Amid a sea of frustrated faces at PATCO's public meeting in Collingswood, Tom Middleton's smile was like an island.
"I have no real complaints," said the retired set designer, 73, who became a regular rider when service began in 1969.
Back then, the "Speedline" was something of a model railroad.
Lately? Not so much.
"We sat at 16th and Locust because the train in front of us had a 'door issue,' and all they told us was, 'The train will be moving shortly,' " Paul Stankiewicz Jr. told CEO John Hanson at the Thursday meeting.
The third and final public session is scheduled for 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Camden County College's facility at 601 Cooper St. in Camden.
Borough resident Stankiewicz, a title agent who commutes to Center City, was among about 50 people who gathered to hear how a two-year, $103 million track, power, and signal replacement project will disrupt their already unpredictable commutes.
"We know there's going to be inconvenience," said Hanson, flanked by a half-dozen senior Delaware River Port Authority staff members. "This is a large engineering project that can't be done just overnight and on weekends. The reality is, there is no other way to do this."
Shortly after Memorial Day, the track on the south side of the Ben Franklin Bridge will be taken out of service for 60 days, followed by a 50-day "outage" on the north side, Hanson said. He was barely 10 minutes into his presentation when the audience began venting.
"Have you ridden your trains?" one man cried, as others went on to describe their formerly reliable, comfortable, and pleasant trips as chronically off-schedule, frequently jam-packed, even, occasionally, frightening.
Mind you, this was the day before signal problems on the Ben's north side made misery out of the afternoon rush hour. Friday also featured the free-fall of a track repair platform cable onto I-95 in Philadelphia. Thankfully, no serious injuries were reported.
"I don't care what you say," Lynn Lukaszewski, a legal secretary from Cherry Hill who commutes regularly to her job in Center City, said at Thursday's meeting. "It's not safe to have [so] many people on a train."
"Your communication stinks!" Stankiewicz shouted. "And we haven't even gotten to the hard part."
I found myself nodding as riders complained - and also as Hanson explained.
Only a single track on the north, and another on the south side of the bridge, carry PATCO in and out of Center City. For safety's sake, both must be replaced now, not later.
But DRPA has squandered public trust by saddling those of us who use its trains and bridges with higher fares and tolls - largely to pay for debt service resulting from the spending spree on regional economic development grants during the previous decade.
Plus, a separate project to refurbish the aging fleet of railcars is taking forever; station elevators/escalators are at best unreliable; trains and platforms are often filthy; and communication with passengers during emergencies is in its infancy. Think: quill pens and parchment (or papyrus).
Hanson says DRPA is working to get WiFi into the Center City subway tunnels. But riders should not expect to to use smart phones underground until the bridge tracks themselves are back in service.
Clearly, it's a bit late to ask why no one thought about this before now; DRPA expects its annual ridership of 10 million to fall by 300,000 during construction.
But let's at least credit Hanson and his team for making an effort to listen and learn. And passengers do have suggestions.
Middleton, for example, asked whether adding a few Jersey-only runs might help relieve congestion on platforms, at least on this side of the Delaware.
Great idea, he was told - except that not enough cars are available.
Exchanges like that were on my mind as I waited to take PATCO into Center City on Sunday. Happily, my train pulled into Collingswood right on time; ditto my return ride from 16th and Locust.
So I'm pleased to report that PATCO is still a good option when meeting a friend for a movie on a weekend afternoon.
But I am glad I don't have to depend on PATCO to get to and from work.
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