Marking 50 years, SEPTA rolls on

A Silverliner V , the new generation of railcar. Last March, SEPTA received the last of its 120-car order. JULIETTE LYNCH
A Silverliner V , the new generation of railcar. Last March, SEPTA received the last of its 120-car order. JULIETTE LYNCH
Posted: March 01, 2014

SEPTA is celebrating its 50th birthday this month, marking a major step in the public takeover of the region's once-privately operated buses, trolleys, subways, and trains.

Much more than names have changed since the days of the Philadelphia Transportation Co., the Red Arrow Lines, and the Pennsylvania and the Reading Railroads.

Fifty years into SEPTA's reign, we have shiny new railcars, clean-running hybrid buses, a rebuilt Market-Frankford Line, some new stations and depots, rising ridership, and electronic schedules available on a cellphone.

So why does it take longer now than in 1964 to ride a train from Lansdale to Center City?

SEPTA's 50-year legacy is mixed: It was an underfunded, politically controlled, consumer-unfriendly agency that has improved enough to be named in 2012 the best large transit system in North America by the American Public Transportation Association.

"It's taken them a long time to get their act together, but they're far from a laughingstock now," said Frank Tatnall, of Wayne, a rail historian.

"Things were terrible on SEPTA for a while. Service was terrible, both on transit and the railroad. But they finally brought some people in who knew what they were doing."

The sixth-largest transit agency in the country, SEPTA has lurched from crisis to crisis over its 50 years, regularly imperiled by a lack of money, labor strikes, failing equipment and infrastructure, and disgruntled customers.

Obstacles remain, and SEPTA teetered on the brink again last year as the state legislature debated whether to provide a boost in transportation funding (it finally did, after an initial rejection).

But SEPTA's performance has improved, and so has its image, said Rina Cutler, the Nutter administration's transportation chief and one of the city's two representatives on the SEPTA board.

"On both the customer side and the influencer side, the perception of SEPTA has changed considerably," Cutler said. "I think people have come to appreciate how crucially important SEPTA is to the region in terms of jobs, livability, and the ability to move easily around without a car."

With customer service, Cutler said, SEPTA has made strides under general manager Joseph Casey, who was promoted to the top post in 2008.

"It's hard to get someone to love you if you pay no attention to them," said Cutler, praising SEPTA's newfound ability to interact with customers, especially on social media.

Fifty years ago, when the newly created Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority held its first organizational meeting Feb. 18, 1964, the journey toward public control of transit was already well down the track.

Private bus and railroad companies were bankrupt or close to it, undone by the automobile, expressways, suburban migration, labor costs, and shoddy management.

In Philadelphia, as in cities around the country, local and federal governments had stepped in to subsidize, consolidate, and buy the failing private operations.

The same economic imperatives that led to SEPTA also spawned MBTA (Boston), MTA (New York City), WMATA (Washington), and - at the national level - Conrail and Amtrak.

SEPTA, created by the state legislature in 1963, was run by a transportation board with two members each from Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties and one appointed by the governor (the legislature later expanded the board to include four legislative appointees).

That gave the SEPTA board a suburban dominance that has rankled city administrations and city riders for 50 years.

Cutler, who used to be transportation commissioner in Boston, said SEPTA's suburban focus has made it less a part of the fabric of the city than "the T" in Boston.

SEPTA's original function was to funnel government subsidies to the railroads and local transit companies, with an initial budget of only $120,000 a year.

But with the private companies increasingly unable or unwilling to operate, SEPTA rapidly acquired them, their equipment, their infrastructure, and their passengers.

Now, SEPTA has a $1.28 billion operating budget, a $300 million capital budget, 9,300 employees, and 340 million riders. In the works is a $200 million electronic "smart card" fare-payment system, to be rolled out later this year, and a proposed rail extension to King of Prussia.

So, with all the improvements, why can't modern rail commuters travel as fast as their grandmothers?

For instance, the Reading Railroad's 7:58 a.m. train from Fox Chase in 1964 got to Reading Terminal 29 minutes later, serving 11 stations. Today, SEPTA's 8:11 a.m. train from Fox Chase takes 32 minutes to travel to Market East, serving just eight stations.

The situation is similar on most other Regional Rail lines.

John Dezio, SEPTA's manager of rail planning, said much of the reason is that the Center City Commuter Tunnel, which connected the former Pennsylvania and Reading lines in 1984, funnels 20 tracks into four. That imposes scheduling restrictions that affect the entire system, he said.

Also, Amtrak trains get precedence over SEPTA trains traveling on Amtrak territory, signal and safety rules have changed, and the 40-year-old Silverliner IV trains don't function as well as they used to, he said.

"We do the best we can with what we've got," Dezio said.


pnussbaum@phillynews.com

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