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SEPTA to start new coronavirus protections, including rear-door boarding and suspension of onboard fare payments

SEPTA is also imposing a rider limit as part of a host of service changes Wednesday.

A SEPTA bus driver appears from her driver window wearing a face mask and holding a spray can of Lysol at a bus stop in Center City on Tuesday.
A SEPTA bus driver appears from her driver window wearing a face mask and holding a spray can of Lysol at a bus stop in Center City on Tuesday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A host of changes to SEPTA transit service, including rear-door boarding, suspension of onboard fare payment, and rider limits begin Wednesday as the union representing thousands of SEPTA workers call for better protections against the spread of the coronavirus.

SEPTA riders will now be asked to board and exit all buses and trolleys using rear doors as a social distancing measure. Riders with disabilities can still board using front doors.

Rear-door boarding has been adopted elsewhere, including by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and NJ Transit.

Only 20 riders will be allowed on buses at a given time, with a maximum of 25 on trolleys and 30 on the Norristown High Speed Line. SEPTA will also suspend its Route 102 trolley and use buses along its Route 101 trolley route as part of Wednesday’s adjustments.

SEPTA’s buses, subways, trolleys, and NHSL are running on a reduced service schedule as the authority grapples with plummeting ridership figures. SEPTA recently pulled back overnight service between 1 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on both the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines to allow time for additional cleaning.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, SEPTA will remain focused on providing transportation for essential workers, and for customers who need access to health care, grocery stores and other life-sustaining services,” SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said in a statement. “For everyone’s health and safety, we ask that all others refrain from using SEPTA until further notice.”

The changes come as Transport Workers Union Local 234 announced a plan to take action this week should the authority not meet its demands to better protect workers and riders.

SEPTA’s service changes announced Tuesday are not in response to the union’s demands, said spokeperson Andrew Busch.

TWU Local 234 alleges SEPTA’s buses, trains, and trolleys aren’t being disinfected, while its workers don’t have proper protective supplies including hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves, or masks.

The union claims employees are not being informed who has tested positive for coronavirus, and that SEPTA has fired workers “who refused an assignment that would have put their health at risk.”

Thirteen total SEPTA employees have tested positive for coronavirus.

“If our safety demands are not met by Thursday morning, we will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure our members and the riding public are safe,” TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown said in a statement.

SEPTA issued a lengthy statement late Tuesday night maintaining that “at no time has our commitment to employee safety been more important" and outlining numerous steps taken within the last two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to employees and riders. The transit agency said it has an ongoing dialogue with union leadership and will “continue to coordinate throughout the crisis.”

It has been consulting with infectious disease specialists to assess the steps needed to provide appropriate protective equipment to employees, while following all Centers for Disease Control guidelines, SEPTA said.

“We are making every effort to protect the health and welfare of every employee who keeps our system safe, clean and running for those who need it,” the statement concluded.