In times of disaster or tragedy, public transit agencies are frequently called upon to assist their communities and other transportation organizations. In case of fire, evacuation or accident, buses may be used to shelter or transport the displaced or injured, or serve as a respite site for first responders. Transit police departments regularly work side-by-side with local law enforcement officers during emergencies. When a transit authority loses the use of its vehicles or infrastructure due to a catastrophic event, a sister agency can be called upon to help, as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) did following Hurricane Sandy by loaning 30 buses to NJ Transit to be used for rail shuttle operations.

Often, public transit organizations are working to get communities back to a semblance of normalcy when a tragic event occurs, as seen following the derailment of Amtrak Train #188 in Philadelphia on May 12.

“The night of the accident, SEPTA Transit Police offered on-scene support at Frankford Junction and our Surface Operations quickly mobilized to transport injured passengers to area hospitals,” said SEPTA GM Joseph Casey. “While these early assist efforts took place, work was already beginning to establish an enhanced service plan for our West Trenton Regional Rail [commuter] Line and other travel alternatives.”

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (between Washington D.C. and Boston) is the nation’s busiest passenger rail service area — it had 11.6 million riders in fiscal year 2014. When the derailment stopped train travel between Philadelphia and New York for almost a week, thousands of travelers — including the 12,000 daily riders of SEPTA’s Trenton Line that uses the same Amtrak tracks through the accident scene — were left to find alternate means of travel. Working in collaboration, SEPTA and NJ Transit were able to get thousands of those travelers to their destinations between Philadelphia and New York.

The terminus of SEPTA’s West Trenton Line, which runs to Philadelphia, is just a few miles from the Trenton Transportation Center. Following the derailment, NJ Transit was still able to operate trains from Trenton to New York City. Partnering with NJ Transit, SEPTA took passengers on trains from Philadelphia to West Trenton and NJ Transit ran shuttle buses from West Trenton to the Trenton Transportation Center for travel to-and-from New York. The West Trenton Line, which has a daily ridership of 13,400, saw passenger loads of 15,500, 16,000 and 15,100 in the three days following the derailment. SEPTA added trains to the West Trenton Line to accommodate this increased ridership. The authority also ran shuttle buses from a station along the Trenton Line to its Frankford Transportation Center for the Market-Frankford subway-elevated line and partnered with local churches and businesses to accommodate increased parking near stations. SEPTA employee ambassadors were available at stations during rush hour to direct passengers to shuttles and trains.

“The response to this tragedy took a tremendous, multi-departmental, effort from across SEPTA,” said Casey. “This situation was upsetting and challenging but SEPTA staff displayed the highest levels of professionalism, cooperation, and compassion, adjusting to a quickly evolving situation and working to keep our customers informed and supported. We are always proud of the excellent work done in the course of a regular service day but the level of effort put forth in an emergency situation demonstrates the true commitment to customers and community shared by all public transportation organizations.”  

Heather Redfern is the Public Information Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

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Heather Redfern
Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA

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