By Jeff Gammage
The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 11, 2010
Colin Weir rides the bus to work, and takes subways and trains elsewhere, so he spends a lot of time traversing the underground walkway in Center City. And he’s got a suggestion for SEPTA:
“Take a few thousand gallons of bleach to the concourse,” he said. “The whole thing is a cesspool of urine.”
Another thing: The outdated maps, like the one on the southbound platform at Walnut-Locust station? They need to go. And the overbearing fluorescent lights and endless, blind corridors don’t exactly make you feel safe.
Weir’s laments echo those of others who ride and rely on SEPTA. For many of them, public transportation is not a luxury but a necessity.
Today, SEPTA stands at a telling moment, poised in the aftermath of November’s nasty, six-day strike, and in advance of summer’s scheduled fare hike. Both events have riders weighing the quality of service they get for their money, how it’s delivered, and whether it will improve.
In interviews and conversations, many said they have noticed positive changes, but too often the trains are still late, the subway stations still reek, and the workers in the glass booths still don’t have a kind word.
SEPTA’s management team says it is actively focusing on customers, making service a higher priority. For instance, in summer 2008 SEPTA launched “Customer Connection,” a program that lets riders meet agency workers to ask questions and offer suggestions.
“We are devoted to focusing on our core business – serving our customers,” general manager Joseph Casey said then.
That alone is a big change at an agency that’s been traditionally, notoriously customer unfriendly.
“Customer service is an easy term to throw out there,” SEPTA’s Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager for customer service and advocacy, said in an interview. But “there’s no switch to throw. It’s a whole combination of things.”
Heinle said SEPTA management is listening hard to riders and transit advocates, using that information to help guide changes – like the advent of Quiet Ride.
That program designates the first car of most rush-hour trains as havens where cell-phone use is banned and passengers must speak in whispers – a blessing to riders seeking 30 or 40 minutes of peace on the way to or from Center City.
It hasn’t been perfect. Some riders don’t know the rules or choose to ignore them. Conductors can hesitate to intervene, leaving miffed passengers to confront offenders.
Which gets to the basic yin and yang of SEPTA.
Is service better than it used to be?
Spokesman Richard Maloney points to a 1980 Philadelphia Magazine story that described the subway as “40 miles of terror.” The story depicted a system where violent thugs preyed on passengers, drunks collapsed in their own vomit, and confused out-of-towners struggled through “the pit of decay, danger and official disinterest that Philadelphians meekly accept as their subway system.”
Does that mean SEPTA is all it should be? No. Even the people running the system admit that.
But one of the difficulties with measuring “service” is that SEPTA performs innumerable jobs at untold locations.
SEPTA serves five Pennsylvania counties – Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery – that cover 2,202 square miles, the landscape ranging from dense city neighborhood to rolling country field.
Its 13 commuter-rail lines travel as far north as Trenton and as far south as Newark, Del. Its 1,417 buses drive more than 45 million miles a year – roughly the distance from Earth to Mars.
SEPTA’s annual budget is $1.1 billion. On an average weekday, the agency transports more than 1.1 million people. That’s like moving the entire population of Dallas every day.
Carl Everett, a veteran rider who lives in Havertown and travels to his Center City office via the Norristown High Speed Line and the Market Street elevated subway, said he was generally satisfied with SEPTA.
Definitely, the trains could be cleaner and the signs clearer. But basically, said Everett, a lawyer at Saul Ewing, SEPTA is doing what he needs it to do: move him quickly, efficiently, and relatively cheaply from home to work and back again.
Another complication in judging service is that, because SEPTA is a public agency, its vehicles and facilities are open to all. So problems walk through the front door: crooks, drunks, rowdy teens, drug abusers, the mentally ill.
Passengers leaving Suburban Station via the stairway at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard often are greeted by puddles on the landing. When the stairwell is cleaned, it doesn’t stay that way, for the simple reason that homeless people use it as a bathroom.
“We could clean up, and 10 minutes later somebody could be urinating again in that same space,” said Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, which cleans the concourse through a contract with SEPTA.
Some riders say the concourse areas do seem cleaner since the Center City District took over the job about a year ago. And the presence of Center City District workers, in their bright teal uniforms, enhances a sense of safety.
Matthew Mitchell, of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, an advocacy group, said that overall, “the net quality of service seems to have improved slightly recently.”
He credits Heinle, the assistant general manager, and Casey, who was picked in early 2008 to lead SEPTA, for “really paying attention to customer service and looking for ways to improve the system.”
Weir, a Center City video editor who writes a blog called SEPTA Watch, said that despite the agency’s challenges, he’s optimistic.
The Regional Rail has the potential to be the best in the country. The Broad Street subway offers a speedy, inexpensive alternative to the madness of clogged traffic and pay-through-the-nose parking at the sports complex.
“I think the future is bright,” he said. “There’s expansion and reconstruction projects being planned for the first time in years. . . . Ridership is going up, and hopefully service quality will, too.”