Septa Is Wooing Riders Anew Railworks Worked. Trains Are Back.

Posted: September 05, 1993

Imagine a railroad so shiny new that even the rocks beneath the tracks are clean.

It has a new station that has never yet smelled bad. It has miles and miles of concrete retaining walls that nobody has yet gotten around to painting with graffiti.

All its bridges are in excellent repair and freshly painted. Its track is so smooth that electric trains glide along nearly noiselessly.

That is the railway that SEPTA unveils to its riders beginning this morning with the official ending of the two-year RailWorks project.

The rebuilding of 4.5 critical miles of the old Reading Lines main line between Center City and Wayne Junction has been an impressive technical success, finishing on schedule and well below budget.

It is probably the largest single project SEPTA will ever undertake, since it forced the partial shutdown of six rail lines for a total of 10 months, inviting a disastrous loss of business. SEPTA officials hope that the completed job will win back the lost riders, an estimated 8 percent of the pre-RailWorks total.

Part of the lure, of course, will be the more reliable service and somewhat faster trains the lines can now offer. The routes are the R2 Warminster, R3 West Trenton, R5 Lansdale-Doylestown, R6 Norristown, R7 Chestnut Hill East and R8 Fox Chase.

The section of railroad that had to be closed was the trunk from which all the Reading Lines branches spread. It is four tracks wide and had 21 bridges that had to be replaced and four more to be rebuilt.

Before the start of construction, the project was estimated to cost $354 million. By the time contracts were being awarded, it appeared the cost would be more like $300 million, helped in part by the recession.

The actual retail price of RailWorks: $264 million.

Thank the weather for a large part of the savings, said Leroy Howell, manager of RailWorks communications. A mild winter in 1992 meant contractors could get in before the formal start of the project in April to begin site preparations. And aside from some hot spells this year, both summers offered good working conditions.

And in the whole project, Howell said, there were surprisingly few of the problems that develop in any large construction project, resulting in "change orders" and higher costs.

The money saved, unfortunately for SEPTA, is not available for immediate spending. Seventy percent of the project is being paid for by the Federal Transit Administration, 22 percent by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and 8 percent by the city and four Pennsylvania counties.

The fact that those agencies don't have to spend as much as budgeted for the project, Howell said, does make future requests from SEPTA somewhat more likely to be funded quicker.

The station built during RailWorks is Temple University, on Berks Street near Ninth, replacing one several blocks away. The North Broad Street station, near Lehigh, has been completely rebuilt.

Most riders probably will notice the RailWorks area is much quieter than before. The rail joints that used to produce the clickety-clack when wheels rolled over have been eliminated by welding. Welded rail lasts much longer

because each joint is a place where the steel wheels can chip away little pieces of the rail.

The biggest RailWorks beneficiaries, at least immediately, will be R3 riders to West Trenton. Because that line lost the most riders during RailWorks, SEPTA is lavishing extra attention on it to try to woo them back.

The running times for all R3 trains will be reduced by five minutes. There will be two new express trains for the afternoon rush, and parking and lighting are being improved at stations between Bethayres and West Trenton. Sunday service, which formerly meant a train every two hours, will bring a train every hour.

On the R6 Norristown line, express trains will run 10 minutes faster and locals will be four minutes faster. And most of the lines will get improvements in weekend service.

SEPTA is planning an advertising campaign to run at least through November to try to reclaim old riders and win new ones.

The six affected routes carried 35,000 passengers a day before RailWorks. During the project, those passengers either had to get off their trains at Fern Rock in North Philadelphia to get to Center City on the Broad Street Subway, or on some lines buses were substituted.

This summer, only about 25,000 passengers were using those alternatives. Ridership has been down everywhere because of the economy, but RailWorks has clearly hurt.

Passengers boarding trains Tuesday are to receive special "thank you" gift bags. There will be a series of print and radio ads under the theme "All aboard," and SEPTA is even considering direct-mail campaigns to households near specific lines.

SEPTA also is trying to mend fences with regular riders of its Broad Street subway, who often had to stand at rush hour because suburban riders had gotten all the seats.

There will be free refreshments and gifts at Olney station on Tuesday, and free tokens at Erie.

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