Updated 4 p.m.
SEPTA commuters who were met with a wet mess and long delays Friday morning can thank this week’s crazy weather pattern.
For those who don’t have off Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday’s commute might be worse.
Several stations along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines were completely soaked by midday Friday, with water covering the concourse platforms, dripping from the ceilings and seeping onto cars. The extreme dampness was “directly related to the weather,” a SEPTA spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn.
But this was not just the usual rainy day slog.
That’s because Philly is currently experiencing a “temperature roller coaster ride,” per National Weather Service meteorologist Lance Franck.
Last Sunday, temps officially dipped as low as 4 degrees, and by Friday morning they were recorded hitting the 60-degree mark. Weird as the huge discrepancy feels, these fluctuations wouldn’t have had as much effect on the subway if there hadn’t also been precipitation.
According to NWS, Philly got four inches of snow last week. It started melting on Monday, but the ground was still frozen, so the water had nowhere to go — except underground.
“The snow is melting, and on top of that we have some rain this morning,” said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesperson. “Water is trying to get to the lowest point possible, and that’s the subway stations.”
The addition of the one and a half inches of rain expected for Friday is likely to cause some serious “urban drainage flooding,” meteorologist Franck said.
SEPTA’s solution? Mops. By 11:30 a.m. Friday, Busch said, cleanup crews had already been dispatched to stations that see the most traffic (15th Street, Jefferson and Suburban stations) to try to sop up some of the water. After initiating work there, the crews will begin to address subway stations that see less foot traffic — and then will circle back to the busy ones.
“We have to keep hitting all of those [stations], and repeatedly,” Busch said. “We might make some progress, but then you go through a rush hour and it’s a mess again.”
Wet SEPTA concourses aren’t unusual in extreme weather, though the authority has recently worked on upgrades to mitigate service disruptions.
In 2011, after Hurricane Irene flooding damaged 12 Regional Rail cars parked in Trenton, causing more than $1 million in repairs, a plan to revamp infrastructure was formulated to protect SEPTA from future water damage. In March 2015, the city began implementing changes. They included:
- Raising sidewalk vents along the Broad Street Line to prevent rainwater from leaking into stations
- Erecting stilts under 25 railroad signal huts along Regional Rail lines prone to flooding, including the Manayunk/Norristown Line, which runs along the Schuylkill
- Installing new siding at the Miquon station on the Manayunk/Norristown Line — this helps trains turn around at the station when flooding prevents them from continuing on to Conshohocken and Norristown stations
- Adding subway pump room emergency power, which can prevent flooding in subway tunnels and stations during a power failure
Despite these upgrades, wet conditions can still cause delays like they did Friday, when trains were running anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes late. Part of this is because of what Busch called “increase dwell time” — i.e. SEPTA conductors lingering longer at the station to give people more time to navigate slippery floors.
Speaking of slippery, if you think today is bad, just wait till the mercury heads down the roller coaster’s next slope.
This weekend, temperatures are supposed to drop back into normal January territory, Franck noted, which means one thing: ice.
“Certainly there’s going to be some standing water out there,” Franck said. “We are concerned about [it], because it’s going to freeze Saturday into Sunday morning.”
If things don’t take a warmer turn before Monday morning — and they’re not forecast to — the ice will still be around.
Busch said SEPTA officials are “keeping a close eye” on the weather in advance of potential ice this weekend. He’s less concerned about the above ground stations — like the elevated Market Frankford Line and Regional Rail stations — because they usually dry out more quickly.
“We’re going to be closely monitoring the subway stations on the Market Frankford Line and the Broad Street Line, because obviously it is still very wet down there,” Busch said.
SEPTA officials won’t start laying down salt yet, but Busch said they’re prepared to treat platforms and concourses with de-icer when the freeze strikes.
“We do everything we can to maintain as much access as possible in the stations,” Busch added. “We’re trying to keep up with what’s out there, and be ready to respond to the unknowns that may come up.”
In the meantime, Busch advised people to take their time navigating SEPTA stations. Mind wet floor signs, and don’t try to run for a train in slippery or icy conditions.