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.

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 All 120 cars in the class have been withdrawn from service.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?

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

STRIKE WATCH: NJ Transit Rail Operations

Conditions are favorable for the development of negotiation breakdown capable of producing a strike. If deadlock has either produced a strike or radar has indicated intense walkout activity, then a Strike Warning will be issued.

All 17 unions representing workers at NJ Transit Rail may either strike or be locked out beginning at 0:01 on Sunday, March 13th.  A second Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) cooling-off period expires on that day, leaving both labor and management free to pursue “self-help”.  The unions have been working without a contract since 2010.  NJT, and its political masters in the Christie Administration, have been steadfast in their rejection of the union’s proposals and the two PEBs’ arbitration, so the likelihood of a work stoppage is high.

NJT bus and light rail lines are separate divisions of NJT and will continue running.

The direct effects of a strike on the Philadelphia area will be somewhat low.  The 554 bus will run extra trips between Atlantic City and Lindenwold, and PATCO has agreed to cross-honor NJT fares between Lindenwold and Philadelphia.

However, the New York/North Jersey area anticipates being unable to replace NJT Rail’s capacity.  This will impact Greater Philadelphia-New York supercommuters, including those who take SEPTA or NJT’s River Line to Trenton, and those who drive to Hamilton or Princeton Junction.  NJT’s contingency plan, announced at a press conference this morning, includes 40,000 additional seats into New York on buses, ferries, and PATH, but the state-operated rail lines carry 105,000 into Gotham every day.

The removal of NJT service would result in a meltdown of North Jersey’s transportation networks, to a degree being described in apocalyptic terms.

In the event of a service interruption, selected regular NJT and private bus routes will see increased service.  Additionally, five temporary park-and-ride routes will operate, including Hamilton Station-Newark Penn and Metropark Station-Harrison PATH.  Rail tickets will be cross-honored on buses, light rail, PATH, and ferries.

While the official advice is to carpool, whether to the official park-and-rides or all the way in, neither NJDOT, nor the Port Authority of NY & NJ, nor the NJ Turnpike Authority, has committed to HOV restrictions in the event of a service interruption. This blog considers the failure to do so to be completely insane.

There are, as of yet, no designated park-and-ride locations on Staten Island in the contingency plan.

Highway traffic in North Jersey is expected to come to a standstill on all major roads inside the I-287 beltway.  Through-traffic between New England (excluding Fairfield County, CT) and Pennsylvania should divert to a route across the Hudson no farther south than I-84.  Traffic to NYC suburbs should cross no further south than the Tappan Zee, if at all possible.  Routes using I-287 itself may be unreliable as well.

The pros and cons of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail

SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail project has finally selected a Locally Preferred Alternative, and much to my surprise, the winner was not the elevated alignment over US 202, but rather the alignment alongside the PECO transmission line and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 4.03.26 PM
I’m borrowing this map from the Philadelphia Inquirer under Fair Use.  I don’t know who actually made it, though.  They didn’t say.

There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll just hit the top five highlights on each side.

The Good:

  1. It’s short.  That’s an awfully weird thing to lead with, but it does mean that the amount of budget bloat due to scope creep has been kept to an absolute minimum.
  2. It has the backing of the KOP/VF business community.  The KOP Rail Coalition, which was started as an advocacy arm by the KOP Business Improvement District, was backing PECO/Turnpike.  That political support from deep-pocketed interests might be crucial if local funding needs to be found.
  3. It provides the opportunity for real, from-scratch TOD near the Henderson Road station.  The land south of the proposed station site is self-storage and other light industrial that can be easily redeveloped into a walkable core in notoriously car-dependent Upper Merion Township.
  4. Jason Laughlin reports that there may be a station “inside” the KoP mall.  This would be a new feature, since all of this round of proposals have previously been kept to the perimeter of the property, which was an unideal way to serve the biggest destination on the line.  However, details on this are waiting for the open houses to clear up.
  5. It provides the opportunity to gloat at Turnpike drivers.  Under most circumstances, having a highway and railway next to and parallel to each other is bad design, since the highway both siphons away ridership and blocks access to stations.  In this case, there are no stations proposed on the segment along the Turnpike, and the Turnpike is serving a different market than the train.  Which means that one can engage in one of my favorite pastimes, which is laughing at the occupants of cars stuck in self-inflicted traffic as one whizzes by in the comfort of a fast-moving train.  (I have never claimed to be a nice person.)

