Daniel Rubin | Smart people, dumb SEPTA

We were three hours into the SEPTA hearing last week at the Convention Center, and the meeting was nearly out of gas. A retiree in a crisp blue oxford shirt was lecturing stoic board members on the ways their proposed cuts and fare hikes were unscientific.

By the time he got to screaming obscenities, the few stalwarts left in the house were roused and clapping excitedly, and a thickly bespectacled seer in the back row started chanting in a demonic singsong:

"Get ready for global warming, get ready for global warming."

Me, I was just wondering how I'd find my way home.

I've got my own problems to add to SEPTA's $130 million troubles.

As an occasional user - read: clueless - I'm just the sort of customer SEPTA needs to turn into a regular to help it through the latest budget shortfall, one caused by a funding scheme that relies on upstaters who hate us.

My problem is that SEPTA won't tell me which trains stop at the Elkins Park station.

I can go on the Web and click the Regional Rail service's combined timetable. But if I click weekdays, Saturdays or Sundays, it doesn't tell me whether I'll be riding an R1, R2, R3 or R5 - all of which stop at my station.

Instead, it gives the train number.

Have you ever rushed to Suburban Station in search of train No. 0248? Good luck.

Unless you have schedule in hand, nothing at the station tells you which train 0248 actually is.

"That's great to know if you're a cryptographer," cracks Matthew Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.

User unfriendly

This is just a little example of how screwy the system is. It gets worse. What makes my station (and some others) so vexing is that not all trains stop there.

This means you can't walk to a Center City station and look for a northbound train, because you could wind up in Jenkintown.

You'd think something in the station or on the platform would tell you where the train stops. An automated announcement? Some helpful words from the conductor? Yo!

(It actually feels good writing this, cathartic. You should try your own rant. Send it to me. We could trade SEPTA gripes for months.)

I found a helpful guide in spokesman Richard Maloney, who listened to my beef and suggested I try a new online feature called Plan My Trip. It worked.

But he's not always going to be there all the time for everybody.

Look, I'm spoiled. For three years we lived in Berlin, and even our dog could figure out how to get from the S-Bahn to our kids' school.

The Germans have radical notions about public transport. First, they subsidize it. Second, they mark it well. If you're standing at a bus stop, you'll see clear signs, in several languages, telling you when the next bus is coming and where it is going. Amazing.

And you can buy tickets at every stop.

Token troubles

Which reminds me of the last Flyers game I went to. It was dusk and raining. I dropped into the Vine Street subway entrance and asked the nice man inside the booth for a couple of tokens, remembering that they sell only two at a time.

"I don't sell tokens," he snorted.

He sent me back outside, to the City Hall entrance, to buy tokens.

I'm sure there's a good reason for this. I wish he had mentioned that I could just pay cash. It would have cost me $2 instead of $1.30, but on a rainy night I might have splurged.

Longtime SEPTAphiles have their own pet peeves. They don't think SEPTA does a good job making riders into cheerleaders for the system.

"It's the dumbfounding lack of communication with the outside world that's characteristic of SEPTA," said Greg Pastore, who served on SEPTA's citizen advisory committee from 1999 to 2004 and has other complaints (too few token vendors, no free maps, "Out of Service" buses that make stops).

"There are a lot of smart people there. But somehow the place operates like it has a collective IQ of 80."

Get ready for global warming.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daniel_rubin.