Holiday Model Trains From SEPTA to you: a lump of coal

Posted: November 13, 2003

The Grinch made an early stop at SEPTA headquarters, where transit officials have decided it's their fiscal duty to derail the Magical Holiday Railway model train display that's become a favorite among Christmastime visitors to Center City.

And why? To save on the $40,000 expense of renting and installing the huge and impressive 1,000-foot layout.

It's one of the many belt-tightening measures SEPTA has taken to avoid fare hikes and to-the-bone service cuts due to a state funding shortfall.

But this economy move rates only one response: Bah, humbug.

The savings amount to far less than 1 percent of the $26 million deficit SEPTA faces this year - even less of SEPTA's overall $800 million budget. Even as a part of SEPTA's marketing budget, the annual model railroad is a modest expense.

Could it be SEPTA officials, now in battle with Harrisburg lawmakers over funding, are so cynical as to toy with the wide-eyed joy of youngsters? Say it ain't so, SEPTA elves.

Trouble is, it's pretty clear transit agency officials are looking to capture the public's attention by eliminating the train display this year.

As the agency's spokesman, Richard Maloney, notes, "The message cannot be lost that the reason for the elimination - at least for this year - of that railroad display is because the ax is still hanging over our heads" and because public transit is down low on Harrisburg's priority list.

Good point. But making the model-train attraction a pawn in this political standoff is counterproductive. And not just because so many kids will be disappointed this Black Friday when families start their downtown holiday pilgrimages.

By SEPTA's own account, the display had become a draw for little and big people from miles around - visitors who not only stopped at the Lord & Taylor light show and Strawbridges' Dickens Village, but also shopped downtown stores and ate in downtown restaurants.

SEPTA made too little effort to enlist enough corporate or foundation support to keep its model trains rolling. Who knows whether a secret Santa might have been eager to help maintain this Philadelphia tradition.

Too bad SEPTA is content to haul coal. May it give the area's children a better gift next year.

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