The Bad:

  1. The price tag.  As of the release of the Economy League of Philadelphia/Econsult Economic Impact Study last December, the projected budget of this project is $1.0-1.2 billion.  This would have been a disappointing-but-reasonable per-km budget for one of the longer alternatives, like US 202/North Gulph Road.  But at $150 million+/km, it shows a dangerous amount of flab for a purely elevated route.  Sources inside SEPTA claim that the underlying geology and topography are challenging, and that this is driving up the per-km cost.  I’m open to that explanation, but not yet convinced.  This is also blowing a giant hole in any case we might have had that we can keep costs under control in this town.  Not only is this a large number in absolute terms, it is a 100% increase over SEPTA’s estimates from two years ago.  The public is owed a deeper explanation of what happened here.
  2. No sprawl repair forthcoming on US 202.  Dekalb Pike (a/k/a US 202 through King of Prussia) is a concrete hellscape of a stroad, lined with strip malls, punctuated with hotels, and only consistently possessing a narrow, anxiety-inducing sidewalk on one side.  And yes, I have been there on foot before.  The strip malls have increasingly high vacancy for the area, and the hotels could use the boost from direct connections to the mall, the convention center, and other destinations along the KoP extension and the NHSL.  Redevelopment is called for.  So is a road diet.  Unfortunately for future taxpayers of Upper Merion Township, it doesn’t seem like either is in the cards.
  3. Still no Greater Philadelphia Wegman’s with good transit access.  This is mostly Wegmans’ fault for choosing such obnoxious locations, though.  (Their complete abandonment of urban Rochester, where they started, is still shameful.)  SEPTA had higher priorities and stuck to them.
  4. No commitment to frequent Manayunk/Norristown service.  It had better not even take that long; GM Jeff Kneuppel promised us 30 minute headways “soon” in September of 2014.  Without frequent connecting service in Norristown serving Conshohocken, Northwest Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and Center City, the NHSL extension makes much less sense as a regional project, and also abandons those passengers who take the 124/125 today from Wissahickon.  30 minute headways need to happen Right Now.  There should be a plan in place for 20 minute headways by the time the NHSL extension opens.
  5. Unlikely to satisfy NIMBY opposition.  I lied.  This isn’t actually bad.  The loudest NIMBY opposition is more concerned with keeping out the poors and the blahs than it is with wise investments for the future of Upper Merion Township.  If they’re successful, they’re clearly intending to get out at the top of the market, or perhaps they’ll enjoy watching their children immiserated by spiraling tax burden as the bill for maintaining the infrastructure that underpins sprawl development comes due.  In any event, we should welcome their hatred, while taking care to address the more legitimate concerns of impacted neighbors.

The next round of public meetings starts next Monday, March 7th.

 

Still more questions than answers in the wreck of Amtrak 188

The NTSB released its preliminary findings into the Amtrak 188 derailment on February 1st, and to be perfectly blunt, we still know about as much as we did the day after the crash.  We know the “how” of the derailment — that the train went into the curve at Frankford Junction at 106 mph instead of the 50 mph speed limit — and we knew that on May 13th, but we are still no closer to knowing the “why”.  The NTSB report rules out virtually every form of mechanical failure, so focus has descended on Amtrak 188’s engineer, Brandon Bostian.

However, the NTSB’s initial safety recommendation, asking for inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs, essentially admits that there is no way of ever knowing exactly what happened in the cab of Amtrak locomotive #601.  This is distressing, since there are two major theories for what happened, with diametrically opposing conclusions as to fault.

The first theory is that Bostian zoned out or lost situational awareness, and deliberately accelerated, thinking that he was somewhere else.  In this event, engineer error is the major proximate cause of the crash, and Bostian is primarily responsible.

The second theory is that, possibly in response to his locomotive getting hit with a rock (as frequently happens in North Philadelphia, and had just happened to a 30th Street-bound SEPTA train nearby), Bostian flinched in such a way as to render himself dazed or unconscious.  (There is no way to medically determine if the concussion Bostian sustained happened either just before, or during, the crash.)  In that case, Bostian is innocent, and the primary responsibility rests on Amtrak for the failure of its safety precautions (the combination of the lack of either automatic train control (ATC) or positive train control (PTC) on the northbound tracks of the NEC at Frankford Junction, and the failure of the locomotive’s deadman/alerter system to recognize Bostian’s incapacity in time to prevent disaster).

