Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian US, City & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.
Why I’m Breaking Up With SEPTA, and Running to the Open Arms of … Amtrak
For the past 15 years I’ve been a faithful SEPTA customer. I’ve used almost every kind of conveyance the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority provides — buses, subways, high-speed line, regional rail — for both my weekday commute and other travel within and without Philadelphia. I believe it is an incredibly important asset to the southeastern region of the state, and I have always supported increased state funding for it, but I can’t love it. In fact, I often hate SEPTA. Bear with me, I’ll explain.
First, the love.
I know that, as far as public transportation systems go, SEPTA’s ranked ninth in the nation (just behind Pittsburgh and ahead of Oakland), and gets high marks for the range of options and the volume of ridership it handles on a daily basis.
Just six days ago SEPTA showed city dwellers the future — zero-emission electric buses that Philly Mag’s Sandy Smith says are really quiet and ride “smooth as silk.” It has also started implementing a card fare system that is expected to be fully functional by the fall. There are big plans in the works to radically refurbish some of the underground subway concourses, and to replace the charming but inefficient trolley fleet with sleek, new ones.
Add to that the fact that in recent years SEPTA added late-night service on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines on Friday and Saturday evenings, and that the workhorse subways run all night during storms when all other transport is shut down and you might be wondering what there is not to love about the agency.
Well, let me tell you.
There is a huge difference between the agency’s treatment of its city ridership versus its regional rail ridership. Some 11 percent of SEPTA’s total rides are on regional rail (37.4 million out of 330 million total trips in 2015), which makes it a solid minority — and like most minorities, we don’t enjoy the same privileges as the majority ridership.
Late night trains? Fugetaboutit. You can’t stay in Philly past 10:30 p.m. on weekdays or 11 p.m. on Satudays and still get home on SEPTA if you commute to and from a number of its unlucky regional rail stations.
How do you know you commute from an unlucky station? You can’t catch a SEPTA train on Sundays at all.
Services are often suspended altogether at regional rail stations due to equipment issues (and sometimes, for multiple days, due to inclement weather), without shuttles or buses to get stranded regional rail users to any of the remote stations that are running trains.
There are no ticket-vending machines or ticket offices at a number of the regional rail stations, yet a surcharge is levied if you purchase your ticket on the train. And, while you can purchase tickets in advance via SEPTA’s website, you cannot download or print them and you have to wait 7 to 10 business days for them to be mailed to you.
If you are disabled, the stations where you can actually board (or disembark) a regional rail train are seriously limited. At stations that aren’t equipped to handle disabled passengers it can be a real test of balance and upper body strength when you are a short passenger or — God forbid — an elderly one if the train has overshot the boarding risers, which is an unfortunately frequent experience.
And that is was before the Silverliner crisis.
Believe me, everyone is incredibly grateful that SEPTA caught the design flaw in the Silverliner V cars before any tragic incident occurred.
But, of course, the sudden removal of those trains from the fleet has drastically compounded existing problems in the regional rail service. It has meant two-hour waits between trains; trains blowing by scheduled station stops without notice; and trains so crowded that those of us standing in the aisles (often for 30 to 45 minutes out of an hour ride) get waaaay too familiar with the conductors as they squeeze by on their ticket collecting duties.
Although folks are hoping for things to ease a bit by Labor Day — when the students will begin to crowd in with us — the conductor with which I had my most recent close encounter told me it wasn’t likely. “It takes about a week to repair each Silverliner,” he said. “There are 120 of them. That means a year-and-a-half to two years before they’re repaired. And … the parts aren’t even ordered yet.”
(SEPTA announced yesterday that 10 repaired cars are expected to begin rolling back out at the end of August with the entire fleet expected to be back in service by November.)
I don’t fault SEPTA for the uncontrollables, but I do fault it for what it does have control over.
Like its recent decision to suspend the pay-on-board option on trains that depart Center City stations between 3 and 6:30 p.m. Yes, I know — it’s supposed to streamline the ticket-taking process and eliminate those moments of unintended and undesired intimacy between rider and conductor. Yes, I know — SEPTA will be better able to collect fares and not miss that random person squished between two taller ones in the aisle as the conductor comes through.
Yes, I know, and I don’t care.
The choice means that if I can’t get on the 5:35 p.m. train at Suburban Station because the lines at the ticket office were incredibly long, I’ll have to wait until 6:50 p.m. to catch another train home. That’s not an inconsiderable delay for someone with an hour-long ride once I’m onboard. And, in a catch-22, since my home station is one of those without a ticket office or ticket machine (and SEPTA’s online ticketing is so archaic) it’s not like I can be certain to avoid this possibility by purchasing round-trip tickets in advance …
The solution would be installing ticket machines on all the Center City platforms and concourses, but I haven’t heard SEPTA say they’ll be doing that any time soon.
So, the thing about love/hate relationships is that eventually all of them hit a tipping point. And when that happens, it is best to simply walk away.
I’ve been taking Amtrak recently. It is marginally more expensive than SEPTA, but I can purchase and print out a ticket directly from its website. It doesn’t run nearly as frequently as SEPTA, but it does run more reliably, and it even has a Sunday schedule that serves my home station. I still can’t stay in the city until all hours (11 p.m. weekdays, only 9:45 on Saturdays and Sundays), but the seats are more comfortable, there are outlets to charge my electronics, there’s free wifi, and it is a shorter ride by some 15 minutes.
The downside? Amtrak doesn’t stop at every SEPTA regional rail stop, not by a long shot. But for once, I’m on the winning side of the transportation equation, and that’s such a novelty I find myself feeling rather besotted. Sure, that might wear off, but I figure I should give it the 15 years I’ve given SEPTA while waiting for it to get its regional rail act together.
So, I’m outta here, SEPTA. It’s been real nice knowing you. Wait, no, it’s been real.