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Rethinking SEPTA’s Regional Rail could benefit Philly’s neighborhoods | Editorial

Transit advocates want SEPTA to resume service and run more frequent trains on Regional Rail's Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd lines and cut fares for intra-city regional rail travel. The idea has been around for a while but its time may have come.

A Trenton-bound SEPTA Regional Rail train at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.
A Trenton-bound SEPTA Regional Rail train at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.Read moreDavid Swanson / Staff photographer

SEPTA’s fleet of buses, trolleys, subways, and rail cars offers enough options to attract 450,000 riders on an typical weekday. But is this network as efficient and integrated as it could be? Amid the pandemic, some transit advocates are expressing renewed interest in rethinking the suburban-oriented commuter system of 13 Regional Rail lines to improve and expand service in Philadelphia neighborhoods through better use of its existing infrastructure.

COVID-19 concerns led SEPTA to shut down seven Regional Rail lines April 9; trains began rolling again June 29 on all but the Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd lines. Alarmed that those two historically low-ridership lines might not be revived — SEPTA officials say they will be, although there’s no timeline yet — in July the 5th Square organization, which describes itself as an urbanist political action committee, posted a petition online calling for restoration and increased frequency of service on both lines. The petition also calls on SEPTA to lower the standard $5.25 one-way fare between most city stations along Regional Rail to match the $2.50 cost of single bus, trolley, and subway rides within Philadelphia. As of Tuesday the petition had more than 300 signatures.

» READ MORE: SEPTA Regional Rail is coming back, but many of its suburban riders are still working from home

Advocates say more frequent and less expensive service would relieve pressure on certain popular bus lines where social distancing can be difficult. Expanding service also would mean more options for city residents for whom Regional Rail stations are handy, but whose schedules designed to move suburban commuters into and out of Center City —are too infrequent to be practical. Given the number of stations within the city limits on most regional lines, lower fares could make Regional Rail far more attractive to essential workers and others who live and commute within Philadelphia. Advocates also note the the planned redesign of SEPTA’s bus network is an opportunity to improve bus-rail connections system wide.

SEPTA officials don’t reject the suggestions out of hand and note that the agency worked with 5th Square and others recently to revamp the fare schedule. They point out that unlike buses, trolleys, and subways, which have a single operator on board, Regional Rail trains require three-person crews and are inherently more more expensive to run. And suburban counties and communities that also rely on and help pay for SEPTA may oppose a fare cut for city riders only.

» READ MORE: Philly transit has great bones but could offer better service, one expert says

As with transit systems nationally, SEPTA ridership and revenues plunged by as much as 90% during the early weeks of restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Bus ridership has since risen to about 54% of pre-pandemic levels, while Regional Rail is at 15%. SEPTA projects a revenue loss of $300 million for the fiscal year that began July 1 and another 18 months before ridership fully recovers.

Amid so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, the transit agency seems wary of a proposal that could further reduce revenue, or boost costs. But uncertainty can also be an opportunity to try new innovative approaches, and to rethink and update complicated systems. The 5th Square proposal could greatly improve the value of the system, and deserves serious consideration.