SEPTA fights a changing climate's threats to sink it
Wetter. Warmer. Wilder. That long-term weather forecast for the Philadelphia region means trouble for SEPTA, especially on its railroad, subway, and trolley routes.
Wetter. Warmer. Wilder.
That long-term weather forecast for the Philadelphia region means trouble for SEPTA, especially on its railroad, subway, and trolley routes.
A federal report released this month, which used SEPTA as a case study for the nation's transit systems, predicts that average temperatures in Philadelphia will rise by 3 to 6 degrees by 2050, with greater annual rainfall and more frequent "heavy precipitation events."
That means SEPTA can expect more flooding, sagging rail-power lines, mudslides, toppled trees, and washed-out rail beds.
Already, agency officials are fighting back against climate change, elevating equipment, adding subway pumps, buttressing hillsides, and adding backup power and control systems.
"We have to be prepared now for extreme weather," said chief engineer and deputy general manager Jeffrey Knueppel. "It's coming more and more and more, and you don't even know what form it will take."
He ticked off a list of recent weather records: 2010, snowiest ever; 2011, wettest ever; 2012, warmest ever; 2013, wettest summer ever; 2014, second-snowiest ever. Thirteen of the 21 highest Schuylkill floods at Norristown have occurred since 2003.
"Managing for that kind of situation is harder and harder," Knueppel said. "And when you have aged infrastructure and things that were designed for other times, it's that much tougher. Everything has changed."
In 2011, floodwaters from Hurricane Irene damaged 12 Regional Rail cars parked at a Trenton rail yard, causing more than $1 million in damage.
Snow in 2012 derailed a trolley on Route 15. Extreme heat buckled the rails on the Norristown High Speed Line in 2011. The same year, floods washed out rail beds near Jenkintown. In 2014, snow-laden trees toppled onto rail-power lines on the Doylestown Line.
Other transit agencies face similar challenges.
Boston's MBTA was snowed to a standstill this winter, forcing the agency to bring in prison inmates to clear the rails and prompting the abrupt resignation of general manager Beverly Scott.
NJ Transit saw about a third of its rail fleet damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 after the agency parked its trains in a low-lying maintenance yard near the Meadowlands, resulting in more than $100 million in damage.
New York City's MTA was inundated by Sandy, with some bridges and subway tunnels out of action for weeks or months, leaving the federal government with a $3.8 billion repair bill.
Responding to increasing flooding in its subway tunnels, SEPTA has raised sidewalk vents along much of the Broad Street Line to prevent rainwater from sluicing into stations.
SEPTA put stilts under 25 railroad signal huts along flood-prone rail lines such as the Manayunk/Norristown Line, which runs along the Schuylkill. The huts, which house electronic equipment that controls rail signals and switches, have been raised to the height of a projected "500-year flood," said Erik Johanson, manager of strategic business planning for SEPTA.
Last year, SEPTA built a new siding at the Miquon station on the Manayunk/Norristown Line to allow trains to turn around there and operate a truncated schedule when flooding prevents them from continuing on to Conshohocken and Norristown.
Over the next five years, aided by $87 million from the Federal Transit Administration, SEPTA will spend $116 million on seven projects to battle the effects of extreme weather:
Railroad power reinforcement, $42.7 million. To reduce vulnerability of uninsulated cables and aging power systems, this project will insulate 99 miles of cables, upgrade 24 motor generators, and install a new signal substation at Doylestown.
Rail embankment stabilization, $25 million. To reduce mudslides, SEPTA will reinforce the slopes on three 19th-century railroad cuts in Montgomery and Delaware Counties that serve the Warminster, West Trenton, Lansdale/Doylestown, and Media/Elwyn Lines.
Jenkintown flood mitigation, $20 million. To reduce frequent flooding and washouts near the Jenkintown rail hub, SEPTA will build a new culvert and water-detention system just south of the Jenkintown train station and rebuild or replace a bridge north of the station.
Ancillary control center, $12 million. SEPTA will build a backup control center at the Frankford Transportation Center to allow dispatchers to continue to operate bus, train, trolley, and subway service if the main control center at SEPTA's Center City headquarters is shut down by power failure or other calamity.
Manayunk/Norristown Line shoreline stabilization, $6 million. On 2.5 flood-prone miles of the line along the Schuylkill in Montgomery County, this project will buttress the riverbank to reduce flooding and washouts of the railbed.
Subway pump room emergency power, $5 million. To prevent flooding in subway tunnels and stations during a power failure, this project will install backup power systems for the pumps.
Sharon Hill Line flood mitigation, $5 million. To reduce frequent flooding at a chronic trouble spot on the Route 102 Sharon Hill trolley line in Delaware County, SEPTA will build a pumped drainage system where the line dips under a freight rail bridge.
Much of SEPTA's weather-protection effort is aimed at the transit system's oldest components, because they tend to be the most vulnerable, Knueppel said.