Inquirer Editorial: Too much on the line

A commuter evacuates the PATCO line with the aid of a firefighter.
A commuter evacuates the PATCO line with the aid of a firefighter. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff)
Posted: February 15, 2014

Hard winters like this one can hamper mass transit, as can maintenance and construction. But the steady accumulation of smoldering motors, broken escalators, and generally poor service on the PATCO line suggests that its notorious mismanagement by the Delaware River Port Authority is affecting operations and perhaps even safety. When the "no smoking" signs start to seem like desperate prayers to the equipment, it's time to find a better way to run a railroad.

PATCO's week began with a motor malfunctioning high above the Delaware Monday morning, snarling rush-hour service until a train could be moved off the Ben Franklin Bridge. Another breakdown stopped a train on the Philadelphia approach to the bridge that evening, filling two of its cars with smoke. Some passengers were stranded for more than an hour, while others were evacuated along a darkened track to a derelict station. A few complained of difficulty breathing.

PATCO's little-engines-that-couldn't have experienced malfunctions at a rate of more than one a day in the new year, the Courier-Post reported, requiring nine evacuations. Officials say the balky motors may have trouble with snow, which tends to be an issue now and then in the Northeast. The trains are undergoing a $194 million overhaul, but it's not expected to address the motors.

This week's emergencies further frustrated commuters already dealing with long waits and packed trains due to a $103 million track replacement on the bridge. PATCO, which provides more than 10 million rides a year between Philadelphia and New Jersey, has reduced service to a single track across the bridge for half of each week, lengthening commutes even when the equipment works.

Just getting to and from the trains has become a struggle, as The Inquirer's Paul Nussbaum reported. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration cited the agency for failing to keep escalators and elevators working. As many as half the escalators have been out of service at once.

Passengers complain that the agency's poor communications have exacerbated matters. Some are giving up entirely. Ridership fell last year for the first time in a decade, defying national trends in favor of public transportation.

Responding to the week's events, officials engaged in a flurry of activity on Twitter and promised to improve communications. The DRPA's acting chief executive also said he would reconsider the construction schedule, though officials have noted that the track work is pressing.

Of course, it wouldn't be as urgent if the DRPA hadn't spent $500 million on projects unrelated to the rail line or its bridges while the infrastructure went begging. That spending now appears to be the focus of a federal investigation.

PATCO's latest failures call for renewed attention from the FTA as well as Govs. Christie and Corbett, who are ultimately responsible for the DRPA. Christie in particular has repeatedly endorsed the agency's rotten status quo by his actions if not his words, and the DRPA's structure allows either governor to block substantial changes. If the spectacle of the DRPA's fiscal and ethical train wrecks hasn't moved the governors, the prospect of preventing an actual one should.

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