Lori Bayer has cracked the code to figuring out when her train home on SEPTA's Trenton Line will be late.
"If it rains too hard," she complained. "If the sun shines too bright."
Across the aisle from her, Pat Thomas laughs and says Bayer's being too harsh. The 5:37 p.m. train from Suburban Station, their usual ride, is on time about 80 percent of the time, he estimated.
He's being kind. The Trenton Line, one of the worst performing lines on SEPTA's Regional Rail, was punctual 73 percent of the time in December, according to SEPTA's internal reliability reports.
The Trenton Line is an extreme case, but just three months after management said SEPTA had made progress getting the trains to run on time, Regional Rail's overall performance has gotten steadily worse. SEPTA aims for a 90 percent on-time rate for all its Regional Rail lines. In August and September 2017, the transit agency met that goal for two consecutive months for the first time since the beginning of 2015.
"If you left for a while, you can come back," Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manger, said in a September interview. "We're good again."
He perhaps spoke too soon. In the last three months of the year, Regional Rail posted system-wide on-time rates of 87, 86, and 83 percent. In December, only three of the 13 lines reached the 90 percent target.
"This kind of mediocrity is a total team effort," said Matthew Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. "The things that have been blamed for problems earlier should have been addressed by now."
Knueppel said Thursday that he should have clarified in his September interview that while Regional Rail was much improved from where it was in summer 2016, when a third of its cars were out of commission due to structural defects, he could have predicted that the end of the year would be a bad time for rail performance. Leaves coat rails with a slippery residue that forces trains to run slowly every fall, and a particularly cold December with snow in 2017 led to problems with overhead wires and vehicle engines.
"November wasn't bad," Knueppel said. "October, not great. But not terrible. December was the month that was very tough for us."
Riders on the Trenton Line agreed their trains were noticeably late more often in December. But one night last week, passengers waiting at Suburban Station's Platform No. 4 got a pleasant surprise.
"It's never on time," said Demetrius Wylie, a grant administrator at University of Pennsylvania. "Except for today!"
The train arrived three minutes early. Once on-board, Wylie inserted his ear buds. Ellen Keiffer of Bensalem turned on a mini iPad in a pink case to an ebook she called a beach read, Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrand.
"I usually do my own thing," she said of the half-hour ride to Cornwells Heights. "It's my own time."
SEPTA would seem to have gotten improvements it has said in recent years that it needed. The installation of an advanced speed control system that required cars to be taken out of service is complete and with it has come more data about train movements than SEPTA has ever had. The structural problems that took a third of the rail fleet out of service in summer 2016 are long-since resolved. Infrastructure improvements have continued steadily in recent years.
The speed control system, Positive Train Control, continues to be a challenge for SEPTA, Knueppel said. It strictly limits speed and imposes conservative braking standards, making it nearly impossible for trains to catch up if they're running a little behind. Not ideal for a railroad playing catchup, though it is good for safety. PTC would have prevented Philadelphia's 2015 Amtrak derailment, and early information suggests it would have prevented an Amtrak derailment last month near Tacoma, Wash., as well.
"I've seen this with every signal system we put in," Knueppel said. "It takes time for the operators to get familiar and get comfortable with it."
Knueppel noted that a number of freak accidents in which cars were hit by trains also contributed to delays. And he said the weak on-time performance in recent months was strongly related to Amtrak's reliability problems. Data bears that out.
In the last three months of 2017, the three SEPTA lines than run almost entirely on Amtrak rails, the Trenton, Paoli/Thorndale, and Wilmington/Newark lines, operated with a 76 on-time rate. The other lines ran 10 percentage points better. Almost a third of the time train delays can be traced to an Amtrak-related issue, according to SEPTA's internal data. This is something SEPTA and Amtrak officials both said was the focus of intensive effort to improve, but by the end of 2017, there was little to show for it.