How can SEPTA attract Regional Rail riders?

I wrote Monday about SEPTA’s hopes to bring back riders lost to its rail car crisis this summer.

Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, would like to see SEPTA eventually create some sort of incentive for regular riders who toughed it out through the summer. SEPTA did offer a partial fare rebate in July, and Mitchell suggested even something as simple as allowing weekly or monthly pass holders to bring a friend for free once could go a long way to earning good will from riders.

“Some kind of inexpensive measure intended to just send a message to the customers that they recognize this was a hardship for everybody,” Mitchell suggested.

He noted adding quiet cars to Regional Rail was a similar step, inexpensive but rewarding for riders, taken by Knueppel’s predecessor, Joe Casey.

My colleague Helen Ubiñas suggested SEPTA give out free coffee.

I'd like to see SEPTA take a page from its anual Harry Potter inspired Hogwarts Express, which is seriously a lot of fun by the way and is happening again next weekend. In Mission:Impossible Tom Cruise clung to the front of a bullet train. Regional Rail trains go much slower so reenacting that stunt is probably pretty safe. Call it Cruising with SEPTA. Maybe riff off From Russia with Love, give riders a chance to wrestle a bleach blonde SPECTRE hit man on the way to Elwyn.

 

SEPTA did not have specific plans to offer an incentive to riders, said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager, but he said the authority was open to options and is looking into ways to attract riders, he said.

Because SEPTA is still short its normal complement of cars the challenges with scheduling and crowding aren't over yet, as a number of riders reminded me by email or on Twitter in the past 24 hours. For people who rely on Regional Rail, the ongoing problems are no joke. I received this email Tuesday night from Deirdre Dingman, a Temple University assistant professor who rides the Chestnut Hill East Line from Wyndmoor:

"Today we only had two cars on the 530 train, people were crowded in, some ladies missed getting off on their stop and a woman next to me was complaining loudly about this ridiculousness - esp after the summer we had."

Please keep these updates coming, by the way. Hearing about your frustrations and concerns helps me know if the things I'm writing about speak to what you want to read and are in synch with your experiences.

From Independence Day weekend to October 3 SEPTA ran exclusively a weekend schedule to allow it to maintain some service while being down 120 rail cars, a third of its fleet. Those cars all had design and manufacturing flaws that led to cracks in key weight bearing beams, and for the past three months SEPTA has been frantic to replace the cracked beams and get the cars, the Silverliner V’s, back on the rails.

In multiple conversations SEPTA’s general manager, Jeff Knueppel, has said how important it is to get those cars back in service so Regional Rail can return to a regular schedule. It was a factor in deciding the kind of beam SEPTA bought to replace the cracked ones. As of Tuesday 65 Silverliner V’s, more than half, are operating again.

 

SEPTA has said as more cars return to service the inconveniences for riders will ease.

Some of the experts I talked to said SEPTA has the right priorities, though, by focusing first on the fundamentals.

“I think really the bread and butter is what’s most important, reliability and frequency of service,” said Erick Guerra, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of urban and regional studies.

SEPTA has noted that expansion of its smart fare card, SEPTA Key, to Regional Rail in 2017 and improved real time information should appeal to riders who have drifted away from Regional Rail over the summer.

While acknowledging riders’ frustration, Mitchell said SEPTA made some good decisions in its efforts to minimize the hurt. SEPTA wasn’t religious about ensuring every passenger’s fare was checked. While the possibility of people getting free rides irked some, Mitchell felt giving riders latitude was the right thing to do.

“To their credit SEPTA recognized it would be really harmful to their customers if they tried to squeeze every last nickel out of them,” he said.

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