In case you missed it, Pope Francis visited America — and was followed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during his stops in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. It’s fitting, given Pope Francis’ penchant for public transportation, that transit played a key role in taking the masses to papal visit activities.
In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) started planning for Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit as soon as the Vatican announced the trip in November 2014. Operations staff met on a weekly basis from the beginning, working out logistics of the service the authority would be able to provide to transport as many people as possibly wanted to attend Papal Visit events. Accommodating SEPTA’s regular weekend ridership also had to be factored in the plan.
“We looked at our performance during big events in the past,” said SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel. “We knew realistically how many people we were able to serve and created our Papal Visit plan based on those results.”
Eventually, every department at SEPTA was involved in the Papal Visit preparation, from police and revenue to procurement and engineering.
“This was an unprecedented event for us and we were doing things that we had not previously had to handle,” said Assistant GM, Operations Ron Hopkins. “For example, we had to create staging areas at our train stations, where customers would wait before pre-boarding the trains. Our Buildings and Bridges Department needed to determine how much fencing they needed for the waiting areas, as well as how many port-a-potties would be brought in for riders waiting at stations.”
When the weekend of Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia arrived (Sept. 26 to 27), it was “all hands on deck” for SEPTA. In addition to operators, conductors, engineers and dispatchers making sure vehicles were on the move, 700 employee ambassadors were located at stations throughout the SEPTA system, guiding passengers on and off trains and trolleys and answering questions. Approximately 300 staff members slept on cots at the authority’s headquarters and took showers in a trailer set up in the building’s parking lot.
“The majority of the passengers using our system that weekend were not from the Philadelphia region, or were not regular SEPTA riders,” said Hopkins. “We tapped into the knowledge our employees have of our system and of the Philadelphia region. We knew that our staff would be able to get the passengers to and from their destinations safely, would be able to answer questions about the city and would make the long hours fun.”
Many stations had a party-like atmosphere, with travelers entertained by DJs, dancing and game playing while waiting for their SEPTA rides.
When the final tickets were taken and turnstiles made their last turns, SEPTA provided approximately 750,000 rides on its Regional (commuter) Rail, Broad Street Line subway and Market-Frankford Line subway-elevated trains, trolleys and buses over the weekend.
“We transported that many people safely and without incident,” said Hopkins. “Our efforts to get the riders home at the end of the day on Sunday were phenomenal. “
Passengers came in to Center City during a six-to-seven hour time period, but at night, when the Papal mass ended around 6:30 p.m., they were leaving at the same time, from the same stations.
“Our employees had our major stations cleared before 9 p.m. on Sunday evening, long before we had anticipated,” Hopkins added. “The flow of thank-yous we received as the pilgrims made their way home, made the planning and long hours well-worth our efforts. “
Heather Redfern is the Public Information Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.