General manager Jeff Knueppel is leaving the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency at the end of the year, SEPTA announced Wednesday.
Knueppel, who ensured that SEPTA was one of the first railroads in the country to install a federally mandated safety system, is choosing not to renew his contract, which expires this year, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.
Knueppel guided the agency during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015 and the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and through one of the agency’s worst crises with problems with a third of its rail cars in 2016.
He was on vacation this week and not available for comment, but had notified staff that he would leave and had been in discussions with SEPTA Chairman Pasquale M. “Pat” Deon about his departure for months, Busch said.
He does not have another job immediately available, Busch said, and is eligible to receive a full pension from SEPTA.
The upper Bucks County resident has worked for SEPTA, which moves about 430,000 riders a day, for 32 years. He took the reins of the agency in 2015 upon the retirement of Joe Casey, and is paid about $320,000 a year.
His successor will be selected by SEPTA’s board, and a leading candidate is Leslie S. Richards, the state’s transportation secretary, said sources with knowledge of the selection process. Richards is from Whitemarsh and served on SEPTA’s board. She did not return a request for comment.
Knueppel is known as a straight talker who was frequently willing to be the face of the agency in the aftermath of service disruptions, as he was this month when severe weather left railroad and trolley service in chaos. As a civil engineer, Knueppel was willing to dig into the minutiae of transit operations. Interviews with him at times included frequent references to a whiteboard in one of SEPTA’s conference rooms, where he would scrawl plans and procedural explanations in detail.
When he took over as general manager in 2015, railroads across the country were facing a federal deadline to install Positive Train Control (PTC), an automated system that would detect when a train was reaching dangerous speeds and slow or stop it. Congress mandated that the system be installed nationwide by 2018. The need was demonstrated when Amtrak Train 188 derailed in 2015 in Philadelphia, killing eight passengers.
While other railroads asked for delays, SEPTA focused on getting PTC installed, even though it resulted in significant service delays on Regional Rail. The transit agency was one of the first in the nation to fully install PTC on all its tracks, and Knueppel testified before Congress as a PTC expert.
Almost no one in Philadelphia knew what an equalizer beam was until 2016, when 120 Regional Rail cars were found to have flawed welds in the essential component. For about two months, riders suffered through delays on a system already hobbled by PTC installation, but Knueppel talked the public through the engineering and timetables of repairs, and brought train cars from New York, New Jersey, and Maryland to supplement SEPTA’s diminished fleet.
During his tenure, SEPTA pursued significant revitalization projects that are included in its $675 million capital budget. SEPTA improved stations, such as those at Wayne Junction and Lansdale, with the goal of transit acting as a catalyst for economic development. New stations are planned for Ardmore and Conshohocken, among others.
He spurred the creation of the Hub of Hope at Suburban Station, a service center for the homeless at a station that at times seemed overwhelmed by people in need and nowhere to go.
He also was the source of SEPTA’s “trolley blitz” approach to maintenance on the line that runs from Center City to University City. Rather than interrupting travel intermittently throughout the year, Knueppel suggested shutting down the tunnel for roughly two weeks and getting a year’s worth of work done in one go.
He will leave with a number of problems unresolved. SEPTA has seen four straight years of declining ridership, particularly on buses. He began a bus network redesign, but it has been unclear how much the city and the agency will agree on changes. The redesign is being handled by SEPTA personnel, and will take two to three years to complete.
SEPTA continues to face problems with timeliness and technology. That same storm that held up so many trains prompted Knueppel to acknowledge the agency needs to rework how it provides real-time data to customers. The SEPTA Key fare card project remains a work in progress, with costs running tens of millions over the original price tag and a rollout incomplete on Regional Rail.
And SEPTA’s ability to cooperate with the city to address safe-streets and equity initiatives remains unclear. One official, though, credited Knueppel with collaborating with Philadelphia to ensure the transit agency benefits city residents.