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Regional Rail One Year Later: Is SEPTA there yet?

Im 2016 SEPTA's regional rail was a mess. A year later, SEPTA has made some big improvements, but work remains to be done and some riders say they haven't seen benefits.

Riders still complain. Trains on some of the most heavily used lines still struggle with lateness.

But SEPTA's Regional Rail trains have been running on time across all 13 lines more often than in the last two years, according to a fresh analysis of SEPTA data a year after the Inquirer and Daily News published a report documenting dismal on-time rates and the railroad's myriad problems.

SEPTA officials and riders agree on at least one thing: More work remains.

In August and September, the agency met its self-imposed goal of a 90 percent on-time rate for two consecutive months for the first time since the beginning of 2015, although that figure slipped below 90 percent in October, SEPTA said last week. (SEPTA's definition of punctual is arriving within six minutes of the scheduled time.)

In July 2016, SEPTA was rocked by a crisis when its Silverliner V rail cars failed, knocking out a third of its fleet, and serious delays persisted for three months. SEPTA pledged improvements, and has succeeded in restoring on-time rates to pre-crisis levels. Addressing the reliability problems predating the debacle, however, has been more challenging.

Riders give the agency mixed reviews.

"Beats the hell out of driving," said Matthew White, a Paoli/Thorndale rider who said he thinks the trains are running "much better" compared with last year.

"The peak trains are more reliable, but that's coming at the cost of the quality of the off-peak stuff, [which] is maybe a little less predictable," said Sanjay Modi, who takes the West Trenton line.

"The morning delays are bad enough that if I have a meeting to get to at 9 o'clock I have to take a much earlier train to be sure to arrive on time," said Alison Evans, who rides from Doylestown to 30th Street Station.

The Inquirer and Daily News assessed SEPTA's progress by reviewing fresh operations data and interviewing and re-interviewing riders, experts, officials, and employees. Among our findings:

  1. All 13 Regional Rail lines have improved since January. The changes since last September, the rock bottom of the Silverliner crisis, are dramatic. The Manayunk/Norristown line went from a 46 percent on-time rate in September 2016 to 93 percent in September 2017. Likewise, the Media/Elwyn line went from being punctual 56 percent of the time to 95 percent in that time period.

  1. Some lines are consistent high performers. Nine out of 10 trains on the Fox Chase line have come in on time since April. The Airport line has been at 90 percent or better since December, reaching 96 percent in September, a high for the entire system.

  1. The Paoli/Thorndale, Wilmington/Newark, and Trenton lines — which all share rails with Amtrak trains — are the system's worst performers. Serving 44 percent of SEPTA's workday riders, they have remained just as late, or even later, on average in 2017 as in 2015 (the most recent year of data available without the interference of the Silverliner crisis).

The rail has fine-tuning ahead as it emerges from a disruptive and challenging period — something SEPTA general manager Jeff Knueppel has acknowledged. In addition to weathering the Silverliner crisis, Regional Rail had to continue operating even as it was installing the critical speed-control system and managing a 50 percent ridership increase since 2000, taxing its capacity. Other projects are in the works, including the SEPTA Key fare-card system that all rail riders will be using next year, the delivery of 45 new multi-level rail cars by 2019, and the repair and replacement of miles of aging wire.

Train ridership growth was at an 18-year high in 2016, but the Silverliner crisis cost SEPTA: As of May, Regional Rail trains carried an average of 63,000 people a day, 5 percent fewer riders than at the same time in 2016. A functioning commuter rail system has important benefits for the region, public officials said, from making city streets safer to diverting commuters from traffic-clogged highways.

Now, Knueppel is out to win over his current customers and win back his old ones.

"If you left for a while, you can come back," Knueppel said in a September interview. "We're good again."

Timely Changes

Regular rail riders have long complained that SEPTA's schedules didn't conform to the realities of the railroad.

A safety system recently installed in all trains and fully activated this year has had the double effect of standardizing speeding and braking and giving SEPTA real-time data about certain train lines. Both of those things have allowed SEPTA to re-time routes in a string of schedule changes – in December, January, April and September, with yet another coming this December.

