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SEPTA aims to make passenger information at Regional Rail stations more consistent

A severe summer storm served as a "trigger" for the communication modifications approved Thursday.

Robert Sidman (left) among the crowds waiting for Regional Rail trains at Jefferson Station.
Robert Sidman (left) among the crowds waiting for Regional Rail trains at Jefferson Station.Read moreMICHAEL ARES / Staff Photographer

SEPTA wants to make sure your phone and the display boards say the same thing while you’re waiting for a train at, say, Suburban Station.

The enhancements to the automatic messages at the Center City stations, approved at Thursday’s board meeting, will allow SEPTA to make status changes in one place instead of two, then send updates to its app, display boards, website, and platforms — making for less confusion, especially during severe weather, when cancellations or suspensions are more likely.

“For me, it’s the consistency,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager. “I know personally, I just get so frustrated when I see the train disappear from the screen and, you know, I’m looking on my app, I’m going, ‘But I see it — it’s at Temple.’”

The board approved a $112,210 contract with Alstom Signaling Operation LLC that looks to improve the audio-visual public address (AVPA) system used at Regional Rail stations for service announcements. The contract begins in January, but it’s unclear when the modifications will be implemented. Bill Zebrowski, SEPTA’s chief information officer, says the changes are one of the agency’s “top priorities.”

The request for modifications to the software came from outgoing general manager Jeff Knueppel and were filtered to SEPTA’s control center and IT department, Zebrowski said. The issues arose from “recent severe weather problems,” confirmed SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.

“The displays weren’t showing what was actually happening. It was obviously frustrating for customers,” Busch said. “It was frustrating for SEPTA as well, trying to get ... accurate information out to our customers. So, this is designed to try to improve on that situation and make some upgrades to the system.”

In August, Knueppel said the transportation agency would review communications after a severe summer storm left riders unsure of train statuses. That storm served as a trigger for the modifications approved Thursday, Burnfield said.

SEPTA also renewed cyber liability insurance for a total annual premium of $230,759 — a cost increase that relates to more people using the Key card, he said.

“As more and more people continue to use SEPTA Key and ... hopefully, with Apple Pay and things like that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue to go up,” Burnfield said.

And a 12-month delay to a necessary step in the Norristown High Speed Line’s extension to King of Prussia was granted Thursday. The board approved a no-cost contract extension to AECOM, an engineering firm charged with completing a federally required assessment of the project’s environmental impact, lasting through December 2020. Without its completion, SEPTA can’t qualify for the federal dollars it will need for the train line.

The rail was once projected to begin carrying passengers in 2023.

» READ MORE: Plans for a train line to King of Prussia are moving forward. How to pay for it remains a huge question mark

A schedule delay from CRRC MA Corp. on building its multilevel cars for Regional Rail prompted an 11-month extension until September 2021 with SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit Inc., a consultant with the project, that comes with a $4.7 million price tag. The cars are expected to begin rolling out next year.

» READ MORE: SEPTA’s new train car manufacturer scrutinized for using supplies mined by children

Changes are also coming to SEPTA’s pension plan, with the agency severing ties with Nashville-based Alliance Bernstein LP and Philadelphia-based Brandywine Global Investment Management LLC to begin a relationship with Vesper Capital Management in King of Prussia.

The move is performance-related, according to Busch, and will not change costs.

Thursday’s meeting was a farewell for Knueppel, who is poised to join KCI, an engineering, planning, and construction firm, next month. Former PennDot Secretary Leslie S. Richards will succeed Knueppel, while Gov. Tom Wolf has announced his intention to nominate Executive Deputy Secretary Yassmin Gramian as Richards’ replacement.

“I gave it my all,” Knueppel said during the meeting. “Throughout my SEPTA career and during my tenure as GM, it makes me proud to see how the city skyline has changed in the recent years, and to know that SEPTA is a vital part of the formula to keep our region moving and growing.”