PATCO officials alert commuters to new schedule

Posted: February 02, 2014

Lately, PATCO commuters have had to negotiate overcrowded cars, nonfunctioning escalators, stalled train engines, and even a railcar fire.

At rush hour Friday, two of the High-Speed Line's top executives were on hand at the Lindenwold station to prepare travelers for some inconvenience for the next two years.

From 8 to 9 a.m., John Hanson, acting chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority, and John Rink, PATCO general manager, passed out updated schedules to commuters to alert them that PATCO now has 30-minute gaps between departures on some days as the agency replaces tracks on the Ben Franklin Bridge.

The event was the 53-year-old Hanson's first public appearance as the port authority's acting chief executive after being named to the job on Jan. 15. The authority runs PATCO.

"Our responsibilities include both running the tracks and taking care of them. It's likely that commutes will take longer and that trains will be crowded," said Hanson, a yellow construction vest draped over his suit.

As if to underscore the adjustments commuters will have to make, minutes after Hanson and Rink left the station, apparent miscommunication forced people waiting in one train to dart to another across the elevated platform at Lindenwold, one end of PATCO's rail line.

The scramble was an operations error and unrelated to any of the renovations, DRPA spokesman Tim Ireland said, adding that the construction schedule would not take effect for two more hours.

There were more tie-ups during the evening rush Friday at PATCO's Eighth and Market station in Philadelphia.

Hanson said the new schedule - which began Jan. 18 and will run from 11 a.m. on Fridays to 3:30 a.m. on Tuesdays through 2016 as the agency completes the $102.8 million track renovation - is a necessary evil designed to cause as little inconvenience to commuters as possible.

Ireland estimated that the tracks were last renovated in the mid-1980s.

The rail transit agency has flooded stations with brochures and posters alerting passengers to the schedule changes. It has also notified the public via its website and social media pages for the last four weeks, Ireland said.

He said the rail line's biggest problem would be keeping trains running efficiently despite being down to a single track during construction hours.

"If a person or a dog gets onto the track, that's the only line we've got," he said.

Rink, 44, stressed that it would be important, especially for PATCO's weekend riders, to plan their schedules in advance.

"The first trains after a gap period are likely to be very crowded," Rink, named PATCO's general manager in 2011, said. "Riders may want to wait until a few trains have cleared."

The construction and subsequent schedule changes come amid a series of problems on the PATCO line, which serves 38,000 daily riders. A railcar fire Thursday caused no injuries.

PATCO officials tout at least one improvement on the way: introduction of renovated train cars, beginning in the spring.

"The new schedule is going to really affect my ride home," Lou Ragusa, 39, said while waiting to board a train bound for PATCO's 15th-16th and Locust station. "I need to get back to pick up my daughter, and it's annoying when the trains already break down between stops."

At 9:17 a.m. Friday, after two trains parked on each of the Lindenwold station's two tracks filled up, the train on Track One was - to the surprise of those on board - declared out of service, forcing people to scurry across the platform and cram themselves into the other train, which departed at 9:22 a.m.

At 9:26, another train pulled into Track One, its passengers got off, and it sat after an out-of-service announcement with its doors wide open, leading patrons to inadvertently wander in.

"I've never seen this many people on a platform," Kimberly Morris, 25, said. She has been taking PATCO into Center City six days a week for the last three months.

"I was supposed to be in by 10, but I don't think I'm going to make it," said Jennifer McBride, a 33-year-old research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The trains just sort of sit there for 20 minutes at a time without moving."

At 5:40 p.m. at the Eighth and Market station, Mark Lisner, 49, arrived at the platform to find one track occupied by a darkened, out-of-service train.

Lisner, a daily PATCO commuter between Philadelphia and his hometown of Cherry Hill, said he was aware of the schedule changes.

"Honestly, I don't think it's going to have much impact" on his life, Lisner said. "The trains come frequently enough. If you have to wait another few minutes, that's fine."

As he finished his brief answer, a train to Lindenwold arrived at 5:41 with standing-room space, and he boarded to go home.

At 5:44, another Lindenwold train arrived barely half-full, and the handful of new people on the platform got on.

At 5:52, a Lindenwold train stopped at the station to pick up passengers.

That was the last train to New Jersey for 24 minutes. Apparently the trains were running in bunches, anticipating that the first in line would fill up quickly.

Meanwhile, three trains - one out of service - in quick succession headed west into Philadelphia.

The station started to get packed when the next Lindenwold train arrived at 6:16 and it was almost full.

For about a minute, people squeezed on board while PATCO workers at the doors determined when the train was full.

It was full when Leo Burunchenko, 23, was left as the only commuter who could not board at his door.

"This is the first time I've not been able to get on," he said.

Within two minutes, another train less than half-full arrived, and Burunchenko went home.


Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.

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