The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) played a key role in welcoming the world to Philadelphia for the visit of Pope Francis in late September. SEPTA was set to more than double capacity on most rail services and bolster some bus routes to accommodate crowds attending the triennial World Meeting of Families — the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families.
Over a year of planning by SEPTA was put into action during the Papal Visit. Initial estimates of 1.5 million attendees — up to 800,000 of which were expected to utilize SEPTA — prompted the authority and its partner agencies to craft a comprehensive transportation plan. And while this plan needed to accommodate visitors, it also had to make sure its regular riders, and their everyday commuting needs, were taken into account.
“SEPTA will make adjustments to key parts of its system to increase capacity and provide enhanced service for riders,” said SEPTA GM Joseph M. Casey of the plan. “SEPTA is doing everything possible to make public transportation convenient and efficient during the Papal Visit.”
Though it is considered by many to be an unprecedented event — for the Philadelphia Region, and possibly North America — SEPTA looked to its experience with the 2008 Phillies World Series Championship Parade when developing its service plan.
During the Phillies parade, an estimated one million people flocked to Center City Philadelphia on Oct. 31, 2008, and the majority used transit. SEPTA operated on a regular weekday schedule, and parts of the system, including the commuter Regional Rail network, were overwhelmed. In a period of just a few hours, the transit system experienced ridership numbers that would normally be recorded over the course of an entire day.
So when SEPTA began drafting it’s Papal Plan, it focused on adding capacity by providing direct Regional Rail service from select, key outlying stations. Where on a normal day, SEPTA operates to-and-from approximately 150 outlying Regional Rail stations, for the weekend of the Papal Visit, that number was set to be reduced to 18.
At the same time, SEPTA was expecting to be able to nearly triple passenger capacity by running express service from the selected outlying Regional Rail stations to Center City every half-hour on the mornings of the events. Riders reserved spots on these trains with special $10 One Day Regional Rail Papal Passes, which allows them to select one of the open stations and an inbound travel time of 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. to noon for each day. Post-event outbound express service was then set to run back to these stations.
SEPTA closely coordinated with partners, such as the City of Philadelphia and municipalities in the towns where train stations will be open, to ensure the safety and security of riders and residents. The agency also worked with its partners to secure additional parking, however, the authority encouraged attendees to be dropped off at a station due to the limited numbers of parking spaces at commuter rail lots.
Subway operations were also streamlined to accommodate the increased crowds, with 22 selected stations open on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines. Trolley and bus service was slated to continue throughout the Papal Visit, with adjustments as necessary for road closures. A number of major bus routes, including those that provide connecting service to SEPTA’s subways and Regional Rail lines, were to operate with higher frequency — running on weekday schedules, rather than the usual Saturday-and-Sunday timetables — to give riders more options for getting around during the event.
For most travelers, SEPTA stations in Center City will provide the closest access to the Papal Visit event venues. All rail drop-off stations are located within what has been dubbed the “Francis Festival Grounds.” A walk of less than two miles will get SEPTA riders to most Papal Visit activities.
SEPTA’s enhanced service plan, with increased capacity, provides room for those who wish to attend the festivities or need to travel into the Center City area for work that weekend.