Ridership numbers won't be available until next week, according to SEPTA spokesman Manny Smith, but staff had a smooth first night. No crimes were reported on the two lines, populated by "a lot of young people" who stuck mostly to the El, especially around Old City, Fishtown and Northern Liberties, Smith said yesterday.
"I think the people of Philly have asked for this service, and we've heard them," said Ron Hopkins, SEPTA's assistant general manager of operations. "It's a very vibrant city, and we're stepping up to see if this is something that works for people."
SEPTA suspended overnight subway service in 1991 as a cost-cutting measure, citing low ridership, Hopkins said. At that time, an average of 3,600 people rode the late-night trains every day, according to data from SEPTA.
In the intervening years, the transit authority switched to a shuttle-bus service along the subway routes, which shut down between midnight and 5 a.m. An average of 4,500 people now take those buses every night, a spike that prompted SEPTA to re-examine overnight trains.
SEPTA got more inspiration from Boston's MBTA, which tripled ridership when it extended its subway service to 3 a.m., according to Smith.
"Twenty years ago, people weren't staying out until 2 or 3 in the morning," Hopkins said. "We've seen a lot of changes to our ridership since then, and we think this will be an attractive option to the people who rely on those buses."
People such as Jade Patrice, who caught the El near 15th and Market about 1:30 a.m. yesterday with her boyfriend.
"Those buses are terrible and smelly," she said. "People are packed up against each other, they get angry, and fights break out. At least you can spread out on a train."
Other early adopters of the Nite Owl trains - to run every 20 minutes on Friday and Saturday nights through Labor Day - said the extended schedule gives them more freedom.
"I used to feel rushed all the time," Jessica Brindisi said yesterday morning as she rode the El to 69th Street Station with friends. The group had just come from Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano bar in Center City, and were heading home to Havertown.
"If you missed the train, you'd have to take a cab or wait an hour for the bus," she said. "Who the hell wants that?"
Brindisi said she wasn't worried about safety late at night.
Neither is SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel.
He said the most common incidents on the Nite Owl buses are booze-fueled brawls, as well as the occasional cellphone theft. But with two Transit Police officers on each train, Nestel said he's confident that safety won't be a concern.
"The dynamic of the city has changed since the early '90s," he said. "Philly police have done a great job of reducing crime topside, and that reflects positively on the underground."
Part of the $450,000 earmarked by SEPTA for the new overnight train service is going toward boosting the numbers of cops working later at night, Nestel said.
That money is also going toward training rail operators to take fares: Cashiers will be present only at higher-volume stops.
Maurice Bey, 32, SEPTA's youngest rail operator, didn't seem fazed yesterday by his new responsibility.
"We all have to deal with the public at some point, so it's just a matter of getting back into it," he said, as riders handed him tokens and cash.
As Bey's train rolled east toward the Frankford Transportation Center, riders started to trickle in - not many, but more than what might be expected at 3 a.m.
One woman, who declined to give her name, cradled a bag of groceries on her lap and thumbed through a magazine - she had visited a friend on the way home from Whole Foods and had lost track of time.
"I didn't know they were running trains this late," she said. "This makes life so much easier."
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