Philadelphia-area transit officials defend shutdowns for Sandy

SEPTA shut down its mass transit system ahead of Hurricane Sandy.
SEPTA shut down its mass transit system ahead of Hurricane Sandy. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: November 01, 2012

Transit officials defended Tuesday their decision to shut down the region's network of buses, trains, and subways despite the less-than-anticipated impact from Hurricane Sandy in some parts of the area.

SEPTA buses, subways, and trolleys had resumed service by midday Tuesday, but regional commuter trains remained sidelined. But SEPTA announced Tuesday night that it would resume regular Regional Rail service at regular times Wednesday. Riders are cautioned to expect "residual delays."

PATCO began running trains between Philadelphia and South Jersey at 6 p.m. Tuesday and said it would run trains every 10 minutes Wednesday between 7 and 9 a.m. NJ Transit and Amtrak services remained halted.

The devastating flooding at the Jersey Shore and in New York City are posing huge obstacles for Amtrak and NJ Transit train service, especially for Philadelphia-area residents who commute to jobs in New York City. NJT trains carry a total of about 275,000 passengers per weekday, and trains on the Northeast Corridor, including Amtrak, SEPTA, NJT, and others, carry more than 750,000 passengers per day.

The cancellation of all transit service late Sunday left millions of commuters and travelers stuck at home Monday - and that was the idea. With many businesses closed and governors declaring states of emergency and urging residents to stay put, it would have been foolish to risk the safety of passengers or employees, transit officials said.

"We needed people to stay home," said SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey. "It's public safety, safety for our employees."

Andy Sharpe, a spokesman for a local passenger-advocacy group, agreed. "While flooding from this storm turned out not to be serious, there were certainly a lot of variables that could have rendered conditions much worse," Sharpe said. "Had SEPTA decided to run service after 12:30 a.m., they would run the risk of stranding passengers on buses or trolleys or having a Regional Rail train run into live wires.

"When it comes to the subway-elevated system, the potential flooding from Sandy and the danger of getting train operators to and from work rendered the operation too risky. We feel they made the right call."

At PATCO, which halted its commuter-rail service Sunday night as Sandy approached, spokesman Tim Ireland noted that the agency's trains must cross the Delaware River on the Ben Franklin Bridge, which is "135 feet above mean high water."

"It would have been completely irresponsible to run trains into and out of Philadelphia in high winds. If power to the system were to fail while a train crossed the bridge, how inconvenienced would passengers feel about walking out of a dark train onto a bridge catwalk in 50-m.p.h. winds?"

Ireland said PATCO officials had to err on the side of caution.

When the first PATCO train pulled out of the Camden station at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Daren Young was on it, ready to go. Young, a construction worker, had received a call 90 minutes earlier from his girlfriend, who lives in Philadelphia, telling him that the commuter line was coming back to life.

A half-hour later, he emerged at the Market Street exit, happy to be going to his sweetheart's apartment to watch television and hang out.

NJ Transit officials were tallying the damages to their system Tuesday, including rail bridges that were hit by runaway boats, washouts on the New Jersey Coast Line, and flooding in tunnels and rail stations in Secaucus, Hoboken, and Newark. They had made no decision on when to resume service.

NJT spokesman John Durso said the "systematic and orderly shutdown of NJ Transit service required more than 12 hours to complete. The process required the relocation and securing of buses and rail equipment. It also required complete coordination with state and local officials throughout the process."

The agency said it would resume limited bus service in Camden on Wednesday.

Amtrak also halted service Sunday for the Northeast Corridor to give crews time to move trains out of harm's way. The rail line said it would resume Keystone Service operations between Philadelphia and Harrisburg on Wednesday. No decision had been made as to when trains would start running again between Washington and Boston.


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

Inquirer staff writers Melissa Dribben and Troy Graham contributed to this article.

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