Bring Back the R-Numbers!

It's obvious getting rid of them was a big mistake — join my campaign to have SEPTA to reverse course.

“To us, they’ll always be R5 stations.”

So said this magazine’s staff last December, in the issue where they listed the “76 Things We Love About Philly.”

That should tell you how deeply the Regional Rail route numbers embedded themselves in the region’s psyche, for they’ve only been R5 stations since 1984, when the Commuter Tunnel opened.

Were the typical Philadelphian reluctance to embrace new terms for familiar things at work — do you know anyone who calls it Columbus Boulevard? Didn’t think so — they’d still refer to them as stops on the Paoli Local.

But that’s what SEPTA wants you to call them again, now that it’s erased all traces of the R-numbers from its signage and schedules.

(Well, almost all traces. You can see where they once appeared on a number of signs, and on a few, they live still.)

Retired Penn transportation professor Vukan Vuchic developed the numbering system for SEPTA as the tunnel neared completion, borrowing from common European practice to highlight something the tunnel allowed that remains unique in North America: routing of commuter trains through the heart of a large American city.

And the riders understood the idea immediately — and still do. People still ask if someone is coming out on the R3, or say that they’re taking the R5 to such-and-such a station.

So why did SEPTA scrap them? The official line is that they confused people. Can’t prove that by me or many other knowledgeable system users. They’re easier to remember than the names they replaced (and that replaced them back), and combined with color-coded signage — also eliminated, another boneheaded move — made orienting oneself on Regional Rail easier too.

A more acceptable explanation is that they didn’t reflect how the trains operated.  It is true that the majority of Regional Rail trains do not head out of Center City on the same route they used to head into it — in fact, a large number of them do not operate through, but rather to or from, Center City. But a look at the train numbers on the timetables show that the R-routes live, at least internally, just with some changes. The R1 Airport line has vanished; instead, this branch is now paired with the former R2 Warminster to form the R4 (a number that was not part of the original seven routes; it had been intended for a Fox Chase–to–Bryn Mawr service that was never implemented). The R6 Manayunk/Norristown, with just about nothing on the Cynwyd side to connect to, is now permanently married to the R2 Marcus Hook/Wilmington/Newark and numbered accordingly. But the other routes remain as they were — and perhaps we could rebadge the Cynwyd “dinky” as a new R1 route.

The train numbers, like ZIP codes do for mail, tell you on which branch a train originated and where it will head on the other side of the tunnel — and since SEPTA wants us to pay attention to the train numbers, why shouldn’t we continue to use the route numbers the agency hasn’t given up on? “My R3 will continue as an R7 headed to Trenton.” How hard is that to handle? Judging from the persistence of the R-numbers in everyday speech, not very.

From what I can tell, the real reason for dropping the numbers has to do with the preferences of one upper-level SEPTA manager whose decisions on nomenclature and display of information betray nostalgia for the Paoli Local and Mylar roll signs on the buses. Given all the forward progress SEPTA has made over the past decade, the move to drop the R-numbers is a decided step backward — it’s as if the Commuter Tunnel had never opened.

So I’m asking you to join my campaign to bring SEPTA back to its senses and defer to the (in this case) superior wisdom of the many everyday Philadelphians — and visitors — who weren’t confused at all by the Regional Rail numbers. The R-numbers reflect global practices, and we’re supposed to be a global city, right? They’re easy to remember and use, and shouldn’t that be the touchstone for rider information? And Philadelphians took to them instantly and use them still, just as they still call that street Delaware Avenue. Just as we can’t imagine the Regional Rail system before the Commuter Tunnel existed, we can’t imagine the trains without their route numbers, it seems to me.

Are you one of those people who still use the numbers? Or would you if they came back? Then join me in asking SEPTA to Bring Back the R-Numbers. (And the colors too, on more than just the timetables, while we’re at it.) Send your statement of support to me — – and I’ll see to it that the person who should see your messages sees them.