Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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Despite ridership being cut nearly in half by the pandemic, more people fell onto SEPTA tracks in 2020 than any of the past five years, according to data from the Philly region public transit authority.

What caused the disparity? One potential explanation: While train stops were mostly empty of commuter crowds, people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction continued to use the stations as respite, according to agency spokesperson Andrew Busch.

It’s not necessarily that there were more vulnerable people in the SEPTA stations. There wasn’t a noticeable increase, according to Liz Hersh, director of Philly’s Office of Homeless Services: “We are not aware that the numbers are any higher this year than in the past.”

But of the couple hundred incidents on Regional Rail, trolley and subway, there were “more falls involving people who appear to be under the influence,” Busch said.

With a total count of 183, the number of people who made contact with the rails in 2020 was nearly double 2019, and triple 2017.

Not all the falls can be attributed to people using stations as shelter. Sometimes it’s because of people taking risks as they ride the train, or using the tracks to attempt suicide.

On a Thursday evening in May, for example, a man’s body was found lifeless on the tracks near Allegheny Station. Video surveillance showed he was walking between MFL cars when he fell between them onto the rails.

The vast majority of passenger falls happen on the Market Frankford Line. That was true last year, and over the past half-decade with the MFL host to 79% of all SEPTA track falls.

Few passengers fell into the Broad Street Line rail system, and fewer still onto the Regional Rail, Norristown High Speed Line or trolley tracks.

The good news: Overall, falling injuries and fatalities on SEPTA were down year over year. There were 155 injuries at Regional Rail, subway and trolley stations — 18 of which were fatal. Both are the lowest those numbers have been in five years.

The last time injuries fell below 200 was 2017, when 198 people got hurt on those modes of transit. 20 people died on SEPTA trains in 2018 and 2019.

Budget crisis means solutions to curb falls are unlikely

With a $350 million budget shortfall, the Philly transit authority isn’t planning any new safety measures to curb the high 2020 rate, Busch said.

The authority launched its “Watch Their Step” campaign in 2017. That year, there were 60 incidents of people falling into the tracks — compared to last year’s 183. The transit agency uses signage and promotional video messages to remind customers to pay attention when they’re on the platform.

YouTube video

“This effort aims to educate customers on the variety of reasons for track falls, such as distractions from cell phones, customers leaning into the track area to look for the next train and possible medical conditions that can cause people to be unsteady on their feet,” Busch said.

And, per the SEPTA spokesperson, if they identify a trend in track falls at one specific station, “SEPTA will tailor safety outreach campaigns to those specific areas.”

There’s the open-gangway system, which is a subway design considered much safer than the one SEPTA uses. Instead of individual train cars connected by metal walkways — where passengers can fall onto the tracks — these trains are connected by an accordion-style exterior. On the inside, passengers can freely pass through cars inside a comfortable, closed walkway that blends in with the regular interior of the train. It makes falling onto the tracks while the train is moving virtually impossible.

Research from Japan suggests something as simple as facing benches in another direction could prevent dangerous track falls. A two-year study there revealed that 90% of track falls happen when the passenger is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and they stumbled out of their seats and onto the tracks.

But that’s really only possible when benches are parallel to the tracks. If benches are perpendicular to the tracks, and a passenger stumbles forward, they won’t land directly onto the rails — they might catch themselves on the platform.

There’s also video software that can detect when large objects fall onto the tracks, and transmit live video to the transit authority’s control center to inform train conductors on their way to that spot.

“SEPTA stresses to riders the importance of being aware of their surroundings at all times when they are near active rail tracks,” Busch said, “and to always stay back from the yellow tactile edge of the platform.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...