Train whistles have sounded at the Secane station — near where Upper Darby, Ridley, Springfield, and Morton meet — since the 19th century, when grand country homes gave weekend respite to the Philadelphians who could afford them.
A squat stone train station has greeted those travelers there from 1871 to today, as those communities transformed into dense inner-ring suburbs where the railroad shares space, uncomfortably, with a tangle of busy roads. A change was long needed.
SEPTA gave a new Secane station a proper unveiling Thursday morning. Its long ramps make it accessible to people with wheelchairs, and long, high platforms flush with train doors are designed to speed boarding and consequently minimize the traffic delays that have become a daily frustration on Providence Road and Bishop and South Avenues.
“Everyone knew the impact of this train station here when the gate would come down,” Upper Darby Mayor Thomas Micozzie said after the ribbon-cutting event.
The old station required gates at Providence and Bishop, officials said. Now traffic will have to wait only on Providence. The entrance to the new station is down the block from the intersection of Providence and South Avenue, meaning fewer pedestrians will cross at the busy intersection.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony highlighted the value the new Regional Rail station would bring to the more than 550 people who board there every work day, but it also was a chance for transit officials to use an attractive new station as a backdrop for the message that the investments the agency makes, as Chairman Pasquale E. “Pat” Deon said, “pay dividends for years and years to come.”
It’s a talking point that SEPTA and its allies in the state legislature will be sounding with increasing frequency in the coming years. The primary source of capital funding for public transportation in Pennsylvania has been annual payments of $450 million from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but that is dropping to $50 million a year in 2022. SEPTA depends on the state for about $232 million, almost a third of its capital budget.
Transportation experts are nervous about whether the legislature will commit to making up the difference. State Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards, rumored to be a candidate for the soon-to-be vacant general manager position at SEPTA, has said maintaining the $450 million funding is insufficient and is pushing for a $650 million stream that she says will allow public transit in Pennsylvania to thrive.
Transportation officials and advocates, including Democratic State Rep. Mike Zabel of Drexel Hill, already are arguing that the state needs to again make a long-term financial commitment to transit.
The Media/Elwyn Line, which serves Secane, has been a beneficiary of state transportation funding. The route, which carries about 11,000 riders each work day between Elwyn and Philadelphia, has received two new power substations, a new viaduct at Crum Creek, modernized overhead wires, and progress toward restoring train service to Wawa.
Upper Darby has sustained some of its heritage, from preserving the old train station, ensuring that the old manors within walking distance of the train station remain single-family dwellings, and incorporating into the new station walkways under the tracks that Micozzie noted were built to provide passage for cows.
Erecting the station, though, did require some significant changes. SEPTA bought and demolished four homes where a new 100-spot parking lot now exists, and two other homes have been purchased to make space for an eventual addition of 200 more spots.
Many riders walk to the station, said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA’s general manager, and the transit agency included a pedestrian tunnel, which caused significant delays for the project. The amount of water to be removed to build the tunnel was wildly underestimated in groundwater testing, according to documents, and adjusting for the correct amount delayed the project from its original completion date of August 2017 and upped the cost to $17.3 million from the original $11.9 million.
Micozzie described the station upgrade as a significant element in Upper Darby’s master plan. Laurel Manor, the apartment complex that brackets both sides of the train station, recently underwent major renovations, the mayor said, and the township is positioned to be an attractive alternative for young professionals working in Philadelphia but looking for cheaper housing.
“There are a lot of homes that would bring people out from the city,” he said.
He said he expects the benefit of the upgraded station to largely come in the form of new residents, but businesses in the area also hope to get a boost. Nearby businesses borrow their names from the station, but say they don’t get many commuters among their customers.
The owner of the Train Stop Restaurant, a diner with decor out of the 1970s, hopes new riders discover his place.
“I hope so,” he said. “It looks much better.”
The Secane Station Tavern, a dimly lit watering hole that serves minimal food but allows customers to bring in pizzas or Chinese food from neighboring restaurants, used to get a lot of customers from the train, but no longer.
“I’m wondering why we don’t get them,” said George Carr, a bartender. “We’re right here.”