SEPTA will indefinitely close its overnight service of the trolley tunnel, spanning 13th to 40th Streets, beginning Monday, citing little early-morning ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While research has shown that intensive cleaning of surfaces isn’t as necessary as thought during the early months of the pandemic, SEPTA will shut down the tunnel to allow for deep cleaning at stations as well as maintenance. SEPTA’s “trolley blitz,” an annual effort to avoid sporadic shutdowns throughout the year by closing the tunnel for multiple days for crews to perform predictable maintenance, took place in July and cost $1 million.
“We think that with the enhancements that we’re able to offer customers, as a result of making this minor adjustment, is worthwhile,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said. “We’re going to continue to monitor and evaluate it as we go forward. If we have to change back, those are changes that we can make.”
The closure, between midnight and 5 a.m. and lasting seven days a week, starts Monday and will continue “until further notice,” SEPTA announced Wednesday. Routes 10, 11, 13, 34, and 36 riders will need to transfer between the Market-Frankford Line or overnight Owl buses at 40th Street to continue their trips.
It’s the second COVID-19-related service disruption in recent months for SEPTA. In November, the authority cut overnight weekend rail service on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, similarly offering bus service in lieu.
The trolley tunnel typically sees 65,000 riders daily. Ridership is down about 65% from pre-pandemic levels, Busch said. SEPTA decided to move forward with the closure “to take advantage” of the “very low ridership during those overnight hours.” The authority’s last ridership count between midnight and 5 a.m. on Dec. 3 showed 173 total passengers on 40 trolley trips in the tunnel. The figures “are consistent with ridership levels in recent months,” according to the authority. The decision was not a cost-saving measure, Busch said.
“This wouldn’t be happening if we weren’t in the pandemic,” he said. “No doubt about that. We wouldn’t be doing this if our ridership was where it was in February.”
Like other major transit agencies across the country, SEPTA’s finances have been hobbled without riders to pay fares. Coupled with long-term funding challenges SEPTA faced before the pandemic, the authority said it will need to consider service cuts, layoffs, and fare increases without additional relief. The agencies are asking for an additional $32 billion in federal funding to bridge gaps created by COVID-19.
SEPTA is continuing to plan ahead, with its board recently approving a $5.7 million land deal that is a small but significant step forward for trolley modernization, a $1.55 billion project to replace its current fleet with modern light rail vehicles.