Winter wreaks havoc, leaves transit weary

Posted on March 21, 2014 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

SEPTA uses a jet engine to melt snow and ice on the tracks of its rail lines.
SEPTA uses a jet engine to melt snow and ice on the tracks of its rail lines.

The winter of 2014 was relentless, with its deep freezes, ice storms, record snowfall, torrential rain and mudslides. The polar vortex was a “hot” topic of conversation across the country and we became intimately familiar with the new phenomenon of naming winter storms — Janus, Nika and Quintus, anyone?

The end of the season will be welcomed by transportation organizations across the country, especially in Philadelphia, where the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) service was impacted by 16 storms and weeks of extremely frigid temperatures.

Proactive measures helped SEPTA “weather” the intense winter. Ahead of snow and ice storms, SEPTA twice detoured more than half of its bus routes that operate along roads notoriously prone to weather-related problems.

RELATED: "Arctic temperatures wreak havoc on Chicago rails"

On Feb. 13, SEPTA suspended all bus service from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, along with Regional Rail service, from 10 p.m. until the Feb. 14 morning rush hour.  

“Conditions were too hazardous for us to safely operate our vehicles,” said SEPTA Assistant GM, operations, Ron Hopkins. “We couldn’t risk having vehicles full of passengers stranded for hours during the storms in areas we wouldn’t be able to reach with our service trucks.”

Pulling buses off the streets also gave municipalities the opportunity to plow streets without having to navigate around the vehicles.    

SEPTA staff monitor the snow's impact on the system.
SEPTA staff monitor the snow's impact on the system.

In addition to detouring and interrupting service, SEPTA brought in personnel to work around the clock at its Headquarters Command Center and in the field to monitor conditions. Mechanical staff at bus depots and rail yards were able to address vehicle equipment concerns, while track inspectors, maintenance crews, signal maintainers and power crews staged at various locations throughout the system were available to attend to issues quickly. By deploying extra staff, SEPTA was in the best possible position to quickly identify problems and take corrective action to minimize the impact to riders.

SEPTA’s Market-Frankford and the Broad Street lines  — its two busiest routes — operated with train service overnight, rather than switch to regular Night Owl Bus service, to keep additional buses off potentially icy roads and help with efforts to continue service on those vital transit arteries.

Trains were stored in tunnels, to be out of the elements and ready for the next day’s commute. SEPTA also ran pilot trains on its Regional Rail commuter lines and trolley routes overnight to help prevent ice from accumulating on overhead wires.

The transit system's engineering, construction and maintenance crews trim trees on the Lansdale/Doylestown Line during the Feb. 5 storm.
The transit system's engineering, construction and maintenance crews trim trees on the Lansdale/Doylestown Line during the Feb. 5 storm.

While the proactive plan helped SEPTA preserve service, the weather did wreak havoc on its budget — as it did transit organizations across the country. In just a matter of weeks, a modest surplus of $200,000 was a multi-million dollar deficit — a word that is taboo to SEPTA Chief Financial Officer Richard Burnfield. The transit system has had a balanced budget for 14 consecutive years.

SEPTA had allotted for $4 million for winter costs. By Feb. 25, the agency had spent almost $11 million on labor (in-house and contracted); equipment rentals; and materials such as salt, traction motors, overhead wires, insulators and bus pneumatics. School and business closures caused by snow and ice led to lower ridership (down 6% and 8% in January and February, respectively), and therefore, reduced revenue. 

“Deficit is not part of my vocabulary,” Burnfield said. “We will have to take a hard look at our operating budget for the rest of the fiscal year to see how we can bring it back to a balanced status.”

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