Where the Tracks Lie
History and necessity have defined the R5’s illustrious past—and provide the push-pull for its uncertain future.
As with baseball and classic movies, it’s easy to wax rhapsodic about railroads. Their romantic allure captured us, an irresistible tug across new geographies. They were the engine of manifest destiny, the great chugging harbinger of an industrialized world, the dramatic conduit to the big city from the burgs and byways beyond. The grand urban terminals were massive vaults of architectural splendor.
Ah, yes. Train travel was really something back then. And it’s still with us as we move into the last trimester of the first decade of the 21st century. In winter, cutting a swath through the snow-shocked suburbs, the R5 Paoli/Thorndale Local rockets and rumbles and, occasionally, lurches toward Center City, its riders freed from traffic jams and downtown parking tariffs. Despite the proliferation of highways and the demise of some storied railroad companies, America has never really fallen out of training. And rail travel is cited by many as one of the necessary components of any strategy for energy conservation.
Hereabouts, SEPTA has embarked on a multi-year modernization of its commuter service, bolstered by funds from Washington and Harrisburg. New track, upgraded station houses and expanded parking are among the projects designed to usher the R5 and its sister routes into a brighter and busier future. System-wide, the cost runs into the billions of dollarsthrough the next decade.
Critics charge that the improvements do not go far enough, that SEPTA must acquire a stronger service mentality to attract a new generation of riders. From unintelligible station calls on the P.A. and onboard surcharges to delays, downtime and uninterested personnel, SEPTA customers have plenty to be irked about.More tellingly, some say, onboard amenities aren’t keeping pace with those found on other metropolitan rail lines.
Meanwhile, transportation officials remind us that their budgets don’t have room for everything.
And so, romance gives way to reality.
IT'S MID-MORNING at Rosemont station, and a battered Honda has just snagged the last available space of 90 in the parking lot. The motorist squeezes his vehicle between two that nearly claim the white lines on either side. He climbs the steep stairs to the platform to find a couple of mini sand pits and an abandoned ticket window. Oversize vacuum tubing snakes from a rail maintenance car, sucking debris from the track bed and raising a racket that nearly drowns out the loud clatter of the approaching train.
The train is three-quarters empty at this off-peak hour, though it reduces that ratio by adding riders at subsequent stops on the way to 30th Street Station. Bryn Mawr … Haverford … Ardmore … Narberth … a lineup unaltered by time.
Main Line. The history is rich and long but, like most histories, somewhat lost in modern connotation. Yet the trains persist—part throwback, part solution.
Steam-powered locomotives changed the character of the country, moving people and cargo at a comparatively breathless clip. Three decades before the Civil War, the "Main Line of Public Works" linked Philadelphia with Harrisburg, then flung its canals and railroad tracks all the way to Pittsburgh. Built by the state, it was acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857. Through the years of permutation that followed, the Main Line name stuck—though to a smaller stretch of real estate.
Philadelphia-to-Paoli service went electric in 1915. It was the first commuter line to transmit its juice via overhead wires rather than a third rail paralleling the tracks. The cars changed hues from burnt-red to green to the Silverliners still in use as the Pennsy morphed into Penn Central and then federally funded Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corporation) in the 1960s and ’70s.
SEPTA succeeded Conrail as commuter king in 1983. Soon, the Paoli Local extended its reach to Malvern and, eventually, to Parkesburg, which required an empty-train trip to Lancaster to turn around. (These days, the westernmost stop has retreated to Thorndale.) Ever since the Paoli train yard disbanded in the mid-1990s, trains terminating in Paoli have reversed direction at the Frazer yard.
SEPTA’s R5 Paoli/Thorndale now runs on the Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg Main Line owned and operated by Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation), established by the federal government in 1971 in the wake of declining ridership and bankrupt railroads nationwide. The 104-mile line is part of Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor, which extends to Pittsburgh. Conrail today is strictly a freight operator.
That’s evolution for you. Andrew Jackson was in the White House when the maiden Paoli Local hitched a pair of horses to a passenger car that resembled a stagecoach. Within four years, the cars had lengthened and thickened, and locomotives were providing the horsepower. The Philadelphia & Columbia Railway, the first leg of the Main Line of Public Works, shifted its route in 1850, essentially to the one the R5 follows today. The first outbound stop was White Hall, whose depot is now the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, a Tiger Woods tee shot from today’s Bryn Mawr station.