Those changes have already contributed to various lines' improving on-time rates. On some lines, that did mean making travel time longer, but the schedules should now be more accurate, Knueppel said. In December, another round of new timetables will be released targeting SEPTA's worst-performing routes — those that share 108 miles of rail with Amtrak.

"You never know how late your train is going to be," said Elaine Kramer, 59, who rides the Wilmington route. "We're at their mercy, and everybody feels the same way."

Those SEPTA lines that compete for space on Amtrak rails — Paoli/Thorndale, Wilmington/Newark, and Trenton — can be delayed by events originating 300 miles away and by the national carrier's high-speed trains as they roar through the region. The Lansdale/Doylestown line, the northeast spur of the Paoli/Thorndale route, also can be affected.

SEPTA and Amtrak have spent the last year improving coordination, but until recently the biggest challenge was a surprising lack of information about how quickly or slowly Regional Rail trains operated on the Amtrak lines. Amtrak does not share all its train data, so SEPTA officials had to estimate schedules based on observations made while riding trains. The technique was imprecise, and so were the schedules.

Now, SEPTA has real-time information on how trains are running on Amtrak lines: where they hit traffic, where they conflict with Amtrak trains, where boarding takes longer.

That real-time data has also allowed SEPTA to modernize its app, which now refreshes train locations every 30 seconds. More updates are coming; it is a big step up from management's mixed messages about technology and communication last year.

"One thing I commend SEPTA on is their continued innovation, including the SEPTA app that tells you real-time locations of buses and trains," said Tia Martin, who checks times for her train to Norristown and subsequent bus connection on the app.

Working on the Railroad

While riders have complained of conductors who don't answer questions or are uninformed, SEPTA workers, union leaders, and managers have cited their own difficulties on the railroad. Last year, SEPTA said increasing staffing was a priority.

Each train typically aims for a crew of four — an engineer, who drives the train, a head conductor, who has overall responsibility for the train, and two assistant conductors. In the last year, SEPTA has bolstered its ranks with 60 assistant-conductor hires. By next spring, it hopes to hit its target of 213 engineers.

Because aspiring head conductors and engineers must work as assistants first, those hires could beef up future head conductor ranks; SEPTA is 24 head conductors short of its budgeted target of 273.

Train cancellations due to manpower issues are significantly down: In the last six months of 2016, staffing problems caused  two-thirds of train cancellations, a trend highlighted by the Inquirer and Daily News in a December report. In the first six months of 2017, they caused less than one-third. Hiring has also relieved some workers' burdens, and train crews have been given longer breaks at the end of each trip, helping them start the next trip on schedule.

Workers complain that even with the new hires, there is still a need for more people on the railroad, and SEPTA said hiring is ongoing.

Efforts to reset the historically fraught relationship between employees and management evidently have had some success, according to interviews with union leaders and SEPTA officials. One factor was the creation last year of an independent Railroad Operations division that separated rail from city transit; the divisions have separate sets of issues. Michael Dobson, the 33-year SEPTA veteran heading that new division, said he has worked to communicate more frequently with workers and labor leaders.

"The set of managers that are in now, we're going to say we have a guarded optimism," said Don Hill of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "It's definitely far better than it was, but it's nowhere near where it needs to be."

Getting there?

That is echoed by nearly everyone who talks about SEPTA — primarily riders, but also transportation experts and Knueppel himself.

Knueppel said he planned to talk to his workers about communicating better with passengers. He acknowledged that not every rider will feel the improvements yet

Resolving issues at the "macro level…. that took an enormous amount of energy and teamwork to pull that back together," Knueppel said.

Bringing back lost riders and winning over dissatisfied regulars means a juggling act to keep workers, equipment, and schedules in sync day after day. Knueppel acknowledged the challenge is maintaining momentum.

"The whole deal now is making this happen over and over and over every day and keeping this moving," Knueppel said.

"We're excited by where we're at, but we're not satisfied."