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SEPTA seeks fresh start for Regional Rail in 2017

As 2016 winds down, SEPTA is making a pledge to improve rail service after months of troubles that caused delays, overcrowding, and rider frustration.

"There's no excuse," Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager, said in an interview this week. "We're working to get out of this."

The transportation authority posted Friday morning an overview of all the changes on tap for Regional Rail in 2017. The information includes updates about hiring, improved communications, and installation of the federally mandated automatic braking system, Positive Train Control. Much of the package is information SEPTA has already been public about, but it is a one-stop shop for riders looking to learn the state of the railroad.

"This is something we've been asking for," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. "Any business has to market itself."

SEPTA was plagued by late trains throughout 2015. The agency wants 90 percent of its trains to run on time, but last year the overall on-time rate was 83 percent. Some improvements in the first half of this year were derailed when 120 railcars were pulled from service after inspectors found flawed parts in their undercarriages. With the loss of one-third of the fleet, on-time rates dropped to the low-60 percent range. All but 33 of those railcars are now repaired, but ongoing scheduling problems, a city transit strike, and the perennial complaint of leaves on the tracks kept the on-time rate at 79 percent in November, officials said.

The first step to improving the on-time performance, SEPTA officials said, is a new schedule expected to start Dec. 11. The schedule changes will affect the Airport, Chestnut Hill West, Fox Chase, Manayunk/Norristown, Lansdale/Doylestown, Warminster, and Wilmington/Newark lines, SEPTA said. Changes will include earlier trains on some lines and will fill some gaps in service for commuters leaving Philadelphia, Mitchell said.

A contributing factor to SEPTA's unreliability is a staffing shortage, and it has added four training managers to help prepare 20 new engineers, the largest class in its history, who are expected to be on the job by May. The agency plans to add about 23 new conductors to its crews between now and January.

SEPTA said it was near completion of Positive Train Control installation, adding that the system will be on all the rail it owns by January. The agency is one of the first passenger railroads in the country to install the system.

Mitchell said that despite rider complaints, SEPTA had improved service in the last 10 years and that management recognizes the variety of passengers who use the system. He contrasted regular commuters, who are most put off by tardy trains, to irregular weekend riders, who may decide to not come back for a second trip if they encounter a train cancellation.

"You just have to take care of one piece at a time and have management pay a good deal of attention to it," Mitchell said.