Why the Broad Street Line Was the Star of SEPTA’s Pope Weekend Service

Overall ridership may have been less than pass sales, but the workhorse orange line still moved a lot of people.

Waiting at Broad Street. Photo | SEPTA

Waiting at Broad Street. Photo | SEPTA

So how well did SEPTA handle moving the masses in town for Francis Festival Weekend?

About as well as it’s ever handled any large crowd. Better, in fact, than the last few times it’s had upward of 100,000 people to move into and out of a small area.

“We learned the lessons of the Phillies parade,” SEPTA director of media relations Jerria Williams said. And so it had, both on the moving-the-people and the keeping-them-calm end.

There was no repeat of the Regional Rail meltdowns that accompanied the Phillies parade and the Live 8 concert. After the papal Mass on Sunday, 34,000 passengers who had taken Regional Rail into the event were cleared from Jefferson and 30th Street stations by 8:30 p.m., about two and a half hours after the end of the Mass. Once riders got to the stations, wait times averaged an hour. The day before, 28,575 riders took Regional Rail to and from the Festival of Families with no problems aside from minor delays. Both numbers were below what Papal Visit Pass sales projected.

But the true star performer was not Regional Rail, but that high-performance people-moving machine, the Broad Street Subway. The parking lots at the Sports Complex were the main staging point for tour buses from all over the East Coast, attracting 500 buses carrying some 25,000 riders on Saturday and twice those numbers on Sunday. As the traffic returning from the Festival of Families was spread out over a longer time period, there were no real delays in getting people home on Saturday, but Sunday was a different story: 15,000 people converged on Spring Garden station to catch trains headed both north and south, and 40,000 people swamped Walnut-Locust to head back to AT&T station. Those riders all got on their way within two hours of the end of the Mass.

“We can move about 1,000 people per train,” or about 15,000 per hour, on the Broad Street Line, Williams said. Given the time it took to move 55,000 people, the line clearly could handle even more than that — and from stations not designed to swallow large crowds the way AT&T is.

By comparison, the largest crowd the Broad Street subway had handled prior to the Pope’s visit was the 17,000 people who converged on AT&T Station after the Eagles’ home opener the previous Sunday, who got free rides courtesy of Miller Lite beer. AT&T’s extra-long platforms can load multiple trains simultaneously, however, and a rarely-used lower level can store even more. That makes the performance of Walnut-Locust, which lacks such capacity, even more impressive. (Shuttle buses SEPTA put into service between Walnut-Locust and AT&T also helped.)

Good information and communication enabled SEPTA to move the crowds efficiently and without complaint. “We got positive feedback not only about how friendly and helpful our 700 ambassadors were but also about the setup: how they could find the queue lines, the signage and the roping,” Williams said.

“I was at Walnut-Locust with the 40,000 people waiting to get to AT&T, and everyone was saying how much they enjoyed their visit to Philly and the service.”

Service on the Market-Frankford Line flowed smoothly because ridership on that line was actually below normal weekend levels. And bus ridership was off significantly thanks to the many route suspensions and detours instituted for the festival.

One other change that the prospect of lower-than-expected overall traffic permitted was the opening of additional stations on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines, a move announced two weeks before the Pope’s arrival. Williams explained the change was made in response to requests from business owners concerned that their employees might have difficulty getting to and from work.

The ridership statistics vs. pass sales suggest the lingering effects of the early publicity for the World Meeting of Families and Papal Visit, which a late-in-the-game switch in emphasis and tone failed to counter fully (see below for ridership statistics provided by SEPTA). Which in turn suggests that the biggest lesson SEPTA learned from its past performance is not the logistical one but the one about the value of giving people clear and accurate information and keeping them informed as events unfold. These are lessons SEPTA has, to its credit, taken to heart. Now if it can just get its technology up to the point where every rider on every mode can count on getting the quality of information the Francis Festival-goers got.

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SEPTA ridership on the Broad Street and Market Frankford Lines on pope weekend:

BSL – Saturday, Sept, 26 (and average Saturday comparison)

Fern Rock – 3,147 (1,925)
Olney – 5,071 (8,283)
Erie – 2,827 (4,008)
N. Phila. – 1,820 (2,513)
Cecil B. Moore – 4,864 (4,871)
Spring Garden – 11,282 (1,222)
Walnut/Locust – 24,924 (3,942)
Snyder – 4,362 (2,984)
AT&T – 21,304 (2,974)

BSL – Sunday, Sept. 27 (and average Sunday comparison)

Fern Rock – 3,592 (1,617)
Olney – 4,209 (5,953)
Erie – 2,570 (2,957)
N. Phila. – 1,527 (2,021)
Cecil B. Moore – 4,267 (3,424)
Spring Garden – 15,352 (871)
Walnut/Locust – 36,640 (3,268)
Snyder – 4,354 (2,240)
AT&T – 40,539 (3,387)

MFL – Saturday, Sept. 26 (and average Saturday comparison)

Frankford Transportation Center – 7,951 (8,716)
Arrott Transportation Center – 1,911 (2,552)
Erie-Torresdale – 1,799 (2,046)
Allegheny – 2,787 (3,239)
Huntingdon – 2,347 (1,429)
Girard – 2,898 (2,779)
2nd Street – 9,309 (2,895)
8th Street – 7,415 (4,374)
30th Street – 4,834 (3,663)
34th Street – 2,325 (2,552)
52nd Street – 3,919 (4,883)
60th Street – 2,577 (2,943)
69th Street – 8,207 (9,126)

MFL – Sunday, Sept. 27 (and average Sunday comparison)

Frankford Transportation Center – 6,859 (6,682)
Arrott Transportation Center – 1,510 (2,000)
Erie-Torresdale – 1,524 (1,541)
Allegheny – 2,212 (2,392)
Huntingdon – 2,148 (1,148)
Girard – 2,434 (2,030)
2nd Street – 2,909 (2,293)
8th Street – 9,093 (2,523)
30th Street – 4,630 (3,224)
34th Street – 2,142 (1,764)
52nd Street – 3,258 (3,404)
60th Street – 2,152 (2,156)
69th Street – 7,312 (6,761)