PATCO troubles unite commuters

"We're working on it," says John Hanson (right), PATCO's acting CEO, handing out new schedules to riders at the Lindenwold station with other officials earlier this year.
"We're working on it," says John Hanson (right), PATCO's acting CEO, handing out new schedules to riders at the Lindenwold station with other officials earlier this year. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2014

The perils of PATCO - mechanical failures, disrupted schedules, jammed trains, the occasional fire - are creating community, as well as misery.

On Twitter, Facebook, other social media and blogs, riders of a commuter line once famous for its efficiencies comfort one another while track reconstruction, car refurbishment, and deferred maintenance debacles magnify PATCO's deficiencies.

Passengers are venting, too. "Can you give us a sneak preview of the horrors your simpleminded administrators have planned for commuters . . .?" snarked a March 26 post on the PATCO Facebook page.

Riders also are updating reporters, documenting delays, and maintaining pressure on the railroad and its historically profligate parent, a bipartisan patronage palace officially called the Delaware River Port Authority.

"There's a group I ride with from Westmont station. The talk is always about the latest disaster," says Hoag Levins, 67, of Haddon Township. "And every one of these people is carrying a phone."

Levins, a digital-media editor, also is a professional photographer. On March 21 he shot images of a chaotic scene in the PATCO subway station at 16th and Locust Streets in Center City, where a malfunctioning train car caused a foglike cloud to envelop the packed platform.

No injuries were reported, and PATCO's Twitter feed (@RidePATCO) indicates the transit agency posted some 20 tweets about the event. But Levins says employees, emergency responders, and passengers had almost no information.

At least those who follow fellow riders (such as @PATCOwatchers) "can feel like someone's listening," notes Web developer Joseph Russell, 29. "Even if we're just listening to each other."

The Collingswood resident commutes to Center City five days a week. He blogs at thegreengrass.net/patco and southjerseyist.wordpress.com, and believes there's still a deep reservoir of affection for PATCO.

Nevertheless, Russell says, "riders can't understand why some simple things can't get done."

PATCO does consistently post new schedules and alerts inside the stations. But announcements on the public address stations often are inaudible.

And the digital signs on the platforms have been dark for months and won't be working again until 2015 at the earliest.

"We've been very frustrated with communications," says Helen McKenna, of Oaklyn.

She has ridden PATCO for 25 years, and nine months ago began serving on the DRPA's unpaid advisory committee, whose monthly meetings are open to the public.

She also recently sat on a stopped train on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge as silence reigned from the driver and from PATCO. It was, she says, "terrifying."

But McKenna, who checks the PATCO website (ridepatco.org) daily and is among 26,000 recipients of its e-mail alerts, believes "there's been a very big improvement" in communications.

"We're working on it," says PATCO acting CEO John Hanson, who has personally distributed new schedules at stations.

He acknowledges that the agency "lacks the credibility" to persuade the public that service will improve - including service on its social-media platforms. He vows that it will.

But with the track on the south side of the Ben Franklin set to be taken out of service altogether for 60 days later this spring, things will get worse before they get better.

"The way we handled [problems] before was, we just ran a lot of trains," Hanson says. "But we can't use that model anymore."

Matt Gatti, 45, of Audubon, a cartographer, has taken the Speedline to work for 20 years. "Some of us old-timers remember the good old days, when PATCO did run well," he says.

Gatti worries the recent overcrowded trains may lead to a change in the typically "friendly" atmosphere on the line. He says: "I don't know when the tide is going to turn."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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