Philadelphia Transit Plan: Underwhelming Regional Rail ambitions, and how to do more

The just published Philadelphia Transit Plan, prepared by the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS), generally conveys an excellent vision for transit in and around Philadelphia. It is focused on the adoption of best practice to improve the transit system, such as a simple network of frequent routes, stop consolidation and transit priority measures.

On regional rail, the document argues for serving a wider cross-section of riders by means of modern trains running at high frequencies throughout the day; eventually 15 minutes on most of the network. It correctly observes that the Center City tunnel is under-utilised and that frequent service “will likely require a similar number of staff members, just utilized differently”.

But when it comes to doing anything, a proactive tone shifts to waving hands about and making excuses. Worrying about union negotiations, and signalling capacity, and platform upgrades supposedly costing $2bn, the report asserts that “because of these large organizational and infrastructure needs, this vision cannot be implemented all at once. A plan will need to be developed and implemented incrementally over the next 20 or more years” . This is decidedly unambitious when the system has basically already been built, it’s mainly a matter of running the trains.

The North American article of faith that commuter rail is inherently expensive to run leads to the assertion that “Regional Rail may always have a higher fare than subway or bus service”. A cost of $8.98 per Regional Rail trip is quoted, versus $4.22 for bus. These numbers sound like exactly what one would expect from a regional rail system primarily carrying long peak commute trips, the costliest kind of trip to serve even without four-person crews. There appears little reason that measures suggested immediately beforehand to better utilise crews and fill trains up through the day shouldn’t lead towards a convergence.

The lack of ambition displayed is particularly frustrating given the two-year timescale on redesigning the SEPTA bus network. The 2020 Philadelphia Bus Network Choices Report states several times that integration with regional rail would improve mobility and reduce the need for redundant bus services. The 61 on Ridge Street is mentioned, noting that it cuts across the grid of frequent routes that might better use its resources, while Manayunk riders ought to benefit from faster regional rail. One could also point to the 28 buses per peak hour crawling along the Schuylkill Expressway, or the stacks of lines all converging on subway stations.

As it stands that costly status quo is to survive a once in a generation reshaping of the bus network. This would represent a missed opportunity to reallocate resources and create a network of lines crisscrossing the wider region and intersecting with frequent regional rail lines. This is a strong impetus to step up the ambition and create a strategy to deliver as much all-day regional rail frequency as possible within two years. This way, measures to improve regional rail and bus networks can be much greater than the sum of their parts.

Towards a frequent service (this decade)

To deliver better regional rail on an accelerated timescale, the city can look to the philosophy of tactical urbanism and seek quick and low-cost interventions to deliver more service in the near term. Two or three conductors can become one with minimal operational changes, modern platform humps can be installed atop of the existing concrete without a full rebuild, conflicts at junctions can be minimised by shaping service patterns around the infrastructure.

Interventions need not reflect the full twenty- or thirty-year vision; they need only to maximise the service that present resources can deliver. A reasonable starting point would be to get three car sets operating with only one conductor, and doubling the current 60- and 30-minute schedules plus extra service on key urban routes, by way of steps looking somewhat like the following:

  • Increase training from conductor to engineer with the aim of getting a ratio of one engineer to one conductor on the workforce. Unions should be proactively engaged with a plan for growth rather than contraction of rail service and the associated jobs.
  • Make use of the existing mini-high accessible platforms so that the second and third doors can open there with reasonably precise stopping positions ahead of the platform. Thus one conductor can open the fourth and fifth Silverliner IV doors, or raise the traps of the remaining two Silverliner V cars in between stations. This is a hell of a bodge, so next:
  • Develop a Haverford Hump; a modular raised platform segment that can be anchored to existing low platforms resembling a larger version of Great Britain’s glass-reinforced polymer Harrington Humps which cost a quarter of conventional methods. Thus level boarding can be provided for three-car trains, or the ultimate intended train length for a particular line. Where necessary, such can be installed in front of or up/downstream of historic station buildings to minimise disruption.
  • Pair lines based on both infrastructure and ridership: Some flowing from University City onto the center tracks through to Jenkintown, skipping North Broad, other line pairs taking the outer tracks and calling at North Broad. This leaves outbound trains to Norristown crossing multiple lines, hopefully grade separated eventually, but few other problematic conflicts.
  • Encourage off-board smartcard payment and move towards a sort of soft proof-of-payment system, with conductors checking smart cards and able to issue only an undiscounted all zones one-way ticket to riders without.
  • Begin to procure modern trains of the lightweight aluminium types recently made possible by changes to FRA regulations such as the Stadler FLIRT trains found in Texas, aiming to introduce these in step with line-by-line implementation of raised platforms. Off the shelf procurement without steps and traps will significantly lower costs.

Medium-term interventions can then build on this toward full level boarding, infill stations, fully replacing existing heavy stainless steel cars, and 15 minute frequencies almost everywhere. I would propose planning for this by defining line pairs which call for ~80m trains (either four short articulated cars or three conventional cars) and which call for ~160m double sets and progressively building up the infrastructure on that basis.

The city’s report also calls for ‘regional express service’ overlaid on local service. This is largely unnecessary, except for the long and busy Keystone Line that calls for both frequent Villanova Locals and frequent expresses to Paoli and beyond. Elsewhere once high platforms and better-accelerating modern EMUs minimise the stop penalty, stretching fifteen-minute local frequencies as far out as possible becomes the greater priority pending at least threefold ridership growth.

Frequent locals towards Wilmington and Trenton don’t appear in the city’s plan, presumably owing to extortionate charges from Amtrak. This is a shame when the former could be a lifeline to the deprived community of Chester, and the latter parallels a very high-ridership bus in NE Philadelphia. Amtrak access charges are certainly a difficulty, but negotiation ought to be attempted. Potential inclusion in medium-term capital investments of grade separated turnbacks and the Swampoodle connection that avoid locals fouling Amtrak’s fast lines ought to serve as a decent bargaining chip.

I shall conclude by urging advocates for better transportation in the Philadelphia region not to settle for kicking the can down the road on regional rail service that should have been delivered in the 1980s, and instead to demand nimble interventions beginning immediately. There will undoubtedly be more hurdles than those I’ve discussed; none of them will be so difficult as to justify wasting the chance to create a fully integrated transit network beginning a year or two from now.

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