On PATCO, more problems and complaints

Riders descend the stairs next to an out-of-service escalator recently at the Ashland station. Escalators were back in service there Monday, as well as at the Westmont, Collingswood, and Broadway stations.
Riders descend the stairs next to an out-of-service escalator recently at the Ashland station. Escalators were back in service there Monday, as well as at the Westmont, Collingswood, and Broadway stations. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2013

More PATCO delays Tuesday, including a train halted on the Ben Franklin Bridge and others held up by copper-wire thefts, prompted new complaints that service on the commuter line is slipping.

Already annoyed by broken escalators and elevators in stations, riders said Tuesday that the trains themselves have become less reliable.

PATCO operates a 14-mile line between South Jersey and Center City, carrying about 10 million passengers a year.

"Since early this year, it's as if PATCO stopped trying," commuter Cate Mahoney said. "I'm not sure what happened, but it's as if they've completely given up."

Mahoney, 26, of Haddonfield, said she was delayed for 47 minutes Tuesday on her daily commute to her Center City marketing job, with little information from the train operator or other PATCO employees about the cause.

"What really makes my blood boil, and I have to think I'm not alone, is how they never seem to know what's going on, and they run the damn system," Mahoney said. "I get it, trains break, emergencies happen, but they are proving they can't handle running a system in normal conditions."

PATCO spokesman Tim Ireland said a stuck switch at 11th Street in Center City delayed two trains on the bridge, one for 23 minutes, and additional delays were caused by switches disabled by the theft of copper wires between Ferry and Haddon Avenues in Camden.

Ireland said that PATCO, like other train operators, has been targeted by thieves attracted by rising scrap-metal prices.

"It's particularly annoying for us and for our customers," Ireland said. "We apologize to our customers."

In addition, track work on the bridge frequently forces trains to slow to 15 m.p.h. over the Delaware River.

"You can't really depend on them like you used to," said Darcel Boogaard, a paralegal from Glassboro who rides from Ferry Avenue to 15th-16th and Locust. "Trains used to be every three to five minutes at rush hour, now it's sometimes 10 or 15 minutes. It's inconsistent."

Commuter Jill Poretta, 42, a manager at a Center City law firm, said her trip from Haddonfield to 15th-16th and Locust, normally a 20-minute ride, took an hour and six minutes Tuesday morning.

That followed a Monday episode in which her train stopped sporadically between Haddonfield and Camden and then was placed out of service at the Broadway station in Camden.

"Everyone had to disembark and wait on the Broadway platform until they could board another train headed toward Philadelphia," Poretta said. "Most of us boarded the next train, but some waited for the following train so that they could find a seat."

She said she understood that trains can have mechanical issues, but, she said in an e-mail, "what educated Philadelphia commuters don't understand is:

"Why PATCO trains experience these mechanical issues so frequently? . . .

"How on earth PATCO thinks it's acceptable to stop a train full of commuters on a bridge for more than 5 minutes?

"I can have either my 8- or 10-year old draw a diagram of different ways to get commuters to a platform, so that they can make their own decision whether to remain on the train or find another means to get to their final destination after PATCO has failed to do so in a timely manner," Poretta wrote.

A frequent complaint of riders is that PATCO does not let them know what is going on.

On Tuesday, senior citizens stranded at the City Hall station in Camden were frightened and confused, Boogaard said.

"No one was directing anyone. It was like they were leaving you stranded," she said. "They should communicate better."

PATCO pays $630,000 a year for 20 "transit ambassadors" who greet commuters in the morning and evening, but, Mahoney said, "they are completely unequipped to handle actual questions."

"It's like someone handed them the shirt off the street and told them to stand there," she said. "They aren't being educated on the system they represent."

PATCO officials have said train reliability will improve with the refurbishing of the 120-car fleet. PATCO is spending $194 million to retool the cars, replacing interiors, brake and propulsion systems, lighting and messaging systems, and heating and cooling systems.

The stainless-steel car shells, wheel assemblies, and traction motors will not be replaced.

Delivery of the first refurbished cars has fallen behind schedule.


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

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