By Matthew Mitchell

The news that on-time performance for SEPTA's commuter trains has finally climbed above 90 percent is a prime example of the "glass half-empty/glass half-full" dilemma. The 2006 figure represents real progress for a system that just a few years ago had the worst on-time performance in the country. But SEPTA still lags its peers in this and other aspects of service quality that matter most to passengers.

The industry standard for on-time performance is the percentage of trains reaching their destinations within five minutes of the scheduled time. No system will ever be perfect: Some trains get delayed by external causes, such as police activity or fallen trees. But systems in other regions do much better than ours.

SEPTA trains are late twice as often as those of peer rail systems. Metra in Chicago scored 96 percent, and New York's Metro-North recorded the nation's best - a 98 percent on-time record. Even the much-maligned Long Island Rail Road, busiest in the nation, managed an on-time performance of 93 percent.

On-time performance at NJ Transit increased last year, too, and is now more than 95 percent. The Northeast Corridor Line, which is NJ Transit's busiest and which shares tracks with Amtrak the entire way, was only 92 percent on time. The Atlantic City Line scored an admirable 96 percent.

The RiverLINE light-rail line from Camden to Trenton (which is reported separately from the commuter rail lines) also was 96 percent on time last year, thanks to good work by schedule planners and dispatchers. Operations on the RiverLINE can be like a jigsaw puzzle because of all the single-track segments on it.

Success in on-time performance comes from discipline, hustle, and smart dispatching. The traditional railroad culture promoted those values, but when commuter rail systems in the Northeast were handed over to local authorities in 1983, SEPTA opted for a different management system. Their railroad is run by the same people who run the city buses and subways.

The problem is exacerbated by SEPTA's corporate culture, which lacks accountability. Board members seemed surprised when Don Nigro, at the time president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, called the railroad's weak performance to their attention in 2003. Compare that to Boston, where the railroad's general manager had to resign last year because of declining service quality and reliability.

SEPTA cites safety reasons for the slower schedules, but that's not the whole story. Speed limits on the railroad are a function of how the tracks, switches, and signals are designed and maintained. Projects such as the switch and signal replacements between Wayne Junction and Glenside are an opportunity to optimize that infrastructure for faster service. However, SEPTA missed this opportunity, doing things like replacing the switches leading to the Fox Chase line with similar ones, instead of replacing them with higher-speed switches. In fact, SEPTA is the only Northeast commuter railroad that does not use high-speed switches.

Though it may be cheaper to just replace the infrastructure instead of improving it, money for those capital improvements comes out of a different budget from the operating budget whose deficit is causing SEPTA's present financial crisis. Investing capital now to speed up the system pays dividends year after year since a faster service is more efficient to operate and attracts more riders.

This shows how SEPTA treats the railroad as a burden thrust upon it, rather than as a valuable regional asset that can be enhanced to shape development and discourage sprawl. Perhaps that lack of vision is a cause of the Legislature's unwillingness to fund SEPTA adequately rather than an effect.

Bucks and Montgomery Counties are familiar with SEPTA's foot-dragging and lack of vision, epitomized in the collapse of the Schuylkill Valley Metro project. They're now making their own plans to restore service from Quakertown to Lansdale, Norristown, and Philadelphia. It's a shame that SEPTA has become such an obstacle to improving and expanding our region's rail system.

Imagine fast, reliable trains on an expanded system serving the growing parts of our region, with wide, comfortable seats, wireless Internet connections, and other amenities that attract passengers away from their cars. We can imagine it. Transit authorities elsewhere are not only imagining it, but making it real. Why won't SEPTA?