Richard Branson Should Buy SEPTA

A privatized railway system would be a better railway system.

So SEPTA needs money. Lots of it. In fact, a recent report said that unless SEPTA gets more money, the system “… will be forced to gradually truncate its system and eliminate services … .”

The problem is that most taxpayers, like me, aren’t thrilled about giving these losers more of our money. Ever since I took my first ride on the Chestnut Hill Local more than 40 years ago, SEPTA has always been cash-strapped and on the brink of bankruptcy. As a student, I suffered through numerous shutdowns, strikes and fare increases. And unfortunately the problems haven’t gone away. SEPTA is still the same old bureaucratic mess it’s always been.

That’s because SEPTA doesn’t just need more money. SEPTA needs Sir Richard Branson. As he did with the rail system in England, Branson should buy SEPTA, privatize it and make our transit system effective.

Branson is the kind of person this city needs: a self-made billionaire not afraid to take risks. He flies in balloons and tries to break world records on water. He runs healthcare companies, and at the same time, sells cola and vodka. That’s the kind of money-making attitude this city needs!

Branson would have to battle unions and deal with senior managers who have devoted their entire lives to asking for handouts whenever they generated deficits. Privatizing rail won’t be easy, but here’s how he could to it. Are you listening, Sir Richard?

Break down the SEPTA problem into two problems: the profitable and the unprofitable. Don’t buy the entire SEPTA system. Only the parts that you know can make money. Maybe it’s just the rails. Sell some of your shares to the public, particularly those of us who live in the region, so we can be more vested in your company’s success. Commit to taking some of the proceeds from this capital campaign and directing them toward the parts of SEPTA that you don’t buy. Commit some of your annual profits that way as well. Hopefully, the state and city can figure out a way to make the unprofitable part of SEPTA profitable (or at least self-sustaining) through your example. Maybe they’ll actually hire competent managers too. Offer to help them. Our local leaders could really use some business advice from someone like you.

Raise SEPTA fares. You’ll have to. You did this in England (I have to admit it’s not cheap to ride your rail lines there). But I get it. The numbers have to work. Just do your very best to offer discounts to students and workers who depend on the system for their livelihoods. These are your core riders and will be your biggest fans.

Subject yourself to an annual review. You are going to be the owner of a monopoly that controls a vital service. Be proactive and insist on annual reviews by a publicly appointed transit board. Be completely transparent. Listen to the public’s complaints and concerns. Communicate frequently. Implement changes where necessary. To win a cable franchise (and effectively monopolize the market), Comcast still does this.

Replace management and partner with the unions. The senior people running SEPTA for the past 40 years have not exactly performed the way you would probably desire. You’ll see what I’m talking about after your first introductory meeting with them. Listen to these words from a lifelong Philadelphian: Lose them. Fast. You won’t have the same freedom with the rest of SEPTA’s employees. This is a union town. And SEPTA is a unionized place. They have many hard-working people, and even a few who risk their lives driving buses. To be profitable, you will have to negotiate new deals. Be tough. Be fair. Offer them ownership. Give them some skin in the game too.