By Vukan R. Vuchic

SEPTA is going ahead with a major change to its Regional Rail service's line designations. It claims the change is necessary because some passengers mistakenly take a line such as the R5 toward Doylestown when they mean to take the R5 toward Bryn Mawr, in the opposite direction from Center City.

However, instead of improving passenger information with better signs and clearer indications of train direction, the agency is eliminating all the "R" designations. Instead, it's naming each line after one of 20 suburban stations where it terminates, such as Lansdale or Doylestown.

This change will not only confuse passengers by reducing rather than increasing the information available. It will also downgrade the system conceptually, from a network serving the entire region to a series of lines serving Center City - much like the inferior commuter system that existed before the opening of the Center City commuter tunnel in 1984.

It is useful to look at that history for a better understanding of the Regional Rail system's importance and potential. From 1950 to 1970, the federal government was covering 90 percent of the cost of constructing interstate highways in Philadelphia. Parking garages were being built in Center City to compete with suburban shopping malls. Meanwhile, mass-transit funding was minimal, and the rail system's 40-year-old "red cars" were seeing a predictable loss of passengers.

Faced with this increasing dominance of automobiles, the leaders of Philadelphia and the suburban counties founded the Passenger Service Improvement Corp. Its mandate was to upgrade the rail lines for the sake of the region's economic progress and livability.

The corporation and other government agencies put together funding for new rail cars - the "Silverliners" - and increased service. At the same time, they developed a plan to connect Suburban Station and the Reading Terminal with a four-track tunnel, creating an integrated Regional Rail network.

Many cities in Europe had built crosstown rail connections to attract new passengers, facilitate travel throughout their regions, and achieve greater operating efficiency. The Center City tunnel made Philadelphia the first city in North America to have a similarly integrated rail network. Built as part of the Market East, Gallery, and Convention Center complex, the tunnel upgraded what had been a set of commuter lines to a Regional Rail system allowing travel not only to and from Center City, but also among suburban towns and destinations.

To prepare for the integrated network and realize its potential for increased ridership, SEPTA contracted a University of Pennsylvania team under my guidance. SEPTA and our team developed the current set of clearly designated, diametric rail lines that allow passengers to travel from Jenkintown to the airport, for example, or from Swarthmore to Trenton/New York.

Unfortunately, though, SEPTA did not follow up with marketing to develop such travel through Center City, and it began to mix lines without adjusting their designations.

Now the agency is eliminating the designations of through lines entirely. Instead, it will offer trains that run randomly and confusingly from one side of the city to the other. Many trains will be routed one way on weekdays and another on weekends, so planning regional trips will be virtually impossible.

Sending trains randomly among lines will deprive passengers of permanent, clearly designated lines and therefore convenience. And the elimination of line designations will defeat the purpose of the Center City tunnel, which was to encourage trips throughout the region, not just to Center City.

SEPTA's board and other area transportation officials should review this change, invite input from outside experts, and develop an approach that will attract rather than deter potential customers. One option would be simply to designate lines according to direction - R5E and R5W, for example, for the eastbound and westbound R5 trains. Or each branch of a line could be given a number so that any combination of crosstown lines could be clearly designated - R3/R6, for example.

With the financial difficulties SEPTA is facing, it should renew its efforts to attract more riders through increased convenience, and to intensify marketing of its Regional Rail network, which is far superior in its design to that of any other city in North America.

Vukan R. Vuchic is a professor of transportation at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at vuchic@seas.upenn.edu.