However, with Bostian’s memory, rendered unreliable by that concussion, as the only record of what happened, we have no way of knowing which of these two cases actually applies.  That is no fault of Mr. Bostian’s; similar uncertainty has reigned in other cases, where the engineer did not survive to be interviewed by the NTSB.  With personal-injury lawyers circling, the choice before the civil courts is a guessing game, where if they get it right, it will be a tragedy, and if they get it wrong, it will be a dreadful miscarriage of justice.  As it stands, because this question will never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, it is almost certain that Bostian will never operate a train again.

Perhaps a more interesting question, and one that is conspicuously absent from the NTSB report, is whether the FRA regulations concerning the survivability of passenger cars played any role in saving lives.  American railroad equipment is infamously overweight, loaded up with steel armor to meet a buff strength requirement, so that it does not deform in a low-speed crash.  Despite this, business class car 81528 on Amtrak 188 was smashed to flinders, to the point where first responders didn’t even realize it had once been an 85 foot long steel tube with people inside.  Moreover, passengers still died in the coach class cars behind the business class car, despite those cars’ much less damaged condition.  The rest of the world uses a crash-energy management (CEM) standard for passenger car safety (which encourages safety features similar to the crumple zones in modern automobiles), which makes cars signginicantly lighter weight, which in turn improves both everyday performance and braking in emergencies.  It isn’t clear that CEM would have made for a less deadly crash at 106 mph, but the unwillingness of the NTSB’s Survival Factors Group to even entertain the question is disturbing, especially when the FRA’s process to adopt CEM as a standard in the US is over a year late and possibly in limbo.  Even a finding that the two standards would have had equivalent results would be a very big deal, since the buff strength standard adds enormous capital and operating costs to American railroads.

One change that looks like it’s for the better, but is not, is the installation of an ATC restriction to 45 mph on the northbound NEC at Frankford Junction.  As a short-term stopgap, this is fine, but should be refined or removed once PTC is fully deployed, since the ATC system has no way of displaying or enforcing the true 50 mph speed limit on those tracks.  The redundancy does not actually help, and the delay from the speed restriction is already significant.

Lastly, also left unaddressed is what exactly the NEC is still doing with a 50 mph curve at Frankford Junction.  Straightening the curve is bound to be expensive, but addressing this anachronism would be far more effective, and for less money, than many of the proposals on the table to improve high-speed rail on the NEC.

Closures, delays and suspensions announced in advance as Winter Storm arrives

  • Cars parked on snow emergency routes in the City of Philadelphia will be towed starting at 21:00 Friday.
  • PPA garages in Center City are offering flat-rate $5 parking for each 24-hour period.
  • SEPTA will be shutting down all service except the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines at 4:00 AM Saturday.  CCT will run for dialysis patients only.  Bus, trolley, NHSL, and Regional Rail service will resume, as conditions warrant, beginning Sunday morning.
  • PATCO will run modified schedules on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Amtrak is reducing train schedules today and Saturday.
  • NJ Transit will cross-honor all fares from 0:01 Saturday to 23:59 Sunday, but has not announced any service reductions, cancellations, or detours.
  • DART First State has suspended all bus and paratransit service all day Saturday.
  • All flights at Philadelphia International Airport are cancelled on Saturday.  Some Friday evening flights have also been cancelled.
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike is reducing speed limits to 45 mph and banning certain types of truck trailers as of 0:01 from Breezewood to the Delaware River, and north on the Extension as far as Lehigh Valley.
  • The New Jersey Turnpike reduced speed limits to 45 mph south of Exit 6 (Pennsylvania Turnpike) at 19:17 Friday evening.

A brief summary of my remarks to the NEC FUTURE hearing

I wasn’t expecting to speak at Monday night’s hearing on the NEC FUTURE Draft EIS, mostly because I failed to do my homework and realize that they would be accepting spoken testimony.  So I winged it, with some hastily jotted notes.  Here are the highlights of that extemporaneous speech, heavily revised and extended, as best as I can reconstruct it. The best criticism of the NEC Future proposals is and remains Alon Levy’s “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire“, which you should read if you have any interest in the subject.  Summaries of the presentation and hearing as a whole have been written by (in publication order): Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Smith of Philadelphia Magazine, and Jim Saksa of PlanPhilly.

 

My name is Michael Noda, and I am a writer on transportation topics.  I am also an advisor to The 5th Square Political Action Committee, but my views tonight are my own.

