Ronnie Hart is spending loads of money on rideshares to get between her home and SEPTA’s Wayne Junction.
It’s not the way she usually gets to medical appointments and other business in Center City. Her former stroll to the Chestnut Hill West Line was an “easy, breezy walk,” she said, but it’s one of two SEPTA Regional Rail Lines indefinitely suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hart, 50, of Germantown, said she’s spent more than $1,000 in recent months to go the extra distance to the alternate station, served by multiple rail lines.
SEPTA has said it “is committed” to bringing back the suspended service — but that doesn’t quell Hart’s concerns.
“It went from, ‘We hope to have the line open by January.’ January became ‘we don’t know when it’s going to open.’ So, that has led me to start thinking that maybe they don’t want to open it,” she said. “Maybe they’re reconsidering it, and they don’t want to say.”
Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations, understands there’s a feeling among riders and advocates that service won’t return but said that’s not the case.
The impacts of COVID-19 immediately showed their effects on Regional Rail, a mode carrying many of the region’s suburban residents to Center City jobs. But as white-collar workers stayed home, SEPTA suspended some Regional Rail Lines. Service began to make a slow return over the summer.
The Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd Lines, which have some of the lowest ridership, stayed suspended. Before the pandemic, Chestnut Hill West averaged about 4,400 weekday riders, while Cynwyd carried about 500. Ridership across Regional Rail remains about 85% below pre-pandemic levels, leaving SEPTA without fare dollars it depends upon.
In the fall, questions about the Chestnut Hill West Line came up during SEPTA’s monthly board meetings. General Manager Leslie Richards said construction work between SEPTA and Amtrak prevented the line from reopening, but the authority would consider bringing back service by late 2020 or early 2021.
SEPTA decided to keep the Chestnut Hill West Line suspended as other lines returned because running trains while the work continued would have made service “unreliable,” Sauer said.
“Rather than try to put that service back in and run with unreliable service, we decided to maintain that suspension and wait for Amtrak to complete their work,” he said. “They are wrapping things up now as I understand it, so we are looking at it as whether or not it’s viable enough or needed at this point to resume that service.”
SEPTA doesn’t have a timeline on reopening, but Sauer stressed that the temporary closure would not lead to the Chestnut Hill West Line’s shuttering. Amtrak referred questions on project completion to SEPTA. Neighbors who have spotted trains running on the line are seeing engines used to pull SEPTA work trains, or other vehicles used to keep the rails from rusting, Sauer said.
“We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t have an intent on putting the line back in service,” he said.
The authority encourages Chestnut Hill West riders to use the Route 23 bus or Chestnut Hill East Line as alternatives. Ridership levels on both options have remained low, according to SEPTA.
“SEPTA refuses to acknowledge that some buses are regularly crowded” and “refuses to give a timeline for a return of the Chestnut Hill West Line,” the advocacy group Philly Transit Riders Union said in a statement last month.
“We have recommended reopening the Chestnut Hill West Line and allowing all transit riders to ride Regional Rail at the price of transit fare,” it said in the statement. As SEPTA determines where to spend emergency COVID-19 funding, its “managers must listen to riders who are suffering from overcrowding and inadequate service.”
Sauer said SEPTA doesn’t get more than a couple incidents of crowding on the Route 23 called in during a given week.
“It’s certainly not systemic at this juncture, but it is something we’re paying close attention to,” he said. “We know our customers are sensitive to it.”
Rose Mangano, 83, has been riding the Chestnut Hill West Line for decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she would take the line multiple times a week to doctor’s appointments and to volunteer at a food nonprofit near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Like Hart, she lives close to the line and has been seeking answers from a state representative’s office. She’s taken the Chestnut Hill East Line once but found it “inconvenient.” Driving has been Mangano’s other alternative.
It’s “annoying” that SEPTA has reopened other stations, but not the one she’s always relied on.
“I would just like to get back doing what we did,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”