With the Pennsylvania Railroad’s purchase of the rail line and adjacent property, the Main Line was primed for an era of high-toned growth—saloons, slaughterhouses, glue factories and other messy installations were expressly prohibited. City tycoons built summer homes in newly named Bryn Mawr, where a railroad-owned, 250-room hotel catered to other city folk seeking a pastoral getaway. Soon, the middle class was being courted as well. The railroad, in a come-hither brochure (pictured above), cited "the charm of this suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings, combined with the educational advantages provided, churches, stores, and excellent transit facilities to and from the city."
If you could afford the freight, the Main Line was the place to be.
A CHILLY morning in late October, and the Amtrak crew at Wynnewood station has been working overnight. The men and their machines are laying a new generation of track on outbound No. 4, dispatching 40-year-old steel to the recycling yard and replacing it with what Amtrak program director Roy McAlister calls a "magic carpet."
The mobile work site creeps rather than flies, as the 1/8-mile-long Track Laying Machine (TLM)—a series of specialized railcars—does its job and moves on down the track. A conveyor belt scoops up the wooden crossties and drops onto their vacated berths 871-pound concrete replacements. Another TLM unit slides the old jointed rail out of harm’s way and lays down quarter-mile strips of steel welded every 80 feet. Behind the track-and-tie operation are the clipping and surfacing gangs who, in turn, fasten the crossties to the rail and fill the track bed with new stone for ballast.
The whole process is a far cry from what it used to be like—manually driving spikes on the Transcontinental Railroad. A handful of spectators have arrived to watch the passing parade.
"It’s a great crowd-pleaser," says SEPTA construction manager Steve Goodwin, as an outbound train pulls to a stop on track No. 3 and Amtrak workmen hustle a temporary platform into place for disembarking passengers. "People have been coming out everyday. Young kids love it."
The work of Goodwin, McAlister and company is part of an $80 million upgrade of the R5 line between Overbrook and Paoli in progress since 2005 and nearing completion. Jointly funded by SEPTA, Amtrak and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the project has targeted infrastructure characterized by SEPTA as "severely deteriorated."
Not anymore. Concrete has replaced wood in some 90,000 new crossties. Rail jointed in 39-foot lengths has yielded to the continuous welded rail, resulting in a ride that’s smoother, quieter and safer and track that’s easier to maintain. Gone are the "slow orders," requiring trains to run at less than posted speeds. Replacement of inbound track No. 1 began in May 2006. The action shifted to the outbound track last August, just as Amtrak was completing the same work on center tracks 2 and 3.
The project also calls for improvements to signal systems (which function like traffic lights), interlockings (that enable trains to switch directions) and electric traction (which sends power to train engines). "New or improved equipment provides for fewer malfunctions, resulting in improved on-time performance," says Jim Whitaker of SEPTA media relations.
That would indeed be a welcome development for commuters. Not long ago, SEPTA’s on-time record was the worst of any major rail transit service in the country, according to Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP), a non-profit advocacy group that’s been a vocal presence at public hearings. "They couldn’t crack 90 percent," says Mitchell, who cites the 96-98 percent range of Chicago’s Metra and other operators. After a SEPTA task force addressed the lag, matters improved. "They’ve gone from the basement to the middle of the pack," says Mitchell.
The second largest R5 project on the SEPTA docket is the $40 million Paoli Transportation Center. Don’t look for this anytime soon—a developer won’t be selected until fall at the earliest, and the budget extends through 2018. But a lot of red tape already has been cleared away. The project includes a new station house, expanded parking and bus facilities.
It is a strategic undertaking. In addition to commuters bound for Philadelphia or jobs along the growing Route 202 corridor, Paoli station (pictured above) serves Amtrak trains headed west as far as Chicago and east to 30th Street to connect to Washington or New York. It needs more space and more muscle to handle the increasing traffic.
Current design plans place the new station on the site of the former rail yard, which overlaps the existing parking lot. Declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to PCB contamination, the area has been cleaned up and restored, according to SEPTA. Tredyffrin and Willistown townships have tackled related zoning issues for the project, 80 percent of which is funded by the federal government. The balance is covered by state and local (i.e. SEPTA) combined.
