Are We There Yet? Read our 5-day series on SEPTA

A Regional Rail train pulls into Suburban Station in Philadelphia.

Late trains, missing trains. Frustrated riders, tired riders, riders at the end of their ropes.

This was SEPTA’s Regional Rail starting in 2015: Nearly one in five trains late across the system. Then, in July 2016, serious flaws on Silverliner V cars caused a third of SEPTA’s fleet to be pulled out of service, upending schedules and leaving riders languishing on rail platforms all summer. Trains were late nearly a third of the time in the subsequent three months.

Last year, The Inquirer and Daily News examined what ailed the railroad. Our report identified problems with staffing, equipment, scheduling, and management that all contributed to riders’ frustration with a service central to the region’s transportation infrastructure. SEPTA said it had a blueprint to make it better. Now, we’re taking another look to see where the authority has made progress, and what work remains.

After SEPTA’s repaired cars returned to service, the agency succeeded in restoring on-time rates to where they had been before the 2016 debacle. Addressing the reliability problem that predates the Silverliner V failures, however, would take more than restoring broken vehicles, and in the first six months of 2017, SEPTA had little to show for their efforts. Trains across the system were punctual 85 percent of the time, about the same rate as the same span the year before.

This fall, however, SEPTA’s efforts began to pay off. In August and September, the agency met its self-imposed goal of a 90 percent on-time rate for the first time since the beginning of 2015, according to data analyzed by The Inquirer and Daily News. It also found SEPTA has made good on promises to improve on-time rates and address communications failures and aging equipment.

Officials at SEPTA offer an optimistic view of today’s transit, saying they’ll be able to continue the upward swing of the last two months.

But they have not yet proved whether the system can over the long term  keep meeting SEPTA’s standard for on-time, defined as a train finishing its route within six minutes of its scheduled arrival — and its 63,000 riders are not all feeling the joy. Among dozens surveyed by The Inquirer and Daily News many said they had not noticed any change. Others reported improvement, but felt there was still work to be done.

Today, we begin a five-day look at the state of SEPTA’s Regional Rail a year after our initial report. We assessed SEPTA’s progress by reviewing fresh operations data and interviewing and reinterviewing riders, experts, officials, and employees. Among our findings:

  • All 13 Regional Rail lines have improved since January. The changes since last September, the rock bottom of the Silverliner crisis, are dramatic. The Manayunk/Norristown line went from a 46 percent on-time rate in September 2016 to 93 percent in September 2017. Likewise, the Media/Elwyn line went from being punctual 56 percent of the time to 95 percent in that time period.
  • Some lines are consistent high-performers: Nine out of 10 trains on the Fox-Chase line have come in on time since April. The Airport line has been at 90 percent or better since December, reaching 96 percent in September, a high for the entire system.
  • Coordinating with Amtrak continues to be difficult; three of the four lines that share rails with Amtrak’s trains remain the worst performers.
  • Delays still persist on certain SEPTA lines, and so does a sense of frustration among riders.
Camera icon Jessica Griffin
Matthew White (center) prepares to exit the train during his morning commute from Malvern to Suburban Station.

More than three-quarters of 2.3 million commuters in the counties served by Regional Rail use cars to get to work. Not quite 3 percent use trains. But reliable rail service is a key weapon against gridlock — luring more riders can reduce traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway and other clogged highways. Public officials also say it is critical to the future of transportation in the region. The City of Philadelphia’s plans to make streets safer include teaming with SEPTA to make public transportation more appealing.

“Reliable rail service is vital for Philadelphia’s continued growth as a world class equitable and sustainable city,” said Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems. “Getting people out of their cars and onto SEPTA buses and trains provides benefits for all Philadelphians.”

Ridership on SEPTA had reached an 18-year high in 2016, but dropped after last summer’s crisis and has not fully bounced back. As of May, Regional Rail had 5 percent fewer riders than at the same time in 2016.

One lost rider is Rob Dougherty, 37, who hasn’t used SEPTA since last summer.

Now, he commutes on Amtrak, riding each day from Downingtown to work at an engineering firm at 20th and Market Streets. It’s about $50 more a month, he said, but worth it: Trains are on time and his commute is shorter, down to 40 minutes, he said.

“I’m not going back to SEPTA,” Dougherty said last month. “Ever.”

Last year, rider Sanjay Modi said he couldn’t reliably pick up his kid from school on time or show up to baseball practices early. The 40-year-old Wharton School technical director became so disillusioned with SEPTA that his wife only considered jobs outside Philadelphia during a recent job hunt; they didn’t want to depend on Regional Rail to get them both home to their son in Bucks County each night.

Reinterviewed in September, Modi said rush-hour trains have become more punctual, though his trip is a few minutes longer and he still isn’t completely satisfied with his commute.

“The peak trains are more reliable, but that’s coming at the cost of the quality of the off-peak stuff, [which] is maybe a little less predictable,” Modi said. “I would like to see a way to hold SEPTA accountable.”

Both men represent the kind of riders SEPTA General Manager Jeff Knueppel is out to win over.

“If you left for a while, you can come back,” Knueppel said in a September interview. “We’re good again.”

Camera icon David Swanson
Riders heading into the city wait for the Media/Elwyn line at the Wallingford station last week.

Measures other than on-time rates point to progress in 2017.

An ongoing project to replace 262 miles of aging wiring susceptible to failure in hot or cold weather has about 60 miles of track left to go. SEPTA is upgrading stations. Double-decker cars and new locomotives have been ordered; when those arrive between 2018 and 2019, there will be more cars on the tracks and reduced strain on older vehicles. A major safety system was installed on trains. Employee-manager relations are changing.

Knueppel was unable to say how much work remains in the $5 billion backlog of infrastructure work that he said last year needed to be done on the railroad, but said the authority has made “a dent” in it since 2016. SEPTA has a $1.4 billion operating budget in fiscal year 2018, and a $727 million capital budget. About $1 billion of that comes from state money, with the remainder coming from a combination of fare revenue, local, and federal sources.

After last year’s review by The Inquirer and Daily News, SEPTA added a new page to its website prominently directing visitors to read about the Regional Rail Service Improvement Program. There, the agency has logged updates about railroad improvements.

Reliability remains a work in progress.

“The whole deal now is making this happen over and over and over every day and keeping this moving,” Knueppel said. “We’re excited by where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied.”

Tomorrow: How scheduling changes have altered the daily grind for Regional Rail riders.

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