Testing whether Night Owl rail services can 'fly'

Posted on June 18, 2014 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel talks about the new overnight weekend subway service at a rally for customers.
SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel talks about the new overnight weekend subway service at a rally for customers.
Those who depend on mass transit believe that service should be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week so that they can get to where they need to go, whenever they need to get there. In New York, MTA customers can hop on the subway 24 hours a day. In Chicago, CTA riders can use the Blue and Red “L” lines around the clock. But in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, major service lines and routes are not always all that convenient in the early hours of the morning — until now.

Two pilot programs recently launched by MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia are exploring the demand for late night service on the agencies’ most popular lines.

In late March, MBTA extended service on its Red, Orange, Green, Blue, Mattapan and Silver Lines, and 14 bus routes by 90 minutes on Fridays and Saturdays. In just the first month of the year-long pilot, MBTA had more than 72,000 late-night subway trips.     

In Philadelphia, SEPTA offers 24/7 service on 22 bus routes. But since 1991, the authority has substituted overnight rail service on its Broad Street (subway) and Market-Frankford (subway-elevated) lines — its highest ridership modes —with Nite Owl buses. On Sunday, June 15, SEPTA started a summer-long pilot of 24-hour weekend train service on the Broad Street and Marker-Frankford Lines.

RELATED: U. of Mich. pilots late-night, off-campus route

Low ridership was cited as a main reason why SEPTA switched from train to bus service. However, in the 23 years since overnight train service was halted on the subway lines, Philadelphia’s nightlife has become more vibrant, with new restaurants, sports arenas and other attractions opening across the city. With more people out and about later in the evening, a demand for more reliable late night transportation alternatives was created.

“There has been a late-night renaissance in Philadelphia,” said SEPTA GM Joseph M. Casey. “More people are moving back to the city. And, more people are coming into Center City to enjoy the restaurants, and to experience nightlife venues. To get to these spots, Philadelphia officials, community and business leaders and young people asked SEPTA to run trains after midnight. We heard them and decided to introduce the summer weekend pilot.”  

SEPTA will evaluate the weekend late night train program after the summer, examining ridership, staffing costs, safety and other factors to determine if the service should continue.  

The extended service initiatives in Philadelphia and Boston are examples of how agencies keep the “public” in public transportation by listening to customers and the community and working on compromises that can benefit all parties.

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