one SEPTA rightly insisted on, which levied a penalty on every late Silverliner of $200/car/day. We hope that SEPTA insists on payment in cash, and not in-kind payments of the kind they have negotiated previously with other vendors. And we hope that SEPTA remembers all this when they consider the replacements for the 231 Silverliner IVs, just as the 120 Silverliner Vs replaced 75 Silverliner IIs and IIIs.

After all, the Silverliner IVs turn 40 this year. Even shotwelded stainless steel railcars have a shelf life. The calendar marches forward…

FY2014 and NPT: City and Suburban Transit Divisional tariffs

The transit side of SEPTA’s July 1 fare hike is, mercifully, easier to write about than the railroad side. One almost sees why SEPTA has such a mania for oversimplifying its fare structure. But such is the lot of the (alleged) transit professional: while Your Humble Blogger gets to complain about typing volume, the accountants and lawyers writing up the new tariff drafts are being paid to create the best fare structure for SEPTA and its riders, not their own convenience. But despite the simplicity of the task before it, SEPTA still managed to get some things in its new transit fares profoundly wrong.
Continue reading “FY2014 and NPT: City and Suburban Transit Divisional tariffs”

FY2014 and NPT: Save the Dates!

SEPTA is required by law to hold public hearings whenever it enacts major fare changes.  SEPTA, at least in its current incarnation, takes these meetings seriously.  To reiterate the point I made Friday night, they are not show trials.  This is not the MTA. While some things are unavoidable (a complaint about a fare increase approximately equal to the rate of inflation is going to be a waste of everyone’s time), major proposed changes in rules or policies are sometimes floated only to be rescinded in the face of major and reasonable public opposition.  So if you want to see the problems with the new FY 2014 operating budget and NPT-related tariff changes fixed, I highly suggest that you engage in the process, and show up to  a hearing.

SEPTA is increasing the number of hearings this year, holding an afternoon and an evening hearing apiece in all five Pennsylvania counties served, as opposed to the traditional one each in the four suburban counties and two in Philadelphia.  Written comments can be e-mailed to Oral statements should be held to a few minutes, and written copies of prepared text should be brought and submitted.

This year’s hearings will be:

Continue reading “FY2014 and NPT: Save the Dates!”

FY2014 and NPT: Railroad Division tarriff

Going into further depth on SEPTA’s proposed fare changes, I am seeing disturbing trends. Apart from the flaws in the technical implementation of NPT (another post in itself), SEPTA’s changes to fare rules and structures indicate an attitude of not wanting to deal with the complexity of the world it exists in and the ridership it serves.
Continue reading “FY2014 and NPT: Railroad Division tarriff”

SEPTA releases proposal for July 1 fare hike and NPT-related fare rule changes

Updated 2013-3-16 7:00p

After months of speculation, and not a little bit of pleading from this blog and others, we are finally learning some of what is waiting in store for SEPTA riders when NPT rolls out later this year. This is coming wrapped up with fare hikes and rule changes that SEPTA will be implementing on July 1 as part of its policy to increment fares every two or so fiscal years to keep up with cost inflation. Details are available at

SEPTA is saving itself a round of public hearings by folding both the preprogrammed fare hikes and the NPT changes into one plan, but is not doing itself any favors in terms of PR by linking the two moves in the public consciousness. NPT-related changes will go into effect on July 1 2014, or 60 days after SEPTA gives notice that NPT rollout is complete, whichever comes first.

There are a lot of details to keep straight, and I’ll be diving into those for the next week or so in follow-up posts, but the key takeaways are as follows:
On the transit side:

  • The venerable SEPTA token will spend its last few months in circulation at $1.80, up from $1.55. The cash fare will go up from $2.00 to $2.25 on July 1, and up again to $2.50 when the NPT rollout is considered complete.
  • Transfers will remain $1.00, but NPT will deep-six the paper slip, and also put a 90 minute limit on transfers (there is a poorly-enforced 120 minute limit with the paper transfers today).
  • The Monthly Transpass is going up from $83 to $92. This makes the break-even point for riders who don’t transfer a little more favorable, at 52 single-seat rides per month instead of 54.
  • The Norristown High Speed Line and the Premium Bus Routes (123, 124, 125, and 150) will now have one flat charge for all riders, higher than the current maximum fares, even for short-distance travel.

