On the last Friday in October, a months-long plague of SEPTA train cancellations became an epidemic.
That Friday, Oct. 28, SEPTA canceled 39 separate trains. The cut trains were largely supposed to run during that evening's rush hour, leaving an estimated 14,000 people seeking alternative rides home, or waiting at stations up to an hour for the next train to their destination. The cause for all 39 annulments was the same: a lack of people to operate trains.
In the later months of 2016, staffing problems have become the single most frequent cause of train annulments on the Regional Rail's 13 lines. From May to October this year, 596 out of 951 train annulments were caused by staffing problems, according to SEPTA records. That includes 236 trains canceled in July and August, when SEPTA was struggling with scheduling problems after taking a third of its rail fleet off the tracks due to systemic flaws in the railcars' construction. By comparison, from January 2015 to April of this year, a lack of personnel accounted for 138 train annulments.
The reasons for the recent outbreak of staffing problems are tied to the summer's woes, but those just exacerbated a preexisting worker shortage.
SEPTA has 194 engineers. It needs 213. There are also 247 conductors and 146 assistant conductors. Conductors have been promoted to engineers, creating shortages in the former group as well.
Retirements, promotions, and even a few sudden deaths among the engineer pool left the Regional Rail lines unexpectedly shorthanded, said Jeff Knueppel, who took over as SEPTA's general manager last fall. The union representing engineers, though, said SEPTA's management failed to react to the predictable collision of increased service and a lot of workers nearing retirement.
"This is something the previous people in charge neglected," said Richard Dixon, of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "I don't know what their reasons are, but they didn't do it."
SEPTA has 20 engineers in training, a 10-month process, and anticipates 20 new engineers on the job by May 2017.
"Once we get above 200 [engineers], we can really dramatically improve," Knueppel said.
SEPTA runs about 780 trains a week day, so even 39 annulled trains is a small percentage — 5 percent — of the whole. But canceled trains infuriate riders and contribute to an overall reliability problem SEPTA has been unable to shake this year. After SEPTA pulled the 120 railcars from service this summer, on-time rates plummeted to the low-60 percent range. SEPTA's stated goal is a 90 percent on-time rate. In November, with all but 33 of the flawed railcars repaired and back in service, SEPTA's trains were on time just 79 percent of the time. That month included a week-long city transit strike that further burdened the railroad.
"I like SEPTA, to be honest with you," said Kenzi Vizer, 24, who commutes on the Chestnut Hill West Line into Center City to work checking the credentials of health providers. "That's why I've been trying to work around and deal with it. Right now, this is it, and unfortunately it sucks."
The personnel shortage means longer days, and longer weeks, for railroad workers. Three-quarters of train crew members work six-day weeks, roughly a 67-hour workweek. It's been the way SEPTA does business and perpetuated in part because workers liked the overtime, but the lack of personnel has forced more workers to work longer hours, Dixon said. A Saturday that used to mean seven hours of work, he said, now keeps engineers on the job for 10 to 11 hours.
"We have no leeway in anything," he said. "Everything's been stretched to the max."
Because of seniority rules, newer hires often can't get scheduled vacation time. Instead, they use sick time or family medical leave, officials said. Workers are granted three paid sick days, but are using that and more even though they are losing pay and getting penalized at work.
"They take off sometimes because they're beat," Dixon said. "They're totally exhausted so they call out sick."
Most heavily affected are weekend trains. More than half of all trains canceled due to a lack of staff from May to October were scheduled for a Saturday or Sunday. Commuters aren't always the victims, but spotty weekend service hurts SEPTA's ability to promote Regional Rail as a viable alternative to driving to Philadelphia.
"They are the type of people who are really going to get put off by bad service," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, referring to people who might ride trains on the weekend.
The people affected, meanwhile, can take a dim view of workers using sick time for a day off.
"C'mon, we all get tired," Vizer said. "This is what they signed up for."
A labor expert, though, said workers wouldn't be willing to lose money and get penalized for the sake of a day off if they weren't seriously overworked.
"You can't just punish people into compliance," said Peter Cappelli, a University of Pennsylvania professor of management at Wharton. "I think it indicates that they really are burned out, that's for sure."
He also noted it was a management failure to not anticipate some of the present staffing shortage. Middle managers at SEPTA can and should, he said, be communicating with workers to get a sense of who is considering retirement.
Knueppel said he isn't going to rely on hiring alone to solve the staffing problem. He will move more workers toward a five-day workweek, he said, and SEPTA will soon unveil a new schedule to start Dec. 11.