Some experts urge shorter, more frequent SEPTA trains

SEPTA's railcar debacle has resulted in packed platforms, long waits, late trains and - for many riders - the miserable experience of waiting for a train only to see it race past without stopping.

Can SEPTA do better?

Some experts say yes.

One of them, engineer and devoted straphanger Vukan Vuchic, says SEPTA should be using shorter trains, and running them more often - the exact opposite of what the agency is doing now.

"More attention to the riders," recommended Vuchic, a University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor of transportation engineering. "They want frequency and reliability of service."

SEPTA lost a third of its Regional Rail cars - 120 vehicles representing almost 13,000 seats - when the cars were almost uniformly found to have a flaw in a key load-bearing beam. Cracks found in the beams could pose a serious safety hazard. Federal regulations required SEPTA to take the cars off the tracks.

SEPTA has opted to cope with the problem by running trains up to eight cars long with less frequency than a normal weekday schedule offers. Vuchic and others have said that's causing extended waits on platforms. Instead, he said, SEPTA should be running short trains with more frequency.

"These long trains with somewhat slow boarding make trains very late," he said.

A SEPTA spokesman said Saturday that senior managers have been communicating with Vuchic but believed that their current strategy was best for now.

"With our fleet significantly diminished, driving more customers to single, larger trains provides the best option for providing service to them," spokesman Andrew Busch said in response to questions. "Also, given the increased likelihood of delays," he said, "fewer trains running leads to fewer potential train conflicts - trains need to be well separated by the signal system for safety purposes."

Busch acknowledged the longer wait times but said that more, shorter trains would likely worsen the problem because some would have extra capacity and others wouldn't have enough.

One local rail expert agreed.

"It would be desirable if there was more frequent service," said Matthew Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, "but it's more important right now that all of the stations are getting served and we're not getting passengers passed up."

SEPTA General Manager Jeff Knueppel said at a news conference Friday that only one train bypassed stations that day. He also said additional railcars obtained from neighboring rail agencies such as Amtrak and NJ Transit would allow SEPTA to post a new schedule Sunday that promise to mitigate some of the worst delays on several lines. He also said the Regional Rail fleet may not near its typical strength until Labor Day.

Regional Rail's 13 lines are the key public transportation artery for commuters in the city and in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. Assembled from the bones of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads, the system moves up to 65,000 people per weekday on 788 trains. Since the flaws put the Silverliner V's out of service, SEPTA has been running 549 trains per weekday. Passengers have been encouraged to find other modes of travel, and while it wasn't clear how much ridership had dropped last week, it had certainly declined by the tens of thousands.

Vuchic has a long history with the commuter rail system. The Penn professor is responsible for Regional Rail's former practice of identifying lines with names that matched the letter R with a number, and he's a regular SEPTA rider who travels from home in Swarthmore to work at Penn.

SEPTA has attempted to run trains every half hour during rush hour, at least, but riders have seen those trains showing up late.

Other transportation experts said Vuchic's approach has merit. Shorter trains running more frequently would be packed, but they would reduce the number of people waiting on platforms.

"It kind of gives you a more uniform flow of customers through your station," said Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "From a customer perspective, customers always prefer frequency."

Mitchell countered, though, saying greater frequency would likely mean more people abandoned on platforms.

"The chances that you're going to leave somebody behind are going to be a lot higher," he said. "The passengers are not necessarily going to distribute themselves evenly."

Mitchell said SEPTA can't run the risk of making the situation worse.

"[SEPTA's critics] haven't really grasped the magnitude or the degree of anger that passengers have when they see two trains bowl by," Mitchell said.

In the past week, Vuchic also noted a surprising lack of urgency from conductors, he said.

"They should be directing people more actively," he said. "These conductors are paid tremendously, and they're just watching."

Busch, the SEPTA spokesman, disagreed. "Our conductors are working hard to load and unload customers in a timely fashion, however, for safety reasons, we should not rush this process," he said.

While Mitchell felt SEPTA has handled scheduling well, he did think there has been room for improvement in communications. SEPTA has been putting information out through its Twitter account, but the data on its app hasn't always been accurate as schedules have changed.

"They aren't getting any kind of warning," Mitchell said of riders. "They're not getting any kind of alert."

Transportation gurus around the country described SEPTA's situation as unique. While aging infrastructure and equipment problems have caused major rail disruptions in cities like Boston and Washington, it's rare for an event like the systemic Silverliner failure to happen so abruptly. There isn't much of a playbook on how to deal with this kind of crisis.

"Losing that many trains is pretty unusual," said Joseph Sussman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "People have equipment go down all the time, but when you're losing that number, that doesn't happen every day."

While SEPTA could tweak its approach, there are only so many ways to mitigate the loss of so much capacity.

"You're still not going to have enough cars to transport the people in a timely fashion," Sussman said.

SEPTA has said it has very few extra cars in its rail fleet, and also has said that even when at full strength, its rail system runs at close to 90 percent capacity.

"It just goes to hell in a handbasket when you're running so close to capacity," Sussman said.

The solution, Polzin said, could be to have a more diverse fleet. SEPTA found itself under-equipped because so many of its cars were of the same make and model, and apparently all carried the same flawed equalizer beams. More diversity reduces the chances of becoming crippled by a technical glitch or equipment failure, but a more diverse fleet also means a trade-off in efficiency and the discounts a rail agency can get when it buys big ticket items like cars in bulk, he said.

While the Silverliner V's are under warranty from their makers, Hyundai Rotem, it's not certain whether the South Korea-based company will cover the costs of lost revenue, overtime and refunds. Knueppel has estimated the cost to SEPTA of the disruption to operations could be in the millions. Polzin noted if the delays continue, and riders find alternate ways to get to work, SEPTA could have a hard time luring back passengers and the revenue they provide.

"One of the things you don't want to see happen is some share of folks find alternative ways," Polzin said, adding, "They could lose some customers, sure."