SEPTA's latest efforts to meld the technologies of the 19th and 21st centuries blink on a wall screen in the "war room" of its 19th-floor control center on Market Street.
A computer-generated image shows Train 4123 as a crayon-shaped glimmer of light on a web of tracks, on its way from Warminster to Philadelphia International Airport. It's five minutes behind schedule.
Next to that is another image, a list of trains on SEPTA's new "Train View" program, available now on your computer, cell phone and PDA. It shows Train 4123 as running on time. (Anything less than six minutes late is considered "on time.")
For several years, SEPTA has been shifting control of its operations to an electronic nerve center atop its Center City headquarters. The agency is moving from scattered control towers and dispatchers to a single location where operators at darkened work stations with giant wall displays and desktop computers keep track of trains, buses, power demands, cashiers and SEPTA police.
For Regional Rail passengers, the shift is bringing a campaign to change the way riders relate to their trains.
To accommodate its Train View program, SEPTA will try to persuade passengers to think of train numbers, not times. Instead of the 7:23 from Paoli or the 7:43 from Rosemont, SEPTA will refer to Train 9530 in its electronic postings.
The advantage will be that passengers will be able to get up-to-date information on trains, refreshed every two minutes. The disadvantage is that they will have to know the train number printed in the schedule or on the SEPTA Web site. The number is not on the train, or on the station monitors, or in audio announcements.
Train View has been available to computer users for about six weeks. SEPTA officials are now making it accessible by cell phone and PDA, with plans to provide cell phone or e-mail advisories to customers who will be able to register for as many as 10 train numbers.
"I'll be able to decide whether to leave the office now or spend five more minutes looking at my e-mail," said Elizabeth Mintz, director of communications. "But people will have to learn the train numbers."
Soon, perhaps within two months, SEPTA hopes to have its electronic train map online, so computer users can see what control center operators see: where trains are, in real time.
"We're trying to show the public where trains are on their computers," said Patrick Nowakowski, chief operations officer. "We're trying to share our information with our customers."
Even with the new computerized operation, SEPTA is still in the dark about 30 percent of its trains. Trains on tracks controlled by Amtrak, such as the heavily traveled R5 Paoli line, R7 Trenton line, and R2 Wilmington line, as well as part of the R8 Chestnut Hill West line, remain invisible to SEPTA computers and have to be tracked the old-fashioned way - by radio.
Nowakowski said that SEPTA and Amtrak are in discussions about providing computer access to trains on Amtrak's tracks.
SEPTA officials say the computerized control of trains and switches has saved time and money, and eliminated 50 positions - those employees were moved to other jobs. Some train engineers say it has caused more delays than it has prevented.
"It's a tremendous management tool," said Nowakowski. "Our on-time performance is getting better and better."
He said train operators may object because the computers allow managers to keep better track of workers: "It's Big Brother looking over your shoulder, and they don't like it."
Richard Dixon, an engineer who is general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen local, said the system is more suited for subways and trolleys than a complex rail network. He said the system did not accurately locate a train involved in a head-on crash near Roslyn last year that injured 30 people.
SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said that did not affect the control of the trains; human error was blamed for the accident, and the engineer of one of the trains was fired.
Tom Dorricott, a longtime SEPTA engineer and the legislative representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said that "from the beginning, this control center has been a failure. It was poorly designed. It has degraded service - you can see that from the on-time performance."
To avoid more delays, Dorricott said, SEPTA has eliminated some trains and curtailed service on some lines. "On a scale of 1 to 10, if before it was a 9, now I'd say it's a 4."
SEPTA's official data show on-time performance is back to pre-control center levels, after declines that started in 2002, the year the control center was beginning to be phased in.
In 2001, 91.1 percent of the trains were counted as on time; that dropped to 87.5 percent in 2002, 84 percent in 2003, 89.3 percent in 2004, 87.7 percent in 2005, and 90.7 percent in 2006. So far in 2007, 92 percent of trains have been on time, SEPTA says.
SEPTA spokesman Maloney said the on-time numbers before the advent of the computer system "were probably unreliable" because they were hand-recorded.
The system's 110 bus routes are also monitored from the control center, with global positioning system satellite navigation to keep track of the individual buses and to try to keep them properly spaced.
Nowakowski said bus on-time performance has improved about 7 percent since the GPS monitoring began about 18 months ago.
SEPTA's 350 cashiers and 250 police officers are dispatched from desks on the 19th floor, and the transit agency plans to eventually run its "smart stations" from there, as well. Those subway stations on the Broad Street, Market-Frankford and trolley lines are to get closed-circuit cameras, new lights, digital signs, and public address systems to permit direct announcements to waiting passengers from the control center.
The communication capability, Nowakowski said, will be a "tremendous leap forward."
The computerized system to control the Subway-Surface trolleys, in place for nearly two years, still does not function well enough to be used during peak hours, Nowakowski said. The computer system, designed by Bombardier Inc., of Montreal, cannot keep up with the flow of rush-hour traffic. "We're still debugging it," he said.
The effort to bring all the reins of control to one floor at SEPTA's headquarters is still a work in progress, Nowakowski said: "We're not where we want to be, but we've come a long way."
Tracking the Trains
To find your train, go to
Customers also may access Train View by typing the following addresses into a cell phone or PDA Web service feature:
mobile, or http://trainview.septa.org/
The mobile version offers a home page with a list of all routes; select the train line and then click on a train number for details.