On the railroad side:

  • Zone 4 is being abolished. Six stations are being moved to Zone 5 (which will then be renamed as the new Zone 4), the rest are being moved to Zone 3.
  • Trailpasses for Zones 1, 2, and 3 are going up. Anywhere Trailpasses are staying the same. Most Zone 4 passholders will see fare reductions as their home stations are moved to Zone 3; the remainder will pay more for an Anywhere Pass. The Cross-County Pass will now come in Weekly as well as Monthly flavors. The IM-1 Intermediate Monthly pass is being eliminated.
  • Occasional riders of Regional Rail will see marginal increases in ticket prices, but those paying with NPT Smart Media cards will now be paying rates that were previously reserved for Ten Trip ticket purchasers.
  • Gender stickers on passes are headed to the dustbin of history where they belong. To prevent abuse, “unlimited” passes will be limited in software to 50 uses for a weekly, 200 for a monthly.

A note for SEPTA non-professionals: SEPTA’s public hearings are not a joke, and they are not a show trial. While some things, like the overall amount of revenue to be collected, are fairly fixed, new fare rules can, and do, get modified due to public outcry and public pressure.

The card in your wallet with the bad photo is not a License to Kill

Yesterday, with its beautiful weather, was a good day to get out of Philadelphia, for me, but even more for those who lacked the option, because they are fixed, inanimate objects.  In three separate incidents, drivers plowed their cars into the Wawa at Delaware and Tasker in South Philadelphia, a Dunkin Donuts on Ridge Ave. in Roxborough, and the stone wall around the campus of Girard College in Fairmount.  Two of the three drivers sustained minor injuries; fortunately, no innocent bystanders were hurt.  In more disturbing traffic carnage, an off-duty Philadelphia PD Traffic Officer was arrested for DUI after a collision with another vehicle on Woodland Ave. at 49th St. in Southwest Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Jersey Turnpike, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly announced a change to Our Northern Neighbor’s approach to investigating car crashes, beginning with the renaming of the unit that performs these investigations from the “Accident Investigation Squad” to the “Collision Investigation Squad”.  This comes after a growing howl from New York transportation safety advocates, who protested that the NYPD was systematically absolving drivers of any responsibility for the lethal consequences of their actions, so long as they weren’t intoxicated and did not leave the scene.  Even in cases where drivers mounted the wide New York sidewalks and killed unsuspecting pedestrians — an indication of failure to exercise proper care if one ever existed — the NYPD would issue a bolierplate statement ending in the infuriating phrase “no criminality is suspected”.  Now, if the leadership at the top is any indication, the NYPD may finally, finally, be recognizing that pointing a car at a crowd of innocents and pressing the gas pedal is as deadly, and as criminal, as pointing a gun at the same crowd and pulling the trigger.  (Now, convincing the Manhattan DA’s office of this may be another uphill climb.) The growing mountain of pedestrian and cyclist bodies in the city morgue has been called “alarming“, and a slow-motion massacre on the streets of New York.  Assigning responsibility where it belongs instead of to the random vicissitudes of uncaring fate is the required first step.  If people cannot drive safely, they should not be driving on the streets of our most crowded cities, where they put the most other people at risk.

Hopefully, this change is one that will be emulated here, both by the Philadelphia Police Department, and by other law enforcement agencies throughout the region (and the nation).  A good first step will be to see if Philadelphia can assess points or license suspensions to the three very lucky property-destroyers, who avoided killing or injuring pedestrians or shop patrons only by sheer luck and the fast jumping of their would-be victims.  A better sign will be if PPD can police its own, assess proper penalties to Ofc. Joseph Kelly, and above all remove him from the Traffic Unit, assuming he still has a career with Philadelphia’s finest.

What Williamsburg can tell us about two tracks and short trains

Stephen J Smith has a piece up at the New York Observer on how much capacity can be squeezed out of New York’s L line (14th St-Canarsie), in relation to a massive proposed development in Williamsburg. The answer seems to be “a lot”, and Smith does an excellent job in showing his work. A combination of signals upgrades and power system upgrades can yield a 38% increase in the available capacity of the notoriously crowded two-track line (in trains per hour); while new rolling stock, and new development patterns permitted on the streets above the subway in Brooklyn, can balance the loading profile of the trains and make that capacity more productive. It’s a good case study in how to get maximum leverage out of existing infrastructure. Important in New York, where resources are strained by a cost structure resulting in $1 billion/km subway construction costs, and important here in Philadelphia where resources simply aren’t available.

Ask not for whom the booth trolls

Rev. Michael Caine, Friend of the Blog and pastor at Old First Reformed UCC in Old City, shares the following story (edited slightly for readability):

Today the SEPTA token booth “non-worker” couldn’t tell when the next southbound Broad Street Spur would come.  I asked, “do you know if there are scheduled times or do they come every so many minutes or just when they come?” She got all loud and responded, “now how would I know that?” It actually made me laugh out loud! I didn’t bother to reply, “because you are [the one] inside the token booth!”

