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These are SEPTA's worst rail lines. Here's why

Certain SEPTA lines still have riders complaining - and they're the ones that share rail with Amtrak. They carry a substantial share of SEPTA rail commuters, and present one of the thorniest obstacles to improving on-time rates.

Since 2016, SEPTA Regional Rail trains have become more punctual. But many improvements remain to be done.
Since 2016, SEPTA Regional Rail trains have become more punctual. But many improvements remain to be done.Read moreJessica Griffin and David Swanson / STAFF

For commuters heading home to Bucks County and Trenton at the end of the workday, this was about the last thing they wanted to hear.

"SEPTA train service is suspended …" came the announcement over the speakers at 5:20 p.m. last Tuesday. Commuters gathering on the platforms looked up at the arrivals boards only to realize their trains weren't arriving. For the next hour, service was knocked out completely. They continued to see red — notices of cancellations and substantial delays even after the trains began moving again.

The culprit was a failed signal, but not SEPTA's — Amtrak's.

The Trenton line has more than 12,000 daily riders — and nearly 1 in 5 trains were late last month, according to SEPTA data.

Riders on the Wilmington/Newark Line endured late trains 17 percent of the time in September. The Paoli/Thorndale Line was late more than out of every 10 trips. Overall, these three lines account for 44 percent of SEPTA's ridership during the work week.

Those lines are the worst performers in the SEPTA system, and all have one thing in common: They share rails with Amtrak. The lines have been shared for decades and cover 108 miles of SEPTA trips, leaving the transit agency vulnerable to collateral damage. Regional Rail can be affected by events 300 miles away and by high-speed trains barreling through.

"You never know how late your train is going to be," said Elaine Kramer, 59, who rides the Wilmington route. "We're at their mercy and everybody feels the same way."

New timetables coming soon should be more accurate — a result of long-overdue technology that SEPTA finished installing this year — thus commuters won't be left waiting for trains that are chronically behind schedule. Amtrak and SEPTA also tout increased coordination in the past year to address conflicts that have contributed to delays. Still, sharing the tracks on four routes is perhaps the thorniest challenge to SEPTA's system-wide goal of 90 percent reliability. These are the routes that riders say are no better than a year ago — and overall, SEPTA's performance data shows these lines have remained just as late, or even later, in 2017 as in 2015.

Efforts to address conflicts with Amtrak are among improvements SEPTA has made to the Regional Rail in the last year — but also highlight the work that remains to be done since The Inquirer and Daily News last looked at the state of the commuter rail. Today, in the third day of a five-part series, we examine how Amtrak affects the ride. (Read part one and part two.)

The Amtrak-sharing lines have made halting progress over the course of the year, but unlike the rest of the rail, none of them has attained a 90 percent on-time rate in 2017. The other line that has not cleared that mark is the Lansdale/Doylestown line, which does not share Amtrak rail but is the northeast spur of the Paoli line and is affected by delays there. The Chestnut Hill West Line is the only one now consistently running above SEPTA's self-imposed 90 percent rate. It made an admirable post-Silverliner crisis recovery, going from a 53 percent on-time rate last August to 92 percent this August.

"Literally problems and construction projects that happen all the way up in Boston can sometimes have ripple effects all the way down," said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA general manager.

Last year, he described running trains on those lines as "flying blind."  SEPTA officials have historically had a surprising lack of information about how quickly or slowly Regional Rail trains operated on the Amtrak lines. Amtrak does not share all its train data with SEPTA, so the authority's officials have made scheduling estimates based on what they observed while riding the trains. The technique was imprecise, and so were the schedules.

Now, all trains are equipped with locator modems, installed with a new safety system. SEPTA now has comprehensive real-time information on how its trains are running on Amtrak lines: where they hit traffic, where they conflict with Amtrak trains, where boarding takes longer. Amtrak-related slow-ups are inevitable, but now schedules can be made more realistic.

"It's really the first opportunity we've had to have really good data," Knueppel said. "We have to understand why … [what] we thought were the way things are going [isn't] the way things are going."

In December, riders will get new schedules with changes targeting the routes shared with Amtrak. SEPTA anticipates the new timetables will bring additional improvements to the Paoli/Thorndale Line and the Trenton Line, which the real-time data has revealed is being slowed by traffic coming in and out of Trenton's Amtrak station.

There are also plans for SEPTA to switch over to the same scheduling software Amtrak uses within about a year, which would allow the two agencies to build schedules together, Knueppel said.

The push and pull between two very different rail services is part of the reason Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, believes there is a ceiling to how good SEPTA's on-time rate can get.

"Low 90s [percent] is realistic," he said. "High 90s is not."

Coordination between SEPTA and Amtrak historically has been wanting; last year, managers pledged to improve communication with Amtrak.

"Agencies are quicker to talk to each other…. Now as soon as one office knows something is going to impact the other, they will call immediately," said Shawn Gordon, a deputy general manager at Amtrak. "I think customers can expect for it to continue to improve."

During biweekly conference calls, both agencies discuss problematic delays and talk about how to improve. They meet in person four times a year. Gordon said that the recent meetings have taken the relationship to new levels and the agencies are making progress toward resolving their track-sharing issues.

Along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's signaling systems and catenary (the overhead wires that power electric trains) are a century old and need an upgrade. Amtrak spends about $300 million a year on good repair work on the corridor, but about $700 million and $900 million of work still is needed.

In the last two months, service has improved on the Paoli and Wilmington lines: Compared to September 2015, the Paoli line's on-time rate was up seven percentage points, to 85 percent, and the Wilmington line was up by 8 percentage points.

The Trenton line, which runs through the heart of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, continues to have trouble sustaining gains from month to month. But it too showed some improvement, bettering its September 2015 performance by four percentage points.

In the evening, Elaine Kramer tries to catch a 5:14 p.m. train at Suburban Station. There are times when the train is so late she'll just get on the next train at 5:38 p.m.

Improvements in the schedule would make it easier for Kramer, who is often worried about getting home on time to an elderly friend for whom she is a caregiver.

"If my train's late and I don't get home until 7, that throws everything out of whack," she said. "I don't know how I've been doing this commute for so long."