My main motivation in speaking tonight is to see a better NEC with the ability to serve many more passengers over both commuter and intercity distances.  That’s why the proposals that have come out of the NEC FUTURE EIS process are so disappointing.  They aren’t coherent about delivering either performance or capacity upgrade value for the money.  In fact the $290 billion price tag for Alternative 3 (“Transform”) is so far divorced from reality that it calls the entire process into question.  Alon Levy suggests that performance upgrades equivalent to Alternative 3 can be had for less than $15 billion in capital upgrades.  I’m far more of a cynic, and think it would cost three times as much as Mr. Levy thinks it will.  So instead of achieving radical transformation of the Northeastern economy at 95% cost savings, I think it can only be done at 85% cost savings.  That is still an incredibly damning indictment of the process to date.

Some of that cost bloat comes from the high costs associated with American public-sector construction.  Far more comes from scope bloat and the inclusion of entirely unnecessary so-called “improvements” that add billions of dollars in cost, for negligible benefit.  The proposed tunnel down 12th Street here in Philadelphia, to serve a new deep-cavern station under Market East, included in Alt 3 (“Transform”), has been widely mocked and derided, and rightly so.  The economic center of gravity of this city today is at or very near 30th Street Station, and splitting future Amtrak service between two downtown stations is not an improvement for any riders, even the ones with origins or destinations immediately adjacent to 12th and Market.  The most optimistic cost estimate of that tunnel could provide gold-plated versions of necessary rail infrastructure upgrades, throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

But the terrible and wasteful ideas aren’t confined to Alt 3.  Alt 2 (“Grow”) includes an inexplicably perennial proposal to detour the NEC to the Philadelphia International Airport.  That might be a good idea for American Airlines.  If they agree, they should get out their checkbooks and pay for it.  The Airport detour has no transit value. Not enough people are in the market to ride Amtrak to catch a flight out of PHL.  Even if we build it, they won’t come.  The large cities on either side of us have three airports each, and have a combined better selection of flights than we do.  And the airports nearest us, BWI and Newark Liberty, already have excellent connections to the NEC.  Again, maybe there is particular benefit to American Airlines and its passengers, but looking after their interests is not the remit of either Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration.

In sum, the project alternatives are wonderful proposals in the Land of Infinite Money, and if the FRA is willing to tell me how to get there, I will emigrate at the first opportunity.  But in the meantime, we live here, where our resources are finite, and determined (in this context) by our political masters.

Of much more interest to Philadelphians, and much higher return on public investment, is the prospect of improvements to interlockings and curves along the NEC that would allow for more and faster trains through the existing plant.  In this area, the biggest problem areas are at: Frankford Junction, site of the Amtrak 188 derailment last year; Zoo Junction immediately north of 30th Street Station; and PHIL interlocking, where SEPTA’s Airport Line joins the NEC, and inbound SEPTA Wilmington Line trains cross over the NEC at-grade.  The straightening of curves to 4000 meter minimum radius, the installation of high-speed turnouts to replace switches designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for far slower trains, and other such improvements will shave significant time from the journeys of suburban and intercity passengers alike.  This process should be done with closer attention and respect paid to the surrounding landscape; the FRA’s Alt 2 seems to show a straightening of the curve of the NEC between Zoo Junction and the Schuylkill River, which is laudable except that the area inside that curve is also known as the Philadelphia Zoo, and to say that that land is not available for any at-grade or elevated option is to put it very mildly.  As well, the construction of additional flyover ramps at these locations will greatly increase the amount of concurrent traffic the NEC can handle, by allowing simultaneous intercity and suburban movements where today those trains conflict and must stop and wait for each other; this would be especially valuable on suburban rail routes like the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line and the NJT Atlantic City Line, which suffer from low ridership as a result of their abysmally low frequency.  All of these are very unsexy fixes that will not result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities, but they will improve the NEC to true High Speed Rail standards within a realistic budget.  And even in Alt 1 (“Maintain”), the alternative mainly focused on such bottleneck improvement projects, there is little attention paid.

Again, I take no particular joy in making these criticisms.  My call for efficiency is is rooted in a desire for abundance, that is, for an NEC that can live up to its potential as a High Speed Rail connection between the cities of the Northeast.  But the only realistic way to achieve that goal — a goal I do believe the FRA genuinely shares — is to guard vigilantly agains unnecessary scope bloat and excessive unit costs.  An attentive agency ought to have realized that a price tag that is twice as much per kilometer as maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, for inferior service, was a red flag that its process was broken, and taken steps to correct itself before releasing the Draft EIS to the public.  That opportunity may have passed, but it is not too late for the FRA to correct its course.  I sincerely hope that it does so.

Thank you for your time.