After decades of neglect, SEPTA has launched its most ambitious makeover of Regional Rail stations, from restoring the weather-ravaged, 120-year-old wooden Tulpehocken station in Germantown to building the shiny new steel-and-concrete edifice in Fort Washington.

More than 50 of SEPTA's 151 functioning stations are to be replaced, rebuilt, repaired, or at least repainted in the next five years. For some, it will be the first attention since they were built a century ago.

The cost is about $240 million, of which $37 million will come from federal stimulus aid; state and federal budgets will supply the rest.

SEPTA stations range from historic showpieces to utilitarian sheds. Some are busy hubs; some are virtually unknown even in their own backyards.

Deciding which get help and which are left to languish involves a competition of money, ridership, geography, and community clout. And, increasingly, SEPTA is looking for new uses for old stations - as coffee shops, restaurants, offices, and apartments - to help preserve them and save the agency money.

SEPTA inherited about 190 stations from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads when it took over Regional Rail operations in 1983. But with so many other issues demanding work, the stations got little attention or money.

"Demolition by neglect is a big problem," said Laura Siena, executive director of West Mount Airy Neighbors, the community group that was active in getting SEPTA to upgrade the Allen Lane station and rebuild its arching wooden pedestrian bridge, for $7.5 million.

"Much of focus in the early years of SEPTA's railroad operation was on signals and safety and operations," said Jeffrey Knueppel, chief engineer at SEPTA. "Now, we're going to do more and more construction."

Only about a third of the rail stations are in relatively good condition, he said, while another need "significant work."

"We know we need to do more on stations, and we're poised to do more," Knueppel said. "It's just such a difficult thing when you have so many stations and you're balancing so many different considerations."

Among the biggest projects under way are a $21.4 million rebuilding of the Wayne station on the R5 Paoli line, an $8 million new-station project in Ambler on the R5 Doylestown line, a $5 million expansion in Olney on the R8 Fox Chase line, and the Allen Lane project on the R8 Chestnut Hill West line.

Yesterday, the SEPTA board approved more station projects, including $2.3 million to replace the Langhorne station on the R3 West Trenton line, $2.6 million to rehabilitate the Morton and Clifton-Aldan stations on the R3 Media-Elwyn line and the Folcroft station on the R2 Wilmington line, and $1.9 million for painting and minor repairs of the nine stations (Chestnut Hill East, Gravers, Wyndmoor, Mount Airy, Sedgwick, Stenton, Washington Lane, Germantown, Wister) on the R7 Chestnut Hill East line.

The money for those projects is from the $191 million in federal stimulus aid that SEPTA has received this year, so the work is to begin within months.

Major projects being designed are historic reconstructions at Levittown ($24.8 million), Villanova ($21.8 million), and Wayne Junction in Germantown ($28.2 million).

SEPTA has its engineering, maintenance, and construction divisions working to build stations during the next five years in Primos ($14 million), Secane ($20 million), East Falls ($10 million), and Roslyn ($6 million) and do major rehabs at Ryers ($5 million), Hatboro ($4 million), and Willow Grove (undetermined).

"Train stations are real treasures to their communities," Knueppel said. "They're important to us, they're good for the riders, and they're good for the community."

But not all decrepit stations get help.

For every rehabbed Allen Lane station, there is an unrestored Germantown station, where paneless windows, rusty railings, and an overgrown lot attest to continuing decay.

Stations are more likely to get SEPTA's attention if they have lots of riders and politically active supporters. Or if the work will reduce stopping times and improve accessibility. Or if other work on the same line makes it convenient.

"Mount Airy is a pretty activist community. We're pretty good at advocating for ourselves," Siena said. "You have to get in front of your elected leaders, council people, state people.

"You need to demonstrate you care about the station yourselves and that you're willing to help maintain the station yourselves."

Robert Kaufman, a Mount Airy developer who, with his business partner, Ken Weinstein, leases the Allen Lane and Ardsley stations and would like to lease the Tulpehocken and Carpenter stations, said, "The squeaky wheels will get the grease."

For the Allen Lane station, one of the squeaky wheels was Steve Stroiman, head of the Mount Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch.

"For nine years, that train station has meant more than just a train station. The coffee shop there has become the heart of our community. So we had a lot at stake."

The Tulpehocken station in Germantown, a decayed architectural gem from about 1885, made SEPTA's fix-it list largely through the dogged efforts of one person: former Philadelphia teacher Jeff Smith.

Smith, a Germantown native, researched records, canvassed the neighborhood for support, drew up plans, met repeatedly with SEPTA officials, badgered elected officials, and got a small historic-preservation grant.

Then the federal stimulus funding was approved in February, and SEPTA suddenly had more money. The Tulpehocken station and its inbound passenger shelter will get $1.3 million, with the goal of converting the long-uninhabited station into an office and residence.

"Perseverance and persistence put us in a position where a little good luck paid off," Smith said.

Kaufman said SEPTA's leases of its stations, often with tenant-provided improvements, made historic stations less vulnerable to vandalism or neglect. And new uses can bring new life to communities, he said.

Leasing stations, even for nominal rents, saves SEPTA money by relieving it of maintenance obligations, said Gerald M. Maier, the agency's director of real estate.

Yesterday, the SEPTA board approved a $1-a-year lease to Whitemarsh Township of the old Fort Washington station, which a large new station replaced in 2007.

Chris van de Velde, township manager, said the municipality hoped to get the station fixed up and subleased to a "small eatery, retail facility, or a small office for an insurance company or a lawyer."

"We're optimistic we'll find a good use for it," van de Velde said.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.