If the design comes to fruition, the new station will feature ticket offices and high-level platforms, a 1,200-space parking lot, a special area for pickup and drop-off of passengers using the four feeder bus routes, and a new scheme of sidewalks and concourses. A landscaped plaza may rise where the old train shed once stood.
Additional capital projects loom on the R5 landscape. Here’s a roundup:
Ardmore Transit Center. This $7.5 million project is in the early planning stages in Lower Merion Township, though a master plan was drafted four years ago. The vision includes new signs and streetscape, expanded parking, bus facilities and high-level platforms. Improvements here would be a big plus for nearby Suburban Square and an Ardmore business district seeking a higher profile. High-level platforms will speed travel time (and reduce safety concerns), as passengers exit the train onto a flush platform.
Wayne station improvements. Built in the 1880s and partially renovated over the last decade, Wayne’s historic station house (pictured above) is a multi-venue happening. Beverages and occasional jazz vocals pour from the Café & Juice Bar. Further masonry and structural repairs, roof replacement and American Disabilities Act compliance (principally in the bathrooms) are a big part of a second-phase $18 million project that is about ready to start. Conversion to high-level platforms; improved drainage; and new stairs, tunnel ramps, canopies, handrails, lights and signs are also on the renovation agenda.
Exton parking expansion. With PennDot rebuilding Route 202 between Route 30 and Swedesford Road in this burgeoning area, the state has kicked in some money to expand parking at Exton station, with an eye toward reducing traffic congestion while the highway work is in progress. The better news is that the extra spaces—some 170, plus another 199 to be reconfigured—will stick. SEPTA will lease land from Amtrak and relocate a communications line to accommodate the expanded parking area. The $5 million project will start in the spring and should finish by September 2009, according to SEPTA.
Malvern station improvements. Design work on the upgrades—including parking expansion—is just underway, and construction is slated for completion by fall 2009, according to Whitaker. The $6.6 million project includes a new pedestrian underpass, new lighting and fencing, along with more parking.
R5 Paoli improvements also include the rehabilitation of rail vehicles used on the line, and broader SEPTA plans call for 120 new "Silverliner V" cars to replace the old Silverliners, some of which date back to 1963 and are possibly the nation’s oldest commuter railcars still in regular service. The new cars—about three-quarters of which will be "married" (permanently coupled) pairs—aren’t likely to come online until 2009 and 2010. At that point, Silverliner II’s and III’s will be retired, and the IV’s (built in 1974-’76) will supplement the new fleet during rush hour and other crunch times.
Like their ancestors, the new Silverliners will not have restrooms, a sore spot with critics. SEPTA remains the country’s only major commuter rail operator that does not equip its trains with at least one restroom. The typical R5 run is not inordinately long—but, goes the argument, emergencies do happen. "With a power failure or some other breakdown, you can have a serious problem," says DVARP’s Mitchell.
Equipping trains with restrooms, and maintaining them, can be costly. SEPTA’s position is that its routes are "short-run" and the equipment complies with Federal Railroad Administration guidelines. Still, the lack of restrooms is indicative, more than a few believe, of SEPTA’s placing a low priority on customer service. While most beefs have been directed at the Market-Frankford El, the Broad Street Subway and inner-city bus routes (the planned elimination of paper transfers was not exactly well-received), suburban lines haven’t been immune to criticism.
Pocketbook and convenience issues have surfaced in the suburbs as well as the city. Last July’s 11 percent fare increase for rail passengers was accompanied by a change in onboard ticket-purchasing policy. Riders were unfazed by the rate increase, but the onboard onus—a hefty surcharge not only when the ticket window is open but at all times—continues to catch flak. With no ticket vending machines available, SEPTA obviously is pushing weekly/monthly passes and advance purchases. "The same thing happened in ’89, and [SEPTA] reversed it," says Mitchell, who also questions the wisdom of SEPTA’s hiking discount family fares even more (on a percentage basis) than standard fares.
On the heels of the rate increase, communications were less than crystal clear regarding refunds for old tickets, and some passengers seemed to be left holding the bag. SEPTA eventually extended the deadline.
