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Urban Warrior | SEPTA work, excuses derail a neighborhood's sleep

JIM OYER has lived for 30 years on a leafy Jenkintown street with SEPTA train tracks behind his house. He's used to the occasional inconvenience of track work, especially at night.

JIM OYER has lived for 30 years on a leafy Jenkintown street with SEPTA train tracks behind his house. He's used to the occasional inconvenience of track work, especially at night.

So when a SEPTA diesel engine hauled a maintenance car to a noisy stop behind his house at 1 a.m. in mid-October - and it sat there idling until 5 a.m. - Oyer once again chalked it up to living next to railroad tracks.

The train returned on most weeknights, week after week.

Oyer said that the engine and railcar would idle loudly for four hours in the same spot on the R3 West Trenton tracks, just northeast of the Jenkintown-Wyncote station. He saw no work being done by SEPTA employees.

After two weeks, Oyer called SEPTA to complain and was told that the train belonged to CSX, a freight-rail company. But CSX quickly sent Oyer a letter, pointing out that the tracks behind his house are used by SEPTA.

Oyer waited a few more weeks and then called SEPTA again to complain. On Dec. 1, a supervisor called back to tell him that the train had been used to clear tracks of the oily residue left behind when fall leaves are crushed by passenger cars. He was assured that the train would be moved somewhere else.

Still the engine rumbled through the early-morning hours.

Finally, last week, the SEPTA supervisor told Oyer that the train had nothing to do with clearing tracks of leaves. In fact, SEPTA didn't know why it was there.

Fed up, Oyer last week e-mailed the Daily News and called the Jenkintown Police Department.

SEPTA now has a new story, telling me that it is replacing the 76-year-old overhead wires that power trains on about a half-mile of tracks, including the stretch behind Oyer's house. The work, SEPTA said, is done in 100-foot increments at night to allow for train service during the day.

The work is scheduled to be completed in mid-January. Some of it will be done after Jan. 5 during the day or with a less-noisy maintenance vehicle at night.

Oyer remains unconvinced. Who could blame him? He hasn't had a decent weeknight of sleep in 2 1/2 months. And SEPTA is on its fourth version of events here. Oyer wonders how SEPTA workers can be completing a job all this time with a train that never seems to move and rarely has any lights on.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney explained that the train moves very slowly with work lights focused on the power lines.

Maloney said he was concerned that Oyer had "contacted us three times and got three different answers." But then Maloney offered yet another version of events - SEPTA claims Oyer had been told about the work when he first called to complain but kept insisting the answer was wrong.

Oyer offered a quick translation for that theory: "They're trying to cover their ass."

None of this comes as much surprise to Joanne Gearhart, who lives on the same street as Oyer and helped start the West Jenkintown Association to get information from SEPTA during its last project in the neighborhood.

Gearhart said neighbors have been complaining recently about the noise, including one who woke up with a start one night, mistaking the racket for an exploding furnace in her home.

"We didn't get any heads-up on this," complained Gearhart, who said that the diesel engine has been idling behind her house before the power-line work starts most nights. "It's a nightmare for us to live through."

Gearhart has been complaining for weeks to SEPTA's community-relations office, which gave her more accurate information than Oyer was receiving.

Which leaves me wondering: Why weren't SEPTA staffers talking with each other about the noisy problems their agency was creating in an otherwise quiet neighborhood? *

E-mail or call the Urban Warrior tip line at 215-854-4810. For past columns: