SEPTA GM: ‘Certain regional rail lines will go away’

by Tom Beck
Posted 2/28/24

He confirmed what many have feared.

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SEPTA GM: ‘Certain regional rail lines will go away’


SEPTA CEO and general manager Leslie Richards confirmed what many transit activists in Northwest Philadelphia feared in a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on public transit last week. If SEPTA doesn't make up a $240 million budget gap in the upcoming fiscal year, as of July 1 “certain Regional Rail lines will go away.”

Richards didn’t reference any specific lines by name, but representatives from Save the Train, a group of local stakeholders who are rallying to preserve SEPTA service in Northwest Philadelphia and beyond, say Richards’ testimony gives credence to their fear that the Chestnut Hill West line could be on the chopping block. 

“Although that doesn’t give official word that Chestnut Hill West would be cut,” West Mt. Airy Neighbors president Anne Dicker said, “it definitely is one more step closer to the official word.”

SEPTA did report increased Regional Rail ridership last week, and said it was slowly climbing back from historic lows resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also recently granted $317 million by the Biden Administration. However, that money is specifically set aside to replace 200 rail cars for the Market-Frankford Line.

But the agency’s overall numbers are not comforting for anyone who wants to see the Northwest lines continue to operate. Total ridership is currently about 56% of what it was before the pandemic, and Chestnut Hill West has the lowest ridership in the entire system except for the Cynwyd line, which only has five stops. The Chestnut Hill East line has the second lowest ridership. 

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch told the Local in a phone call that SEPTA has had internal discussions about what services would be cut if it doesn’t bridge the funding gap. However, he said, no final decisions have been made.

“The one thing we could say is that the buses, Regional Rail, subways and trolleys would be less frequent, more crowded and less reliable,” he said. “Those are impacts that we want riders to understand they’d be dealing with.”

The news also comes as SEPTA is, perhaps a bit paradoxically, planning to increase service by the end of 2024 – assuming it gets the requisite funding. 

Busch said that SEPTA’s decreased service on Regional Rail lines isn’t entirely because of decreased ridership; it’s also due to a shortage of engineers, brought on in part by a pandemic-era hiring freeze. The transit agency budgets for 213 engineers, but currently only has 185. That’s up from a year ago, however, when that number was about 170. 

Due to federal regulations, Busch said, it takes about 12 months to get engineers fully trained, and the total number of engineers has increased as more hires complete the training.

“The way our training is going now,” Busch said, “we’re projected to be at or above our budget headcount of 213 later this year.”

Busch said SEPTA is “hopeful” it gets the funding.

“We’re at the beginning of the process in Harrisburg, working closely with the governor's office and Southeast Delegation,” Busch said. “We’re making sure we reach as many lawmakers as possible so they know the companies we do business with around the state for things like supplies and equipment.”

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro announced the inclusion of a $282.8 million investment into public transportation – $185 million of which would go to SEPTA – in his budget proposal.

“It was unprecedented to have SEPTA mentioned that prominently in a governor’s budget address and listed as a top priority,” Busch said. 

But increasing ridership is still necessary for the long-term health of SEPTA. Dicker thinks increased service would go a long way towards making that happen, especially during off peak hours, when riders are more likely to take SEPTA for a night out or a grocery store run than to commute to work.

Busch said that’s a priority for the transit agency, and a focus of its Reimagining Regional Rail initiative, which it launched in Fall 2021.

“Those weekend and evening trips that aren’t necessarily for commuting to a job but for people going out to dinner or entertainment – we definitely want to have more of those for people,” Busch said. “We’ve started working on that specifically on Regional Rail.”

Busch wouldn’t put a number on how frequently SEPTA would like trains to arrive at stations, be it every 30 minutes or every hour. 

“But we want to be more frequent,” he said. 

Dicker also said that while Regional Rail trains are generally clean and safe, cleanliness and safety are also deterrents for many.

Apparently, that message was received by SEPTA.

Richards said the transit agency’s security budget has been increased by more than 60% over the last “several years.” That includes increased salaries for SEPTA’s transit police, which is on track to be at full employment come June. The transit agency saw a 10% decrease in crime from the third quarter of 2023 to the fourth.

“We hear it all the time, and I'm sure you're all hearing it all the time too,” Richards said in her testimony. “But the trends in crime are going in the right direction.”