Along the Market-Frankford line

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Rush hour on the El is an experience. If the train’s running on time, you’re lucky. If you’re not standing on top of someone else, you’re really lucky. And if you can snag a seat on a rush hour train? It’s like striking gold.

So much of what happens on the Market-Frankford line during those critical hours of the day is due to the A-B stop system, or the fact that certain trains skip certain stops. (You can see here which stops are designated “A” stops or “B” stops.) As Billy Penn examined how the Market-Frankford line impacts Philadelphia through a project with The Inquirer, we repeatedly heard from readers who wanted to know more about this system, why it’s in place, and if it will ever change.

We chatted with Charles Webb, SEPTA’s chief officer of service planning, to learn a little bit more about the skip-stop mechanism. And we were able to get some answers to your questions.

First thing’s first: Why are there A-B stops on the Market-Frankford line anyway, and for how long has it been like that?

Webb wasn’t able to say when the A-B system started, so they’ve been around for as long as he can remember — even when he was a kid. And he’s been at SEPTA for 43 years. So safe to say it’s been like this for awhile. Some believe the skip-stop pattern dates to the 1950s.

But the purpose isn’t actually to save time, Webb explained. It’s to “better distribute passenger loads during peak periods,” specifically at designated stations that have the relative lowest ridership to other stations along the line.

“During peak periods when trains are at their highest capacity level,” Webb explained, “the idea is that you stop at every other stop so that there’s more of an opportunity for folks to get on the trains at those stops.”

So it’s not to save time? Is there any time actually saved due to the pattern?

Nope, not really. Webb said it does save a few minutes in each direction, but it’s relatively minimal. The goal is really just to improve capacity for riders.

Does SEPTA continuously evaluate which stations are considered A-B stops based on ridership or any other information?

Yes! Even though the skip-stop pattern has been around for decades, the stops actually subject to it have changed.

Webb said over the years, SEPTA has turned an A or a B stop into an “all-stop” location if there’s a large increase in ridership or development occurring in the area. He said 34th and 46th streets used to be an A-B pair — but that changed in 1994, when 34th Street was converted to an all-stop location. Today, there are more average weekday turnstile turns (6,400) at 34th Street station than almost any other non-Center City stop.

Then, in 2007, SEPTA converted 46th Street to also become an all-stop location. Today, there’s an average of 4,500 turnstile turns per day at 46th Street, one of the higher service stations on either end of the line.

So 2007 was the last time there was a change?

Yes. Webb said there were two other changes that occurred in 1990, when Spring Garden and 2nd St. both became all-stop locations following development in Old City and Northern Liberties. Webb said those locations were the first two to switch from A-B to all-stop.

Ridership has increased at Berks. When are they going to make it an all-stop location?

You can math! Ridership at the Berks Station has increased as development in Fishtown and Kensington has exploded. Over the last 15 years, Berks Station saw a 214 percent ridership increase. In 2016, 480,000 more rides were taken from Berks Station than in 2001.

But it’s still not on its way to becoming an all-stop location. Webb provided some perspective: All the current A-B stops serve, on an average weekday, less than 3,000 boarders per day. They vary from Millbourne, which carries about 400 boarders per day, to Huntingdon, which carries about 2,800. As for Berks? In 2016, it carried an average of 2,300 boarders per day.

SEPTA’s 2016 ridership figures shows this logic pretty much checks out. Every all-stop location currently on the line averaged more than 3,000 turnstile turns per weekday last year, save for Spring Garden, which averaged 2,973. Every A or B stop served less than that. The highest ridership of the A-B stops was at Huntingdon which, again, saw about 2,800 turnstile spins per weekday last year.

So if there’s an A-B stop that gets converted to an all-stop location, it would probably first be Huntingdon — which has also seen exponential growth over the last 15 years — before Berks. After that, the A-B stops with the next highest-ridership are Somerset and 63rd Street, which both average about 2,000 boarders per day.

What are the odds SEPTA adds more A-B stops?

Slim. Webb said he wouldn’t recommend adding more A-B stops as SEPTA continues to grapple with rush hour overcrowding.

Also: What’s with those random express trains from 2nd to Allegheny?

These aren’t related to the A-B stop system, but they’ve caused some confusion. Ever been sitting on the El at 2nd Street and been told either get off or you’re riding an express to Allegheny? It happens from time to time. On the western side of the line, there’s a similarly infrequent express from Center City to 52nd or 56th Street.

Webb said these expresses actually happen when there’s “a significant service delay.” He said the idea is to “clear the line,” meaning SEPTA takes a train and runs it from a certain point in Center City to, say, Allegheny. That enables trains behind it to catch up to a normal frequency. If you end up on one of these MFL expresses, you’re basically a SEPTA unicorn.

“We certainly hope,” Webb said, “that it’s an infrequent occurrence.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.