Put the R Back in Regional Rail! Readers Respond.

An update on our "Bring Back the R-Numbers!" campaign.

Last week in this space, I launched a campaign to urge SEPTA to reverse the decision it made last year to drop the R-number route designators from the Regional Rail system.

I asked you to drop me a line at regional.rail.numbers@gmail.com if you agree with me that the R-numbers were—and are—easier for riders to remember and use, contrary to what SEPTA’s public relations folks said at the time of the change.

(While I’m at it, the agency should also bring back color coding on more than just the timetables, as I also said last week. But I think the two memory aids should go hand in hand. Many readers who responded agree.)

I decided to open up my mailbox this week and see what the reading and riding public had to say. The response so far has been… well, let’s say it hasn’t blown my socks off in its volume, but those of you who agree with me apparently share my passion. Here are some of the best of the comments I’ve received to date:

From Helene Arms:

I definitely miss the “R” train references and still reference the R5. When I’m looking up schedules I find it much more difficult to identify the Paoli route vs. my R5 local, coded in Blue. I grew up on the R3. Unfortunately if someone comes to visit I have to know the END of my train line to help them understand the schedule. Remembering the R# was way easier than understanding Chestnut Hill East vs. Chestnut Hill West.”

From J. Scott Clinton:

I still tell people that I live near the 49th Street station on the R3 line and it is confusing to have to tell people ‘oh, they call that the Media train now, because the public transit operator is thick-headed.’ Why on earth would you make ’em all grey, too? That’s just daft. Color code ’em, and make it easier for people to see where the trains go!”

From Allison Kelsey:

Sandy, I’m totally with you. I’d like to see the research that says that place-name systems are easier to use than numbered, color-coded lines. When I moved to Philly, other than once getting on the wrong R7, I found it easy to decipher. The color reinforced the number, and vice versa. And for those visiting the region, I’d think a number/color would be a lot easier—then they can pay attention to just the name of the stop where they get off.

“Has GPTMC [the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation] done any surveying on this?

“Thanks for championing this! It has made no sense to me since they announced the change. What, are they going to take away the colors on the trolley and subway, too?”

From Roy Overholzer in Lansdale:

No question that the R numbers should be revived and used. Common sense anyone?”

From an anonymous reader:

“SEPTA is a first-class transportation system. Here’s hoping they’ll hear and honor the passengers who helped them get there. The ‘R’ makes sense…. [Reintroducing it] can link to Philadelphia’s tradition of identifying by neighborhood lived in. The ‘R’ did that for me and for people I knew. It hinted at where you lived, then a conversation began as to where you specifically you got off the train. It built a sense of community or envy depending on the person. But it elicits conversation in Philly just like what school you went to, what church/synagogue/mosque you attend, etc, does. It’s an identifier unique to SEPTA. They should reclaim it and nurture it.”

And then there was a detailed tale of the countdown to the Commuter Tunnel’s opening from Jeff McCormick, who was Chief Automotive Officer at SEPTA at the time. McCormick’s department maintained not only the buses but also the vehicles used to maintain tracks and signals, and it provided “bus bridges” to ferry passengers around stations or track segments closed for maintenance or repair.

“…About a week or two before Market East was to open and the trains were going to use the connector, it was discovered that the electric signs to announce track and train information were not going to be delivered on time. We had to make information kiosks with signs in them to display to customers who never used the tunnel and number system before. We used the color coded signs from the trains and set them on the kiosks to display this vital information. It was one of those 24/7 periods but we got it done and the signs were in place when the stations opened.

“I recall some confusion and criticism from customers, but the most vocal were the old railroad folks whose great tradition was to name trains by location or stuff like “The Broadway Limited.” SEPTA had taken full control of the rail system and it was important to recognize that we were running a commuter operation and not a piece of railroad history or part of the Pennsy or Reading. In no time at all, everyone used the numbers and they are ingrained in the minds of the customers, myself included. This was a true SEPTA Commuter service with new people, a new attitude, and a new service.

“When I heard SEPTA was dropping the number system, I heard nothing but complaints. Some customers who knew what to do became confused and visitors had no way of easily knowing which train to use to get to an intermediate station or easy way to tell folks where to stand and which train to get on. I almost called friends at SEPTA to complain but I don’t work there any more and figured the folks there now knew what they were doing. After time has passed and things were not better, I realize that dropping the numbers was a serious mistake and would hurt SEPTA in the long run.

“I say return the numbers and the colors. This is not a passenger railway. It is not Amtrak. Regional Rail is a SEPTA commuter rail service that also supports infrequent riders at events in town, senior citizens and visitors. It’s a bad decision and should be changed back.”

Hear, hear, Jeff. My mailbox is still open for you to add your voice to the chorus: regional.rail.numbers@gmail.com.