Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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More than 130,000 people a day rode SEPTA’s Regional Rail before the pandemic hit. The impact of the expansive network is huge for the Philly area — the 13 lines and 155 stations stretch into suburban counties and New Jersey, and proximity to them adds an average 7.4% value to homes.

But outstanding issues with the network have driven riders away. Its infrequent schedule favors 9-to-5 commuters — a system that collapsed under the mass move to remote work. Only about half the stations are accessible, and fares are at least double the price of buses, subways or trolleys.

Have thoughts on all that? The transit authority on Tuesday launched a survey looking for riders to share feedback.

It’s part of a year-long effort to finally make some changes to the antiquated network. The Regional Rail revamp is part of a strategic plan called SEPTA Forward, which aims to create a new vision for the transit system’s future, announced earlier this year.

Led by SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, the initiative has already touched multiple modes of Philly transit. Earlier this month, SEPTA shared a tentative rebranding of the subways, trolleys, and light rail network to “the Metro,” along with a refresh of wayfinding signage. In the spring, officials announced a $25 million redesign of the bus network.

From now until summer 2022, SEPTA says it’ll survey people who currently ride Regional Rail, people who used to ride and people who have never ridden — plus operators, staff and other transit stakeholders.

The new Regional Rail survey is basically meant to gather info and help SEPTA plan to make a plan. Once officials figure out what people like and dislike about the current model, they say they’ll be poised to implement some big changes.

Some options on the table: adjusting the frequency of trains, modifying route lengths, changing fares, and adding better connections to other modes of transit.

“In this phase, we’re listening to the public to understand how they may or may not be using Regional Rail right now,” Jody Holton, SEPTA’s assistant general manager of planning, told Billy Penn. “We’ll come back in the spring with a couple alternatives, and some operating policies that would have to change to get there.”

Offered in English and Spanish, the online survey asks questions about how often you ride Regional Rail, what kinds of trips you use it for and whether you’d recommend the system to friends. Riders can also share their thoughts at an Oct. 12 virtual meeting, open to the public.

In general, SEPTA has been shown to have a huge economic impact in Pennsylvania — estimated around $3 billion a year. Holton said officials haven’t agreed on how much money they’re willing to spend to revamp Regional Rail. That will come after the surveying process.

“Then we have to put together a funding plan to achieve that,” Holton said. “And then it becomes a question of whether we can raise those funds.”

Ridership is still only 1/3 of what it was before COVID

COVID slashed Regional Rail’s steady commuting ridership by about 80%. Even now, Holton said the network is still trying to recover, with ridership hovering around 30% the pre-pandemic numbers.

The transit authority is trying to breathe life back into the system.

Projections show that fall and winter have huge potential, with students returning to in-person classes and more companies bringing employees back to their offices. SEPTA recently increased Regional Rail service by 65%, Holton said, to capture those riders as they begin to travel again.

“That’s based on forecasts that we’ve done that show that this fall, we’re hoping to get that 50% to 60% of normal ridership,” Holton said. “Having that service in place to accommodate that is part of the thoughtful planning.”

Still, many riders opt to take the buses or subways instead of Regional Rail, citing higher fares, infrequent service, and accessibility issues.

SEPTA already announced plans to improve schedules earlier this year, proposing that trains come every 15 minutes by 2045. Currently, they come roughly once an hour during off-peak hours, and a few times during rush hours.

Transit advocates have argued that offering more regular service on Regional Rail lines is essential. It would turn the system into a form of rapid transit, expanding public transportation options in neighborhoods and towns otherwise underserved.

In the surveying process (fill it out here), Holton hopes to reach at least a few thousand riders. Her team will comb the responses for short-term improvements that can be made immediately — like the elimination of transfer fees last year. Ideas for long-term changes won’t be ready until at least spring of 2022.

“My top priorities are having people understand how well the Regional Rail system is working, but also how much more it could become and how much more accessible it could be,” Holton said.

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...