EPTA’s most passionate critics believe the agency isn’t doing enough to make the train an attractive alternative to driving—that a shift in perspective is needed to entice new ridership. Historian Steven Conn (author of Metropolitan Philadelphia) wrote in a news-paper opinion piece last summer that "putting riders at the center of SEPTA’s agenda will require a cultural sea change." Happier riders, he insisted, are an ally—rather than an adversary—of an agency dealing with the complex problems of running a metro rail system.
Though R5 ridership has remained steady for more than a decade, it’s up system-wide—and equipment is stretched. Some analysts recommend a bi-level railcar as the cost-efficient model of the future, but SEPTA has steered away from the concept. "They’re saying the tunnels can’t handle it, but they could design a car with an upper deck," says retired railroader Frank Tatnall, former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. "You can get a lot more people in bi-levels."
DVARP has asked SEPTA to follow the lead of New Jersey Transit and build new cars with two seats on either side of an expanded center aisle, instead of the existing three-and-two and a narrow aisle. "A lot of commuters would rather stand than sit in the middle," says Mitchell. "And without the ‘middle-seat shuffle,’ the train loads and unloads quickly."
DVARP also touts wireless service—adopted by some railroads—as a passenger amenity that can help attract new riders.
Of course, such things cost money, but they are intended to pay off in the long run. With substantial funds being funneled into SEPTA capital projects, the R5 is girding for an extended run, irrespective of double-deckers, Wi-Fi, ticket machines or restrooms. The trains are running on new track, stations are sprucing up and the commuter lives on.
The Paoli Local rides again.
SEPTA Fun Facts
» Number of active railroad stations (system-wide): 153
» Number of active railroad stations on R5 Paoli/Thorndale line: 22
» Regional rail routes: 13
» Longest distance: R5 Paoli/Thorndale; 35 miles from 30th Street Station to Thorndale
» Number of counties on the R5 line: 4 (Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Chester)
» The Paoli local, in the form of a horse-drawn trolley, debuted on Sept. 20, 1832
» Electrified service between Philadelphia and Paoli began on Sept. 11, 1915
» In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, SEPTA rail operations (not including the El and subway) consumed more than 195 million kilowatt hours of electricity.
Ridership (reflects inbound boardings only; double the figures for an estimate of total number of passengers):
» R5 Paoli/Thorndale annual ridership: 2.75 million (number has remained steady since 1993)
» Bryn Mawr station’s average weekday ridership in 2005 (last available): 803
» Paoli station’s average weekday ridership in 2005: 1,206
On Time (within five minutes of schedule at endpoints):
» R5 Paoli/Thorndale trains on time in 2006: 88%
» SEPTA trains on time in 2006: 91%
» R5 Paoli/Thorndale trains on time in 2007 (through September): 91.75%
Figures courtesy of SEPTA.
Scouting for Parking
Number of non-permit spaces (and percentage filled on weekdays) in station parking lots on the R5 line:
Overbrook: 112 (92%)
Merion: 60 (100%)
Narberth: 111 (100%)
Wynnewood: 117 (100%)
Ardmore: permit only
Haverford: 50 (100%)
Bryn Mawr: 46 (100%)
Rosemont: 90 (100%)
Villanova: 89 (94%)
Radnor: 95 (100%)
St. Davids: 57 (86%)
Wayne: 100 (100%)
Strafford: 115 (100%)
Devon: 166 (97%)
Berwyn: 99 (86%)
Daylesford: 152 (95%)
Paoli: 196 (100%)
Malvern: 278 (100%)
Exton: 425 (100%)
Whitford: 232 (78%)
Downingtown: 213 (87%)
Thorndale: 250 (95%)
Figures courtesy of SEPTA.
Last summer’s collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis sent engineers nationwide scurrying to reassess the safety of rail and highway bridges. It was a case of prudence—not panic. SEPTA had been repairing and replacing bridges all along—100 since 1990. However, of the 285 regional rail bridges it maintains, SEPTA rated 32 in "poor" condition as of last fall.
But as it turns out, poor is not perilous. SEPTA and Amtrak regard such bridges as safe, pointing out that they were built for heavier trains and are inspected regularly. Action is taken if further deterioration is evident. More good news for locals: The only "poor" bridge on the R5 line is a two-yard span over the foot tunnel at Haverford Station.