A SEPTA Regional Rail conductor in Philadelphia.

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If you’ve used Regional Rail more than a few times, you’ve probably griped about the service more than a few times. The transit authority says it’s listening — and wants to hear more.

SEPTA just kicked off a survey to figure out what actual people need and want from the rail system that connects Center City to Philadelphia’s outer neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs, so it can incorporate the feedback into a planned system makeover.

The central question is whether SEPTA should prioritize making trains run more consistently, more frequently, or faster.

A few, perhaps relatable personas start off the survey:

“Sarah’s shift starts at noon, so she drives to work because the midday train schedules are not convenient.”

“Marie takes the bus from Chester to 69th Street and then gets on the MFL to University City, even though Regional Rail would be quicker, because the MFL ride is cheaper.”

“Felix lives in Angora and works in Conshohocken. If their train is late, they miss the transfer and have to wait for an hour, so they’ve started driving instead.”

This survey and the promised forthcoming improvements are part of a larger effort called SEPTA Forward. The project aims to make public transit options in the Philadelphia area better fit the needs of people who use — or would use, if not for existing issues — the region’s buses, trolleys, subways, Norristown High Speed Line and Regional Rail.

Regional Rail has been isolated from the rest for various reasons, SEPTA said in a recent report: transferring between buses and rail is difficult, many stations aren’t set up well for people without cars, fares are not integrated between different modes of transit, schedules are difficult to understand, trains are unreliable and slow

In general, Regional Rail was designed to serve “9-to-5 suburban commuters,” SEPTA leaders acknowledged at a Wednesday night public meeting. The mission now is to change that.

“Low-income people and people of color, trips outside of peak periods, and nonwork trips account for a small portion of overall Regional Rail ridership,” the recent report noted, “even though Regional Rail serves areas where there are many such trips happening. This is a result of past decisions to focus on suburban trips.”

Another factor is the changing nature of work, said Ryan Judge, SEPTA’s director of strategic planning and analysis. With more people working remotely or on flexible schedules, planning primarily around a traditional commute for white-collar workers just doesn’t make sense.

On Wednesday, SEPTA unveiled three options for how it should prioritize its investments to make change, asking users (or would-be users) to choose between three scenarios:

  1. Providing service every 30 minutes at every station
  2. Providing more frequent service (every 15 minutes) at stations with the most demand
  3. Providing express service — where certain trains skip some stops to achieve speedier trips — all day long

At a public meeting Wednesday night, officials and consultants made clear SEPTA eventually wants to do all three of those things.

They also gave previews of what transit might look like if there were better connections between regional rail and other modes of travel, or if SEPTA was integrated with Amtrak on the Trenton line.

“The project will propose a long term vision for Regional Rail. It’s important, however, that this isn’t a far-in-the-future plan without palpable changes,” SEPTA planning analyst Claudia Aliff said. “So we are approaching this by identifying short-, medium- and long-term changes we can implement and opp we can take advantage of.”

The first group of changes will be able to take place within the next 3 to 5 years, Judge said.

Other changes will take time to implement, he added. For instance, increasing the number of train cars will be required, and that’s a medium-term plan, longer than 5 years.

That’s what makes this different from previous, never-implemented improvement plans, per Judge — and what could be the key to its success. Long-term overhauls tend to “get put on a shelf” when people don’t see quick progress, he said, but this effort aims to start with smaller goals that can actually be accomplished.

You can take SEPTA’s Regional Rail survey here.

Billy Penn will be keeping track of the effort’s progress, and digging deeper into issues with Regional Rail. Have an experience or question you want to share with us? Fill out the form below.

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