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Without commuters, what will happen to SEPTA Regional Rail?

Recommendations to appeal to those it hasn’t in the past predate COVID-19. But they may be more important now than ever with the identity of Regional Rail turned on its head.

A SEPTA Regional Rail train crosses the Schuylkill in Philadelphia.
A SEPTA Regional Rail train crosses the Schuylkill in Philadelphia.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Make no doubt about it, the COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of knots for SEPTA to work through.

Behind closed doors, there’s chatter about mitigation strategies and vaccine distribution, talks with its unions about protecting workers and riders, and conversations with lawmakers on its dire financial challenges. As the sixth-largest transit agency in the country faces the future, another big question comes to mind:

What happens to a commuter rail network without any commuters?

With ridership down about 85% from pre-pandemic levels, SEPTA Regional Rail is essentially running empty trains, and it’s clear that many of its suburban riders won’t return to five-day-a-week schedules given the appeal of white-collar telework. To sustain and grow Regional Rail ridership, transportation experts say, it should try to appeal to those it hasn’t in the past because of pricey fares and less frequent service. That was true before COVID-19 but may be more necessary now than ever, with the identity of Regional Rail turned on its head.

The way forward is to blur the line between Regional Rail and SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, and subways, said Megan Smirti Ryerson, associate dean for research at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The two groups may be managed by the same authority, but have been seen as separate for decades.

“Now is the time to prioritize the needs of people of color, essential workers, and particularly our communities that have been significantly, economically hurt by the pandemic,” Ryerson said. “Transit is an opportunity to lift people up, to give them access to opportunities that they didn’t have before.”

More frequent trains, flat fares, and convenient connections between Regional Rail and city transit are among the ideas that the experts say could get SEPTA to a more equitable system.

But the recommendations aren’t that simple to adopt, said Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations.

“There certainly has to be an evolution of Regional Rail and how we use it,” he said. “But again, I can’t stress enough how significant a capital investment that would be.”

The authority is losing about $1 million a day as riders avoid public transportation. In response to financial losses from COVID-19, SEPTA has temporarily closed 14 ticket offices across five Regional Rail Lines. Service on the Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd Lines remain suspended from COVID-19 schedule changes in the spring.

SEPTA took a step in integrating its network last year when it introduced a free transfer for SEPTA Key Travel Wallet users. The feature allows riders to swiftly move between buses, trolleys, and subways, but doesn’t apply to Regional Rail. A rail commuter pulling into William H. Gray III 30th Street Station, for instance, will have to pay again to get to the nearby Market-Frankford Line.

» READ MORE: A year without a commute for many in the Philadelphia region

“Regional Rail should be a part of the network,” Ryerson said. “So why is there this almost regressive and completely separate fare structure for Regional Rail compared to the buses and the trains?”

Pending board approval, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission will dive into equity concerns through a study examining how Regional Rail can “be used more broadly” and not just for “a traditional suburb to Center City trip,” said DVRPC Executive Director Barry Seymour. Work is poised to begin in July and would identify a handful of potential changes to get there, such as fare restructuring, or station openings and closures.

Transit advocates have the same concerns in mind, with 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee, urging SEPTA to accept weekly and monthly TransPasses, used on buses, trolleys, subways and Norristown High Speed Line, on Zone One Regional Rail.

Zone One covers travel within Center City and includes neighborhoods like Germantown and Angora. A Zone One weekly TrailPass costs $28.25, and a monthly TrailPass costs $105. A weekly TransPass costs $25.50 and a monthly TransPass costs $96.

» READ MORE: SEPTA’s ridership won’t rebound for a long time. Fear of contracting COVID-19 is partially to blame.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently offered reduced fare to select commuter rail riders in an effort to relieve crowding on buses amid the pandemic. In Chicago, officials implemented a similar pilot program on two of its commuter rail lines in part to help make transfers more “seamless,” reported a news station there.

“We know that there’s still a market there that SEPTA could capture if they were able to change policy in just little ways,” said Ben She, of 5th Square.

At this time, SEPTA has no plans to implement such a measure or to apply the free transfer on Regional Rail, Sauer said.

“Honestly, I think that we’re open to almost any idea to be considered,” he said. “At this juncture, we’re trying to be very thoughtful and consider all of our options. Nothing that anyone puts forward is just summarily dismissed.”

» READ MORE: SEPTA doubles down on commitment to $2B King of Prussia Rail project

Regional Rail is pricier because it’s labor heavy, said Vukan R. Vuchic, professor emeritus of transportation engineering and city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Crews, consisting of at least one engineer and one conductor, are needed for the time-consuming tasks of checking fares and manning trapdoors that allow riders to board at low platform stations, preventing it from running more quickly.

Those are two problems SEPTA will need to tackle before it can attract riders outside the Center City commuter crowds, said Vuchic, who has penned several reports on SEPTA Regional Rail.

Regional Rail ridership “will certainly recover somewhat as [the coronavirus] goes over,” Vuchic said. “But it’s a big difference — are you just trying to get closer to what used to be, or are you going to make great efforts and use this to review the entire system with a goal of getting more riders?”

Just as it’s important to reimagine Regional Rail from its daily commuter role, it’s important to reimagine who’s making decisions behind the scenes, said Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology at Drexel University and director of its Center for Mobilities Research and Policy.

» READ MORE: SEPTA once again pushes back fare hikes, this time until July

The future of Regional Rail is dependent upon becoming more equitable but also on the democratization of transportation planning.

“To be frank, the history behind the separation of our Regional Rail system from the rest of the public transit system is one that is grounded in racism,” Sheller said. “It’s grounded in Philadelphia’s history of transportation inequity and segregation, and we really need to work to overcome that.”