SEPTA is cutting its overnight weekend rail service on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines in its first major scheduling change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic since dramatic adjustments were made earlier this spring.
The authority will instead transport riders traveling between 12:30 and 5:30 a.m. through its “Owl Bus Service,” as it does the remaining five days of the week. The switch, which begins in the early hours of Nov. 15 and continues for an indeterminate amount of time, is primarily to allow for additional station and vehicle cleaning but also is in response to lower ridership with Philadelphia’s bustling nightlife now curtailed, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said.
“I would hope the positive takeaway that people have from this is that this is SEPTA being responsive to what we’re seeing on the ground," he said. “… Even though this may affect some people going to essential jobs on those weekend overnight hours, switching from rail to bus, we have to manage the resources that we have.”
While Philadelphians were going through Clorox wipes and Lysol cans at record speeds earlier this spring, excessive cleaning to mitigate COVID-19 has proven to be not as critical as once thought. SEPTA requires face masks and boosted air ventilation as mitigation measures, and the authority maintains that enhanced cleaning will still be "a big part of what [it’s] doing moving forward.”
A memo concerning the modifications was recently posted to SEPTA’s website, with further scheduling details expected to come next week.
As part of the transit service changes coming in November, the Broad Street Line Express Service will run before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. while the BSL’s local service will pull up to platforms every seven minutes during those hours. The more frequent midday service will “be a benefit” to riders working staggered shifts, for example.
SEPTA extended overnight weekend subway service in 2014 in response to rider demand, despite it being pricier than the bus service it previously offered and soon will again. The authority was “proud to be part of Philadelphia’s late night renaissance,” former SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said in a statement at the time.
Support for late-night service was largely driven by Conrad Benner, founder of StreetsDept, the popular arts blog and Instagram. An online petition to “Run the Market-Frankford El and Broad Street Line Subway 24/7” in 2014 gained more than 2,600 supporters.
“Reliable public transportation — day or night — is one of the foundations of a flourishing, prosperous city,” the petition read. “But as of today, Philadelphia shuts its doors at midnight. No, not its restaurants, or bars, both of which play a huge new role in its economic development. No, not even its new casino, which is open round the clock. But its two major public transportation lifelines close at midnight, seemingly unaware of the still buzzing city around it.”
But those scenes once so familiar to Philadelphians — the bartenders filling countless citywide orders or concertgoers pouring from The Met or Union Transfer — are of another lifetime, and it’s unclear when they’ll return.
SEPTA has suffered with pre-COVID commutes disrupted and activities canceled or functioning at limited capacity. Ridership on transit is down about 65% from before the pandemic, and the authority is losing about $1 million a day. SEPTA doesn’t “expect to see major cost savings as a result" of the change from rail to bus service, Busch said.
Overnight subway ridership on weekends has dwindled over the years, Busch said, who did not have historical figures immediately available. Rideshare services also began gaining popularity after SEPTA introduced the service, likely drawing away late-night riders.
“We’re maintaining these core services and remaining flexible in order to be there for when we have a larger number of riders coming back," Busch said. "We’re maintaining the core that we have right now for people who do need us during this difficult period of time.”