SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line

SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line

Screenshot via YouTube

Cracked: Why has SEPTA been so inconvenient lately?

“It’s been a very frustrating year,” said one transit expert. “We know SEPTA is trying.”

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The similarities of SEPTA’s latest mess were too obvious, and Matthew Mitchell seized on them in an email he sent to members of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. Mitchell, vice president of the group, compared the cracks sidelining 60 Market-Frankford Line cars — nearly half the size of the fleet used in rush hour times — to the failure of Regional Rail cars from the summer, running through a checklist of parallels: cracks, cars going out of service, crowded trains and even how both problems arose around holidays.           

“It came a few days late for Groundhog Day,” his message began, “but otherwise all the signs were there.”

And for public transit users in Philadelphia, the movie Groundhog Day is a good reference point anytime SEPTA is struggling. For the last several months, it has seemed like something has been wrong with it nearly every day. The cracks in the El cars came about seven months after cracks were discovered in Regional Rail vehicles, leading to crowded trains and delays for weeks. In November, buses, trolleys and subways were closed altogether because of a strike. All of those issues have come after the years-long delayed rollout of SEPTA Key, which has still not become widely available.

Is this normal for a big-city transit agency? Or are SEPTA’s many issues unique, a product of its system and choices made over the last several years?

The cracks plaguing the cars on the El and those that plagued Regional Rail occurred in different places. But both cars had issues during the time they were first purchased.

The current MFL cars, the M4s, were bought in 1994, originally made by an Australian company called Adtranz, which was later purchased by Bombardier. They replaced 40-year-old cars that were so technologically backward they didn’t even have air conditioning. The Adtranz cars were ready in 1999, a year later than expected, and immediately had weight problems.

The Regional Rail cars were assembled by Hyundai Rotem. The company lowballed three others and won the bid despite having the worst technical score. Delays followed; these cars were too heavy, too.

Procurement problems with new vehicles have happened throughout the country. SEPTA’s specific issues, like cracks or similar problems popping up years later, have been less common. The MTA in New York and CTA in Chicago have not experienced structural damage to vehicles that sidelined a large number of cars in recent years.   

That doesn’t mean other agencies haven’t had different problems. Cold weather caused massive delays on PATCO earlier this year. New Jersey Transit authorities have been investigated for safety violations.

That’s a much more disturbing situation than what we have with the M4s,” Mitchell said.

Said Randy Clarke, acting vice president of the American Public Transit Association: “I think what it gets down to is the transit industry is unbelievably complex. Trying to [repair and improve technology] while trying to do safe reliable services for hundreds, it’s like trying to do open heart surgery while you’re going for a run.”

And hey, look on the bright side! By finding these problems, Clarke argued, SEPTA is showing its competency. An employee discovered the cracks on the El during a maintenance check in which the employee searched under the floor of a vehicle.  

“Public transit is the safest mode of transportation,” Clarke said. “That happens because of people like SEPTA that are willing to make decisions that have some customer inconvenience at times.”      

But SEPTA has been inconvenient these last few months, more so than transit companies in other cities,  and that’s what people are more likely to notice than quality safety checks. The cracks on El and Regional Rail vehicles, the strike and the SEPTA Key rollout have been compounded by routine delays on Regional Rail. Rather than get them running on time, SEPTA has twice changed its timetables in recent months to reflect the later times the trains arrive.

It will take time to find out exactly what caused the cracks on the El and where the blame lies. In the meantime, Clarke recommends SEPTA continue to be upfront about its issues.

“The only way to do it is be open and transparent,” he said. “[There’s] not much else to do it.”