Since we were talking about conflicts between faster transit speeds and politics yesterday, here’s a concrete example from SEPTA.
SEPTA could be faster. It could be upgraded to meet rapid-transit standards, but nobody is trying to do this. In order to run more like rapid transit, SEPTA needs to equip all the stations with higher platforms that are flush with the train floors. But some people don’t want to do this since it would mean there’s no need for conductors, as Stephen Smith points out:
Vuchic, who designed Philadelphia’s original through- running system, has been advocating for decades to upgrade the commuter-rail system to rapid-transit standards, to no avail.
“I don’t think they have even pressed the unions to do it, but they’re using them as an excuse to not make any change,” he said, referring to the authority’s management. “They’re not even trying!”
Vuchic also cited Septa’s regional-rail platform heights as an indication that the impediments to reform are bigger than the unions. Besides taking tickets, conductors are also needed on regional trains to cover the cars’ stairway for high-platform stations, and uncover them for those with low platforms. Getting rid of conductors requires that every station on a line be given a high platform, flush with train floors — something that Septa has made no systematic attempt to do, according to Vuchic.
Stephen says that upgrading to rapid transit standards could mean trains running every 20-30 minutes off-peak, which would reduce travel times within the city, and also between the city and the suburbs.
This would be a huge win on so many levels. More frequent trains would enable Philly and all the towns served by the regional rail network to accommodate more development and population growth. The amount of housing and office square footage you can add in the SEPA region is limited in part by the transportation network’s capacity to serve those structures. Increasing train speeds and frequency allows you to move more people around the region more quickly, taking some pressure off traffic congestion on the roads.
This would be a win for Philly and for local governments served by SEPTA, since faster more frequent trains would increase the value of land near train stops, and thus the value of local property tax bases.
And it would be a win for the state because SEPA is PA’s largest most productive economic region, and the more people can live and work there, the better off the state budget picture is going to look.
PennDOT should look at these TIFIA loans Jake Blumgart wrote about, and borrow some money from the federal government to make the upgrades SEPTA needs to increase train speed and frequency.