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Eagles parade transit plans draw plaudits, criticism

Public transit in the Philadelphia region is radically adjusting its schedules to move as many people as possible to the Eagles parade Thursday. That's going to leave plenty of others without a ride, though.

A Regional Rail train arrives as commuters wait on the platform at 30th Street Station.
A Regional Rail train arrives as commuters wait on the platform at 30th Street Station.Read moreTOM GRALISH

The word being used among transit experts to describe the region's plan to move people on public transportation during the Eagles parade Thursday is conservative.

Whether that's a compliment or a condemnation depends on whom you ask, but the result will make it difficult for tens of thousands of workers to reach their jobs.

Big employers, city government, the courts, schools, and even some post offices are shutting down, turning Thursday into an unofficial holiday for much of the region. The University of Pennsylvania, the region's largest private employer with almost 40,000 workers, and Independence Blue Cross, with about 3,000 workers, for example, are telling most workers to simply not bother coming to their jobs at offices in the city and nearby. Boeing, which has 4,000 employees in the area, is allowing workers to take the day off with their manager's approval.

"With the transportation anxiety, they're advising people to stay home," said Maria Rodriguez, an underwriter at Independence Blue Cross who plans to use the day off to join the Eagles celebration.

SEPTA's approach is clearly a reaction to what happened at the Phillies' World Series parade in 2008.

"That was not exactly a good day for SEPTA," the transit agency's general manager, Jeff Knueppel, said at a news conference Tuesday.

SEPTA largely attempted to maintain regular service that day and then adjusted on the fly. The result was a transportation mess, particularly on Regional Rail. Baseball fans filled the trains at their outermost stations, so anyone trying to board closer to Philadelphia watched train after train already at capacity speed past them. People waited hours for trains. Many never made it into the city at all.

This time, SEPTA hopes to avoid a repeat of that experience. During Tuesday's comments, Knueppel emphasized the numbers that constrained what SEPTA can do Thursday and shaped the parade plan. The El and Broad Street Line together can move about 65,000 people an hour. The Norristown High Speed Line carries 180 people per car. The 94 trolley cars in the region carry a total of 7,520 at any one time. Regional Rail has a capacity of 70,370 people.

All told, SEPTA expects to be able to move no more than 550,000 people Thursday. That's a quarter of the number of people expected to attend the parade. Hard numbers meant hard decisions.

The Delaware River Port Authority is taking a similar approach with PATCO trains. It also will run trains only into the city in the morning and only out of the city in the afternoon and evening before resuming normal service later Thursday.

Both agencies are limiting the number of people who could even access trains. People who don't have weekly or monthly passes for SEPTA, or senior or disabled fare cards, needed to buy one of 50,000 day passes to use the trains Thursday. Those had sold out by midday Wednesday. PATCO announced it had run out of tickets shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday, as had NJ Transit's Atlantic City Line.

SEPTA decided to make 50,000 passes available with the assumption that about half of its monthly and weekly pass holders, about 20,000 people, would plan to attend the parade Thursday.

Reverse commuters who use Regional Rail or PATCO to get from the city to suburban jobs will be out of luck entirely. Of the Regional Rail's 154 stops, only 37 will operate Thursday, and those will mostly be at the outermost ends of SEPTA's 13 Regional Rail lines. Tens of thousands of people who take trains into the city for work will have to find another option. On the subways, trains won't stop at every station.

In part, that's because using stations directly on the parade route could lead travelers into a wall of people as they attempt to exit, risking their being trapped in the stations, officials said.

On subway and Regional Rail, though, not using every stop means fewer stops for boarding and faster trips.

"We will have fewer station stops and that will make the system run more efficiently," Knueppel said.

It's a plan that takes SEPTA's limitations into account and gives parade-goers a realistic idea of what to expect Thursday, said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.

"There's a lot of safety rationale for eliminating a number of stations. Priority two is making sure everyone you promised would make it to the city would get there on time," he said. "They've taken a conservative plan with the intent they can deliver on it."

The plan was formulated keeping the inconvenience to regular riders in mind, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said Wednesday. The closed stations are largely near enough to the city that commuters can use buses, the Norristown High Speed Line, or one of the two suburban trolley lines, Busch said. Wheelchair accessibility also was a factor in which stations remain open.

Still, some people will be severely inconvenienced.

"I know at least one person trying to figure out how they will be able to get to their job at the King of Prussia Mall from South Philly," said Dena Driscoll, a cochair for 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee in the process of organizing a riders union. "I'm sure she isn't the only one."

SEPTA shouldn't have chosen parade-goers over working people, said Michael Noda, a Philadelphia transit activist.

"I think they're going to have a lot of people who aren't paying attention so much and aren't going to get the word that Regional Rail is doing some very wonky things," Noda said. "They're going to be very disappointed, and they're going to burn a lot of goodwill among a lot of suburban riders."

He faulted SEPTA for not maintaining at least a token amount of city-to-suburbs travel running Thursday morning for reverse commuters.

"I wish SEPTA would have planned better for folks trying to go to their regular work," Driscoll agreed.

The bigger problem, though, Noda said, is that SEPTA's capacity limitations require managers to choose between riders. He acknowledges that SEPTA has limits to how many people it can move but thinks those limits are below what's needed for a region this big. It's a consequence of not investing enough over years, Noda said.

"This is what they're designed for, and now they're unable to come through when we really need them," he said.

While many workers will take the day off or work from home, plenty of others don't have that luxury, including the region's medical staff. At Hahnemann University Hospital, patient beds were being made available to doctors and nurses Wednesday to ensure they are available for Thursday shifts.

"We're going to be offering sleeping arrangements starting tonight and tomorrow," said Phil Ellingsworth Jr., a hospital spokesman. "We're making sure we're up-staffing."

In his comments Tuesday, Knueppel emphasized SEPTA's plans may not make everyone happy, but they were the best chance public transit had of providing reliable access to the parade.

"This is numbers," he said. "We can carry one of every four if two million people come to the parade."

Staff writers Rebecca Heilweil and Connor Smith contributed to this report.