For years, the Delaware River Port Authority was a celebrated hackatorium that mastered the fast-pork movement, while delaying improvements to its aging infrastructure. Almost half a billion dollars fueled powerful politicians' pet "economic-development" projects like stadiums, museums, the Convention Center, and a heliport. PATCO riders and commuters, the very funders of that pork through fares and tolls, often seemed an afterthought.

PATCO is finally getting much-needed maintenance to ancient tracks, alas, during this severe winter that tests customers in the best of circumstances. Speedy, small, and long beloved by its users, PATCO has become, to quote commuter William McLaughlin, "an unmitigated disaster."

The 14-mile transit system has been plagued by smoke billowing into cars, lengthy delays, and repeated engine breakdowns, including in tunnels and on the Ben Franklin Bridge, where only one track is in operation half the week. There have been 55 engine breakdowns during the first six weeks of this year, more than half of all last year's malfunctions.

To enter a PATCO station - that is, if the elderly and disabled can make it with busted escalators and elevators already cited by the Federal Transit Administration - is to enter a dead zone of information. It's the winter of disconnect.

If a station has a signboard, it informs commuters of the time and date, which they already know, and nothing else, like train delays. There's no cell service in the tunnels, the ones where cars are getting stuck.

Unlike SEPTA, which alerts passengers about problems through Twitter, PATCO uses social media sparingly, as though it were the good silver. Customer service has been pretty much an oxymoron.

Monday proved the mother lode of disasters. Half of PATCO's 14 elevators were out of service. A woman fainted at the perpetually overcrowded Eighth and Market station, a subterranean pocket of woe, and got caught in a closing door. Trains broke down on the Ben Franklin Bridge during morning and evening commutes. In the evening, passengers had to be evacuated through a tunnel from smoke-filled cars. It seems only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt.

Of the smoke coming into cars, "I would be concerned, worried, anxious if I were on a train and that happened," said PATCO acting CEO John Hanson, who had the exquisite timing to start his job four weeks ago as track work began and problems escalated. "I am not happy with the results we are producing."

Join the club of 38,000 unhappy daily passengers.

After years of growth, PATCO's ridership fell last year, The Inquirer's Paul Nussbaum reported. Commuters were complaining about delays in September, before repairs and winter began.

Work to the 34-year-old tracks is scheduled to last two years, with two extended periods of only one track in operation, not just half the week, but every day for up to two months - and that's if the schedule holds.

"It doesn't make sense to me that they're closing a track during rush hour. It's not well-thought-out," said McLaughlin, who uses two rail systems to commute from Northwest Philadelphia to his work as a clinical law professor at Rutgers-Camden. "There's a certain irony because people would always complain about SEPTA, but, overall, they're doing a pretty good job."

PATCO "should not have put off this work," said Tony DeSantis, who got stuck on the Ben Franklin Bridge in June with his granddaughter after a fire broke out on the track before the launch of repairs. "And someone is dropping the ball with communications."

This is from DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, who has long admired PATCO. When it first opened in 1969, "it was like space-age travel to me," something out of The Jetsons. The system is using those same cars that awed young DeSantis, which are finally being refurbished.

"I am very sorry these conditions exist right now," Hanson told me. "I am not defending what exists right now. We can do better."

Beginning construction during the winter, when engine trouble is more common, now seems foolhardy, as does operating only one track during Friday and Monday rush hours. Hanson is reviewing all options.

The once-flush DRPA is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office for those "economic-development" awards. And it is shackled with debt. In December, the former port-of-pork borrowed half a billion dollars to pay for bridge repairs and PATCO car improvements.

Half a billion dollars, you may recall, is almost the amount the DRPA spent in its drunken-sailor days on projects that did nothing to make the trains run safely or on time.

215-854-2586 @kheller