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.
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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.
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.
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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Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.
The Uber website proudly states that, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber's rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.” Such hype is common on corporate websites, but when the braggadocio is backed up by an article in the Wall Street Journal that discloses a valuation of $41 billion their ambitious words take on relevance.
As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.