Septa Is Punctual More Often Commuter Rail Lines Improving

Posted: May 31, 1989

SEPTA's commuter trains arrived on time at Suburban Station 96 percent of the time during the first three months of this year, showing a marked improvement that transit officials attributed to a mild winter and systemwide improvements.

That level of success contrasted, however, with a 73 percent on-time performance for SEPTA's buses and trolleys during the same period. That figure means that more than one out of every four buses and trolleys arrive more than five minutes later than scheduled.

While top transit officials say that it is unrealistic to expect this service to meet the standards of the less frequently running trains, SEPTA general manager Louis J. Gambaccini has said he would like to see improvement in meeting bus and trolley schedules.

"I don't think that we will improve on-time performance for buses and trolleys given the current resources," said Charles W. Thomas, SEPTA assistant general manager for operations. "The buses and trolleys are out there dealing with city traffic, while the trains run on their own right-of- way. There's no comparison."

Thomas said he believes it makes little difference to passengers if buses running every 10 to 15 minutes are not perfectly in sync with the published schedule.

". . . If the buses get running six minutes behind, then every one is six minutes behind, but they are still coming every 10 to 15 minutes," he said. ''So while the on-time performance figure is low, it doesn't necessarily reflect the actual degree of inconvenience felt on the street."

On routes with less frequent intervals between buses, however, frequent delays present a more serious problem, he said.

Talks are still continuing between SEPTA and city officials over ways the city can improve the speed and reliability of SEPTA bus and trolley service, such as restricting parking along transit routes and improving towing and ticketing at bus stops.

The city's heavily used subway and elevated lines performed more in keeping with the commuter rail lines.

The Broad Street subway maintained an on-time performance estimated at 98 percent, but the Market/Frankford Line, experiencing frequent delays because of reconstruction work on the Frankford Elevated, has been running late almost 10 percent of the time.

Thomas compiled the figures and presented them at SEPTA's monthly board meeting last week, as part of a program Gambaccini began late last year. The new general manager has asked for quarterly reports on SEPTA's performance. It is difficult to make comparisons with other urban transit systems because not all use the same measurement standards.

SEPTA's measure of "on-time" means a train or bus arrived in a range between one minute ahead of the scheduled time and five minutes late.

The authority has also begun publishing "Mean Distance Between Failures," a measure of how long vehicles travel before suffering a breakdown that takes them out of service for repairs. The breakdown might be something as simple as graffiti or something as serious as an engine failure. The greater the average miles traveled between failures, the healthier the bus, train or trolley fleet.

SEPTA's bus fleet continued to show the effects of the transit authority's rigorous inspection and overhaul system, increasing its mean distance between failures from 3,728 miles at the end of 1988 to 4,034 miles by the end of March. The same measure for SEPTA buses in 1980 was only 695 miles.

For the first three months of this year there were continued improvements in the performance of SEPTA's buses and most commuter trains but more frequent equipment breakdowns on the subway lines and on the Norristown High Speed Line, which Thomas calls "our rolling museum" because of its age.

The best on-time performers were the Airport Line, at 99 percent, and the R6 Ivy Ridge/Norristown Line, at 97 percent. The Airport Line, being a short, relatively simple run, has always been SEPTA's top performer. The high on-time showing for the R6, according to Thomas, reflects extensive track and signal improvement on the Norristown end last year.

SEPTA's worst regional rail performer was the R5 Paoli/Doylestown line, at 94.3 percent, which is also the authority's busiest and most heavily used commuter run. Thomas said that because it is one of SEPTA's longest lines, with many stops, there are frequent opportunities for delays.

The 94 percent on-time record on the R5 line, while the worst among other rail lines, was a dramatic improvement over the 88 percent on-time record during the last three months of 1988. The last quarter of the year is usually SEPTA's worst, primarily because fallen leaves make the rails slick and force slow orders, Thomas said.

The most dramatic improvement in on-time performance was on the R1/R3 West Chester/West Trenton line, which posted a 83 percent on-time record during the last three months of 1988, but a 95 percent record during the first three months of 1989. A vandalized signal control center caused serious service disruptions last year, Thomas said. Its replacement accounts for the sudden improvement.

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