SEPTA Needs More Transparency about its Problems, Like it has Done in the Past

The Market-Frankford El is, once again, afflicted by new cracks in the steel beams inside the subway cars. SEPTA spent over $3 million on a specialized repair facility for this issue last fall, and another $15 to $18 million is needed for a permanent fix. The repairs are slated to take several years, negatively impacting the number of trains available for service. Why is the public just finding out about it now?

SEPTA management knew about this new problem for at least several months but missed an opportunity to be transparent and build trust with their riders. Instead, we needed packed platforms and rigorous investigative journalism to uncover the issue. 

This is not the first time we have seen SEPTA hiding the condition of their vehicles. A few weeks ago, we were surprised by news that nearly the entire fleet of SEPTA's Route 15 trolleys were unable to pass inspection.

The public expects better. The public expects SEPTA to be more transparent about its issues, especially problems that can impact its ability to serve its riders.

This is also the second time in three years that these subway cars needed urgent maintenance.  In 2017, many of the same El cars required emergency welding for the same issue.

These recent incidents raise questions not just about the agency’s ability to maintain their vehicles, but also their capability, and perhaps even willingness, to address these challenges before it affects service.

Greater frequency is the answer to capacity problems, and it is wonderful news that the agency has recently announced it will be serving all stations during peak hours and increasing frequency during the early evening hours. But the agency will find it difficult or even impossible to implement these reforms consistently if too many of its vehicles are not available for service. 

We see increasing frequency and reconfiguring the car’s interior design as great solutions to increase the line’s capacity, but there are limits SEPTA will continue to encounter if it just doesn’t have usable cars.

SEPTA needs to show transparency similar to when Regional Rail cars were taken out of service for repairs in 2016.  The transit agency needs to engage the public and its Board over how it handles problems like this and its spending to address these issues. SEPTA must provide weekly updates on the status of repairs and the impacts this issue may have on the delivery of promised service. The Board also has a duty to provide the agency with appropriate oversight to ensure these vehicle issues are resolved correctly.

SEPTA’s leadership needs to demonstrate the lessons the agency has learned in resolving this problem. Going forward, SEPTA needs to regularly show data on fleet availability and the condition of the agency’s vehicles to ensure these concerns receive the attention they deserve.

The “El” is essential for the city’s prosperity and its smooth operation is necessary for the city’s ability to function. The ‘El’ is SEPTA’s busiest line, with up to 15 trains per hour at peak times and about 180,000-weekday trips. Almost 50% more than all of the system’s Regional Rail trips combined. 

Everyone deserves high-quality transit. As more households choose to live near high-quality transit, it’s no surprise that some of the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods are those served by the “El”. Tens of thousands of our city’s seniors and low-income residents absolutely depend on the train line’s efficient functioning to get around. Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker notes "frequency is freedom". A reliable, high-frequency train service like the ‘El’ unlocks opportunities for everyone across our region.