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SEPTA Regional Rail is coming back, but many of its suburban riders are still working from home

The transportation authority boosts Regional Rail service Monday. When it makes a full return is anyone's guess.

Morning commuters at Suburban Station in Center City Philadelphia. SEPTA Regional Rail arrive from the suburbs and stations within city limits at Suburban Station on Monday morning June 22, 2020.
Morning commuters at Suburban Station in Center City Philadelphia. SEPTA Regional Rail arrive from the suburbs and stations within city limits at Suburban Station on Monday morning June 22, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Regional Rail’s rush-hour crowds, the entangled webs of people weaving in and out of Philadelphia’s largest businesses and transit hubs, have been missing for months.

Since March, the roar of Center City’s underbelly quieted as workers adapted to makeshift desks at home and found new coworkers in roommates, partners, and pets. Regional Rail, the first service SEPTA reduced as ridership dwindled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, begins its glacial return to more frequent service Monday.

Riders can expect hourly weekday service on most lines, while the Airport and Paoli/Thorndale Lines will run every half hour. The Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd Lines stay suspended. It’s a big improvement from the severe changes of April, when some lines were cut and others pulled into stations every two hours.

But the timeline for its return to “normal” schedules hasn’t been set. Much will depend on businesses’ reopening plans and the suburban workers who discovered the practicalities of working from home. SEPTA knows it has “to win back” its riders, said general manager Leslie Richards.

“We don’t know how ridership is going to bounce back,” she said. “We don’t know if it will be even across all of our modes. We definitely know that the majority of our riders on transit don’t have other alternatives, and so that ridership trajectory and projection looks different than Regional Rail.”

Back from the bottom

Most Regional Rail riders rely on SEPTA to get to work. Or the Philadelphia Flower Show. Or a Philadelphia Eagles game.

About 95% of riders use the service to get from outlying stations to Center City stations, according to SEPTA. Ridership had been steady, averaging between 34 million to 35 million trips annually the last three years — a more than 50% boost compared with two decades ago.

Ridership was a sliver of itself at the height of stay-at-home orders but is slowly trickling back. There were about 16 riders per train in the beginning of the month, growing to about 36 passengers by the third week of June.

Richards said reaching 80% of normal ridership until there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus would be “a good scenario.” As it maps out the months and years ahead, SEPTA is keeping a keen eye on economic and behavioral trajectories.

“For some job types, some job categories, [telecommuting] will be much more pervasive than it is now,” said Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology at Drexel University and director of its Center for Mobilities Research and Policy. “But there’s so many jobs where you still can’t telecommute and so I think there’s going to continue to be just a real mix.”

Some riders who lost their jobs from the shutdown won’t have a need for Regional Rail, while others will continue to work from home. Some may forgo monthly passes and take to personal vehicles, potentially causing a surge in traffic that one expert refers to as “carmageddon.”

Even still, Donald Hill, general chairman of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, calls trains “the most reasonable mode of transportation in and out of the city.” He said people ask him repeatedly when service will return.

“The traffic was a nightmare prior to the pandemic,” he said. “Now, people start driving after the pandemic, more cars on the road, it’s going to be an absolute nightmare.”

Riding on businesses

Whenever there’s a service disruption, “there’s always a component of ridership that never comes back,” said Matt Mitchell, Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers commuter rail chairperson. While big companies are poised to play a major role in Regional Rail’s recovery, he said, it goes both ways.

“There will be a partnership,” Mitchell said, “because the employers need SEPTA just as much as SEPTA needs the employers.”

The authority, seen as a major economic driver, has been working with businesses to encourage staggered shifts to diminish traditional rush-hour crowds.

“We don’t want everybody taking that one train home,” Richards said.

But many large employers are in no rush to get workers back to the office, and are likely to continue shifting murky timelines to keep workers safest from the coronavirus.

» READ MORE: The open office floor plan has to change — at least during the coronavirus pandemic

Comcast, one of the region’s largest employers, doesn’t expect to welcome back a “vast majority” of its 9,000-person workforce to its headquarters until after Sept. 30, said spokesperson John Demming. About 40% of its employees use Regional Rail or the subways, he said.

More than 7,000 Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health employees will be encouraged to continue working from home in the region’s “green” reopening phase, returning workers in a “phased manner.” Drexel University said it plans to reopen campus in the fall, but teleworking details are still being ironed out, according to a spokesperson.

“It’s not like a switch is going to get flipped and offices are going to say, ‘OK, thou shall come back to the office,’” said Greg Krykewycz, of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “I think it’s going to be more of an invitation. You’re going to be able to come back to the office if you want to, and that’s a very different thing.”

» READ MORE: Philly is reopening but office workers are staying home. That means peril for lunch spots and stores.

Staying flexible

A prolonged period of reduced ridership is poised to contribute to SEPTA’s financial challenges, but will help ease riders’ social distancing concerns aboard trains.

Conductors now guide riders onto its emptiest cars, while crews are told to alert managers when they reach 55 passengers per car. SEPTA has enhanced cleaning efforts and now requires face masks for all passengers.

Frequency will also be key to winning riders back — as they’ll be forced to find alternatives if they can’t count on a train arriving when they need it.

“First of all, you want to convince the public that it’s clean … ‚” said Bernard Norwood, head of the SEPTA conductors union. “Secondly, you want them to see there will be social distances on the train so they will feel safe riding. And thirdly, you want to run enough service so they don’t have to wait like they’re waiting now.”

Could there be more quiet cars to come? It’s possible. NJ Transit recently suggested riders “avoid loud talking or restrict phone conversations” to limit the virus’ spread. The recommendation too was made in a “Back on Board” report by Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group based in New York.

No such measure exists yet for SEPTA, but Richards is “interested in considering anything that keeps people as safe as possible,” she said.

“We’re entering a phase where nobody really knows what the other side of it is going to look like,” Krykewycz said, “and agencies that are willing to try stuff are going to succeed and agencies that aren’t willing to try stuff are not.”