PATCO finally rolled out the first of its refurbished railcars Thursday morning, with local officials promising the $194 million overhaul will mean new levels of comfort, safety, and reliability for commuters between South Jersey and Center City.
The rebuilt cars, with new interiors, electronics, and heating systems, are more than a year late returning to service from a factory in Hornell, N.Y., because of persistent problems fine-tuning an automatic signal system that gives operating instructions to the trains.
All systems, including new visual and audio station announcements, appeared to work flawlessly Thursday on the first train's inaugural trip from the Woodcrest station in Cherry Hill to the Eighth and Market station in Center City.
Local government and PATCO officials shared the ride with perplexed commuters, who boarded the train on its westbound journey.
"It's great. . . . It's really nice," said Bob Green of Barrington, who balanced his bicycle next to U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) as the two shared standing room on the first trip.
In addition to the first six cars, another six are expected to be in service in a few days, said PATCO general manager John Rink.
All 120 cars in the fleet will eventually be rebuilt, with PATCO expecting refurbished cars to arrive at the rate of four a month.
The rebuilt cars look much the same from the outside, since they retain their 1969-vintage stainless steel bodies, but the interiors are done over with blue seats trimmed in red piping, with new full-width cabs for the operator.
Earl Robinson, who has been operating PATCO trains since the agency began service in 1969, was the operator for the first train Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), who helped secure federal funding to pay for the overhaul, said, "This day has been a long time coming," and praised the cooperation of Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials in supporting the project.
Brady also took the opportunity to promise to "do whatever I can" to help reopen the long-closed PATCO station beneath Franklin Square in Old City.
New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) praised PATCO as an engine of the regional economy, and lauded officials of PATCO's parent, the Delaware River Port Authority, for "restoring this authority to its core mission": transportation.
Norcross stressed the safety of the PATCO system, noting that it has had automatic train control to prevent collisions and over-speeding since 1969.
The DRPA hired Alstom Transport Inc. in 2010 to rebuild the fleet. The authority decided to save money by rebuilding its cars rather than buying new ones. The rebuilt cars retain the old wheel assemblies and traction motors.