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SEPTA looking to lure back riders lost to schedule cuts

When SEPTA lost a third of its Regional Rail fleet this summer. the service headaches that followed pushed Brittany Redfern off the train.

When SEPTA lost a third of its Regional Rail fleet this summer. the service headaches that followed pushed Brittany Redfern off the train.

"It was really unreliable," she said. "They would skip some of the small stations."

It was impossible for the 26-year-old Philadelphian to get her 5-year-old son to day care and make it to work as a claims analyst on City Avenue by train. She initially took the bus while paying someone to drive her son, and then just drove herself.

Redfern is among thousands who gave up on Regional Rail because of summer's scheduling debacle, and SEPTA wants them back.

SEPTA's overall ridership dropped 14.8 percent while the cars were out of service compared with the same time last year, costing the authority $7.48 million in fare revenue. SEPTA's newest cars, 120 Silverliner V's, were sidelined in July after inspectors found design and manufacturing flaws in key weight-bearing beams.

Repairs are progressing and, after three months of diminished service, Regional Rail returned to its regular weekday schedule Oct. 3. Today 62 Silverliner V cars, more than half, are back in service.

SEPTA's plan to bring people back to Regional Rail is to focus on fundamentals, said Rich Burnfield, treasurer and deputy general manager.

"Schedules, reliability, I think those are two critical steps in terms of regaining ridership," Burnfield said..

Redfern is pregnant with twins and plans to keep driving for the foreseeable future, she said, but she expects to come back to the train.

"As long as the trains are on schedule," she said, "I'm on board."

SEPTA is looking at other ways to attract riders, though, Burnfield said, not just on Regional Rail but throughout the system. Two current initiatives might help. SEPTA plans to have improved real-time information available by early next year, and is continuing to expand SEPTA Key, its smart fare card system. The cards are expected to work on Regional Rail in 2017, Burnfield said.

Also on the horizon, though, is a fare increase. SEPTA postponed a scheduled rise this year to give riders a chance to get used to SEPTA Key, but Burnfield said the increase will happen in July 2017. The exact amount per passenger has not been determined, SEPTA said, though it will be tied to the consumer price index and cost of living increases. The authority is estimating it will raise about $10 million, less than 1 percent of the total operating budget, to pay for day-to-day costs such as labor, fuel, and electricity. Fares last increased in 2013.

The fare increase will almost certainly set back ridership slightly, but should result in increased revenue, said Erick Guerra, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of city and regional planning. The reaction to the fare increase depends on how it is used, he said.

"If that money is not used to improve quality of service, you would expect ridership to go down," he said.

Typically, returning to the ridership numbers SEPTA served before the cars were pulled - about 65,000 riders per weekday - could take up to three years, said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. But SEPTA's ridership was increasing before the summer, and he said he thought the agency could make up ground quickly. Some riders won't return, he said, but turnover in the region means new riders.

"Those people who are coming in," Mitchell said, "did not have the experience of the difficult summer of 2016."

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