Winter Storm Jonas socked Philadelphia with 22.4 inches of snow in January. In some areas of the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) service region, snowfall totals were well over two feet. As a result of forecasted high winds, zero visibility and significant snow, SEPTA suspended service on all modes — with the exception of the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway-elevated lines, its two busiest routes — beginning at 4 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23.
“Making the decision to suspend our service was not one that was taken lightly,” said SEPTA GM Jeffrey D. Knueppel. “But with the expected white-out conditions, sustained high winds and snow accumulation, we knew we had to shut down the majority of our system, for the safety of our network."
The authority was concerned that high winds would topple trees located near overhead wires, trapping trains and trolleys in inaccessible locations. Bus and trolley operators could have difficulty safely driving in whiteout conditions.
“In the end, it was the snow, not the winds, that most affected our region. We wouldn't have been able to safely and reliably transport passengers," Knueppel said. "Fortunately, we were able to keep the heart of our system, the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, running throughout the storm, helping essential personnel to get to their work locations.”
A multifaceted communication approach was key in delivering SEPTA’s service plan before, during and after Jonas. Knueppel announced the plan at a press conference at SEPTA’s headquarters, 10:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22, the morning before the stoppage. Throughout the weekend, Knueppel and Assistant GM, Operations, Ron Hopkins spoke at press events, at SEPTA’s headquarters and along with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other key city personnel at City Hall and the Office of Emergency Management.
The authority’s Customer Service Call Center was staffed with extra personnel and the Social Media Team answered riders’ questions submitted to the @SEPTA_Social Twitter feed. The Control Center also maintained service announcements on SEPTA’s website and tweeted up-to-the-minute service advisories to the public. SEPTA Media Relations kept local news outlets informed with regular media advisories and phone interviews, tweeting photos of crews at work in the field preparing for a return to service.
SEPTA has purchased or leased new heavy equipment, such as vehicle managed snow blower and throwers and a brining system, to be better able to manage the elements.
"We tweeted and posted photos online to allow our customers to see how our crews were working around the clock to get our service back, battling extreme conditions,” Knueppel said. "We also created a Webpage to help commuters understand the enormity of snow plowing and removal at our stations and to watch our contractors' efforts in not just clearning snow, but also removing it with front end loaders and trucks."
SEPTA’s Airport Regional Rail Line and trolley routes were operating on Sunday, and, as roads were plowed, so were 35% of the authority’s buses. The remaining 12 Regional Rail Lines, some of which travel on Amtrak territory, operated on Monday, Jan. 25, along with partial service on the Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL). The NHSL has a top running electrified third rail, which was buried by drifting snow. Crews used a jet engine to dig out the rail and restore service on the entire route by the start of the service day the following Wednesday, Jan. 27. All SEPTA bus routes were also back in service by Wednesday.
“This was the fourth largest storm in Philadelphia’s history," Knueppel said. "Our approach was to provide key service in the core of the city for hospital, emergency response and other essential workers, while making prudent decisions for the safety of our network. SEPTA will conduct after-action meetings with feedback from customers as well as frontline employees utilized for the process."
Heather Redfern is the Public Information Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.