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SEPTA platforms packed as commuters brace for railcar shortage

The evening commute on SEPTA's Regional Rail lines was a chaotic tangle of delays and overcrowding as the transit agency struggled to meet weekday capacity with one-third of its fleet down for repairs.

At Jefferson Station around 5:30 p.m., riders were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the rail cars' vestibules, and SEPTA police were blocking passengers from getting on. As night fell, some Twitter users said they were still making their way home, an hour, two hours, one nearly five hours after leaving work.

The transit agency said it remained unknown how long it would take to fix the 120 Silverline V cars that were pulled over the weekend. The agency was continuing to probe the design, materials and workmanship to determine what caused the cracks in the weight-bearing beams on the cars' undercarriages.

SEPTA's police chief, Thomas J. Nestel III, suggested that the shortages could last weeks.

>>How are the Regional Rail problems affecting your commute? Let us know using #PHLcommute.

Trains were running on a modified Saturday schedule, prompting headaches for commuters.

SEPTA said riders who had purchased passes would be able to get refunds or credit. People who bought weekly passes for the week that started Monday or monthly passes for July can get refunds by mailing passes by July 7. Riders who want to keep using their passes can get a credit, which can be redeemed on any pass purchases before Oct. 10.

When the news broke this weekend, SEPTA encouraged commuters to make alternate arrangements where possible – particularly using the Market-Frankford line, the Broad Street Line subway, and the Norristown High-Speed Line.

Many other Regional Rail riders were also caught by surprise. The announcement of the structural problems with the railcars came over the Fourth of July weekend, when many riders were perhaps not paying close attention to the news.

Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager, said at an afternoon news conference that the adjusted schedule had been put together quickly and some shifts could be made.  While there was some crowding and delays, he said, "for the most part, it worked."

SEPTA is continuing to talk with other transit agencies about leasing additional equipment, he said.

"This is a work in progress," Cairns said. "We are not going to know until we see a pattern how this plays out."

The family had just moved to Philadelphia from Ann Arbor, Mich., and doesn't yet have television or Internet, she said, so they hadn't heard about the problematic rail cars. She was at Jefferson Station later Tuesday morning with her son, who was waiting for a train to Newark en route to New York.

The whole ordeal has been a "wake up call," she said.

On the Main Line, riders at the Wayne station were busy checking phones, reading and waiting.

Jennifer Wagner, 54, of Newtown Square, decided to arrive at 7:40 a.m. to try and offset any delays. The train she hoped to catch was running late.

"When people get back to a regular schedule I think it's going to be very crowded," said Wagner, a Comcast executive. "I don't think they communicated very effectively at all."

Eric Riedel, 55, a researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said he might try the high-speed line if Regional Rail has too many delays.

"I don't have much choice, I gave up my parking spot at work," Riedel said.

Andrea Small, a lawyer from Collegeville, said she would consider driving or working from home because "This is totally insane."

Other riders were surprised to learn that the delays wouldn't just be a one-day problem.

At Jefferson Station, 24-year-old Michael Ward was making his way from his South Jersey home to work in Lansdale. He was going to be an hour late.

"I thought it was just today," he said of the long wait for a Lansdale/Doylestown Line train. Ward said he didn't have another way to get to work and would just deal with the new schedule.

Some trains were running behind, but uncrowded.

SEPTA employees also weren't immune to tough commutes.

Ivan Cruz, 61, was waiting an extra 40 minutes for a Fox Chase Line train due to the adjusted schedules. The power dispatcher said he was playing with his phone to pass time.

"You can't worry about things you can't control," he said.

Riders who weren't coming to or from work seemed to be more forgiving of the problems.

Caitlin Aloia, 18, was heading home to Doylestown after spending Independence Day visiting her sister in the city. She had to wait about half an hour longer than expected for her train, but said the railcar shortage wouldn't pose too much of a problem for the four or five trips into Philadelphia she takes each month.

"I imagine it would be pretty tough for a commuter," she said.

While many passengers took to social media to vent about their traveling woes, others seemed to try to find humor in the situation.

Staff writers Daniel Block, Nick Gallo, and Lauren Feiner contributed to this report.