A Bucks-Montco debate Newtown Station: Reopen it or not?

Posted: October 06, 2009

All that remains of Newtown's commuter rail stop is a faded sign, by a rusted stretch of track at Penn and Lincoln Streets, proclaiming the name of the Bucks County borough.

But when Jon Frey stands where the old station used to be, he imagines a railroad reborn, with SEPTA trains once again traveling the R-8 line to Fox Chase and on into Center City.

To try to make that vision a reality, Frey has launched a campaign to restore service to Newtown, renewing an old debate about costs and ridership and pitting one pro-environment faction (rail commuters) against another (rails-to-trails advocates).

The debate also divides along county lines: In traffic-snarled Bucks County, which has grown rapidly along the corridor, residents and officials support it, while in Montgomery County, with less growth and more rail options, there is plenty of opposition.

SEPTA "temporarily" suspended service on the 15-mile Newtown branch in early 1983, because of low ridership, labor issues, and poor maintenance of the diesel trains that operated on the unelectrified line.

In the ensuing 26 years, trees have sprouted between the tracks, bridges have collapsed, and housing developments have grown up along the corridor. In June, Montgomery County, which leased two miles of the dormant line from SEPTA for $1 and sold the old rails for $200,000, turned that section into Pennypack Trail, a bike-and-pedestrian path along the edge of Lorimer Park.

But SEPTA has not relinquished the rail right-of-way, which gives Frey hope.

"It's not a question of feasibility, it's a question of necessity," said Frey, 35, an information-technology consultant from Southampton. "People will say it's a lot of money, but it's a long-term investment. There's a tremendous amount of traffic and pollution you would be taking out of the picture."

He and a small group of supporters have started handing out cards at SEPTA stations, lobbying officials, attending meetings, and they've launched a sophisticated Web site (www.r8newtown.com), complete with an on-line petition for proponents to sign.

SEPTA says it has no plans to restore service to Newtown in the near future because of costs and ridership. Until last year, restoration of the service remained on the books as one of SEPTA's long-range plans, but it is not in the current plan.

Other rail expansion proposals, such as a line to Quakertown or to Reading, are considered higher priorities, said Byron Comati, SEPTA's director of strategic planning and analysis.

Charles Martin, chairman of the Bucks County commissioners and one of the county's two representatives on the SEPTA board, said he would like to see service restored to the line he used to ride, but he is not holding his breath.

"Somewhere in the future, some bright person is going to come up with a way to operate a vehicle on that line, but it seems like it's not feasible now," Martin said. "Knowing the economics of running SEPTA and the available funds, to add any significant service is going to be a really, really difficult thing to do."

"Am I in favor of it? Absolutely. Is this the time to pursue it. No."

Fellow Bucks County Commissioner James Cawley said after meeting with Frey that he was "very intrigued" by the prospect of restoring the service.

"I think you would see a big spike in ridership" because of population growth in the Newtown area, Cawley said, who said he was talking to SEPTA and regional planners about restoring the service.

For more than a century, trains ran from Newtown south to Philadelphia. As part of the Reading Railroad's system, the line was never electrified, so passengers had to switch from a diesel train to an electric train at Fox Chase to finish their hour-long trip to Reading Terminal.

SEPTA inherited the operation of the line in 1981 and tried to run the trains as far as Fox Chase with subway operators. Beset by labor problems, balky diesel engines, low ridership, and a fatal crash, SEPTA ended service in January 1983.

Since then, there have been periodic efforts in Bucks County to revive the line.

The residents there see restored Newtown train service as an antidote to traffic congestion.

But the Montgomery County towns along the line have had no such growth, and the residents there like the open space that has replaced the trains. And, with easy access to the neighboring R-2/Warminster and R-3/West Trenton rail lines, the Montco commuters do not need more train service.

"It's a very worthwhile project," said Matthew Mitchell, of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.

"But unless you get the support of Montgomery County, it's not going to go anywhere, regardless of how much the riders want it."

"People want nothing back there," said Leo Bagley, director of transportation planning for Montgomery County. He said neighbors made that clear in reaction to a proposal to introduce "bus rapid transit" along the route.

"I would not like to see a railroad there," said Jenkintown lawyer Richard Stern, who is president of the Tall Trees Homeowners Association in Huntingdon Valley, where some homes abut the rail line. "I would adamantly oppose it. . . . To disrupt this gorgeous trail would be very upsetting to me and the residents of my community."

Montgomery County planners are moving ahead with plans to extend the rail-trail south to Philadelphia and north to Byberry Road.

Frey said his pro-rail group's initial goal was to get another study of ridership and cost projections.

In its long-range plan for many years, SEPTA had listed the cost of electrifying and restoring service to Newtown at $32 million. But that estimate was "stale," said SEPTA's chief financial officer, Richard Burnfield.

He declined to estimate what an updated price tag might be, but he noted that the current 3.2-mile extension of the R-3 line from Elwyn to Wawa in Delaware County is expected to cost $80 million to $100 million.

He said studies done as recently as 2006 did not find enough new ridership to justify restoration of service. Proposed extensions to Quakertown or Reading "have more traction . . . by comparison, this one is a little stumpy."

Frey said he and the Newtown advocates would not let SEPTA's disinterest deter them.

"We're just trying to build local support now. There is a lot of misinformation causing politicians to not believe it can be done," he said. "We are trying to show them it can."

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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