A SEPTA Regional Rail stop in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The unexpected shutdown of I-95 could end up giving SEPTA a much-needed boost — if it can find enough engineers to maintain an expanded schedule of trains.

Some of the many commuters from Northeast Philly, Trenton and other points north of Philly are expected to switch to public transit, so they can avoid long drives through traffic-clogged neighborhood detours.

SEPTA on Monday added morning and afternoon departures to the Trenton Regional Rail line, and more cars to the West Trenton and Fox Chase lines. 

To free up the staff and equipment needed, the lightly-used Cynwyd train was switched to bus service.

Within the agency, “everybody understands that it’s good for employees and everyone who’s involved if we’re able to pull this off,” said spokesperson Andrew Busch. “We do hope that in the end we come out with more people who have taken SEPTA and decide that is the more convenient way for them to get to work.”

Public transit ridership hasn’t yet bounced back from the pandemic plummet — so the influx would be welcome — but the authority is facing a major worker shortage.

One in six budgeted engineer positions is unfilled, per SEPTA figures, and the total number of train operators and trainees is 12% lower than it was in January 2019. Funding isn’t the problem, although overall the agency is generally worried about its fiscal future. 

The problem is hiring. The labor market is tight, and SEPTA has struggled for years with a  backlog, with workers leaving faster than positions are filled. 

These staff shortages are evident on a daily basis.

Early Monday morning, a Trenton train was delayed because of “manpower issues.” A park and ride service at one station on the line was repeatedly canceled last week “due to operator unavailability.” On Friday, trips on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines were canceled for lack of workers. “Operator unavailability” is frequently given as the reason for delays and cancellations, especially on certain bus lines. 

The unreliable service has sparked doubts SEPTA can step in to provide a needed workaround to the highway collapse.

“SEPTA better commit to quick and significant improvements of service or the city is going to see a major exodus from any northern suburb employees,” rider Kristen McCabe of Media wrote on Sunday. 

Especially if it does manage to pick up the ball here, the circumstance could help SEPTA’s long-term financial outlook, which has been described as a budgetary “fiscal cliff” because pandemic relief funding runs out next year.

State Rep. Joe Hohenstein, who represents a section of Northeast Philly, this week introduced a bill that would let Philadelphia and some other counties create new local taxes to support transit and transportation programs.

“If we are going to say, ‘We have the ability to deal with a crisis like I-95,’ we only have that if we strengthen all of the different parts of the system,” Hohenstein told Billy Penn. 

Hundreds of positions still unfilled

After a pandemic-related hiring freeze, SEPTA’s employment headcount in early 2022 dropped to 6% short of its budgeted staffing target. That prompted a hiring binge last year to fill more than 200 positions, including crucial bus driver jobs that serve as feeders to subway operator and other positions.

But of the 3,180 budgeted positions for bus, trolley, subway and Norristown High Speed Line operators, 235 are still vacant. That’s over 7%.

“We’re facing more competition from private companies, from Amazon, from UPS, from different places that might be a little more competitive in terms of starting wages than they were four or five years ago,” said spokesperson Busch. 

SEPTA currently has only 178 engineers, the highly trained operators who run the Regional Rail trains, down from 209 before the pandemic, Busch said. 

It’s budgeted for 213 and arguably needs closer to 230, according to Don Hill, a locomotive engineer and general chair of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 71.

“They had to cancel a whole train line to try to provide a little bit more train service,” Hill said, referring to this week’s switch of the Cynwyd line to buses. “Headcount is a major, major problem here.”

They had to cancel a whole train line to try to provide a little bit more train service

Don Hill, chair of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 71

SEPTA’s also short on train conductors, with 208 on staff compared to 243 four years ago. The number of assistance conductors/trainees stands at 238, down from 257 before.

The train staffing issues date back decades, per Hill, who said SEPTA has never provided engineers and conductors with the supplemental pensions their counterparts have at other transit agencies, and they’re paid about 20% less than they would be at places like NJ Transit and Amtrak.

That leads to constant attrition as engineers seek higher pay elsewhere, Hill said. “You have engineers leaving in just droves.”

Busch said SEPTA is in federal mediation with Hill’s union regarding a new contract for engineers and conductors.

Letting Philly help fund its own transit system

This week’s crisis is an opportunity to remind the public and legislators of the importance of preparing SEPTA for the future, said Hohenstein, the state rep from Northeast Philly.

That includes making the trains and buses more hospitable and reliable, he said, and improving stations and other facilities, which requires more capital funding.

“When you redo and renovate a station, all of a sudden that station is a place that people are more comfortable going,” Hohenstein said. “Or even just reopening stations — I have a station that got closed on the Trenton line, in Wissinoming. I would love to get it reopened.”

The transportation funding bill he introduced in the Pa. House this week was also backed by Reps. Ben Waxman, Tarik Khan, and Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and Rep. Ben Sanchez of Harrisburg.

It would let the state’s largest counties voluntarily impose new levies, such as an income surtax or a real estate transfer, vehicle, local services or sales tax, for the purpose of supporting transit and transportation systems and infrastructure. Currently, SEPTA’s operating dollars are provided mainly by the state and from fare revenue, with substantial federal assistance in recent years, while funding for capital projects comes from the state, federal government, and borrowing.

Hohenstein said he’s also pushing for a “significant portion” of the state emergency funding to address the I-95 collapse to go toward compensating SEPTA for its costs. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s emergency disaster declaration for the highway collapse makes $7 million immediately available and waives some administrative requirements, and additional federal recovery funding is likely forthcoming.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...