The non-token booth is possibly the most aggravating aspect of being a Subway or El rider; a person is required to accept cash fares and to sell and accept paper transfers, but does not sell tokens or any other fare instruments, nor do they seem to be able to tell the confused rider the most basic information.  This seems to be a setup for frustration and crushed hopes. The most visible of all SEPTA frontline employees, and the most findable, can not help with the most basic of customer service tasks.  No wonder that local message board regulars have dubbed them “booth trolls”, whether that is for their resemblance to mythic creatures or internet pranksters.  Rev. Caine probably has a leg up on the average harried commuter or confused tourist in terms of ability to retain equanimity in such trying circumstances.

This raises the question: whither the booth workers, come the Fall and NPT?  With NPT bringing fare vending machines to every Subway and El station, and the end of paper transfers, the booth troll may be an endangered species; they will have no functions left to do.  Such is the price of progress.  Hopefully, if SEPTA allows the booth workers an opportunity to transfer to other jobs in the agency, they won’t be customer-facing, unless intensive customer service retraining is required.

The El and Longitudinal Seating

Over on the DVARP (yay!) Facebook (boo! hiss!) page, a discussion is brewing over the internal layout of the M-4 Market-Frankford Line trains. The current setup involves nearly all seats facing either forwards or backwards, with a narrow aisle running through the seating areas. Posters in the DVARP thread are advocating converting to longitudinal seating (backs against the sides of the car, facing the center aisle), for the purpose of a more pleasant experience for standees, at the cost of a few seats per car. Those arguing for the status quo argue that the loss of seating capacity, especially in the off-peak hours, is not worth the ability to cram in more standees in the peak.

I have to come down on the side of longitudinal seating. Every passenger on the El starts and ends their ride as a standee. The current setup does not allow for more than a handful of standees per car, before awkward contortionism is required as people try to navigate to the doors for their stop. While I sometimes ride the El desiring a seat above all else, there are other times when I would actually rather stand than take an available seat, and my observations of other riders on the El, the Subway, and in other cities, suggest I am not alone. With the El definitely at capacity at rush hour and beyond, it’s time to treat it like what it is: the trunk line that carries more riders than the entire Regional Rail division put together, along the city’s main commercial axis. Station dwell is a function of how efficiently trains can unload and load. Speed the ride. Turn the seats sideways.

Destroying the village to save it is still a bad idea: Amtrak Corridors and Long Distance

The commentariat is going yet another round on Amtrak, in advance of provisions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) taking effect this year. This time, it’s Henry Grabar in the Atlantic Cities (with the linkbait title “How Amtrak Could Become a Robust, Profitable Enterprise”), highlighting the difference between what is painted as “Good Amtrak”, which is made up of the routes under 750 miles that are subject to PRIIA’s state funding requirements, and the “Bad Amtrak” of long distance services of the National Network, which Amtrak has a political mandate to run. The short haul services, it is alleged, made a $46 million operating profit, while the long distance trains lost $597 million.

The problem — and in Grabar’s defence, it’s an easy mistake to make in going through the accountantese of Amtrak’s financial statements — is that the table he is reading (and republishing) is not the actual financial performance of these routes. Instead, it is the table of financial performance after state subsidies to routes that receive them. In truth, the only short haul routes that cover their own operating costs are Acela Express, Northeast Regional Boston-Washington, Northeast Regional Washington-Lynchburg, VA, Northeast Regional Washington-Richmond-Hampton Roads, VA, and Carolinian. The rest are either currently state subsidised (like the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service, about to be state-subsidised under the terms of PRIIA (like the New York-Albany Empire Service, or are in imminent danger of discontinuation (two routes: the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, and, very close to home, the NYC-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian).

Meanwhile, the long distance services don’t do quite so badly. While the point that they only make up 15% of total ridership is well taken, most routes have seen serious financial performance improvements in recent years, and many could do even better, but are stuck against Amtrak’s rolling stock shortage, a recent problem that is slowly being addressed, but not fast enough to lift some of the best-performing National Network trains, like the NYC-Chicago Lake Shore Limited and the NYC-Florida Silver Service, into black ink. There is fierce debate in railroading circles as to whether Amtrak’s rolling stock shortage will become acute before it’s addressed by new car orders currently in process. And of course, Amtrak’s best-performing route in dollars per train-mile is the sui generis, long distance Auto Train. Grabar never mentions it.

The larger point here is that the reduction of Amtrak into Good Corridors and Bad Long Distance is, well, reductionist. The most successful corridors are the densest segments of long-distance routes, and the most successful long distance routes overlap with the corridors. Both sides contribute to Amtrak’s impressive ridership growth. They may serve different markets and different purposes, but they reuse quite a lot of physical and human capital between them, and it makes no sense whatsoever to sacrifice one to “save” the other.