SEPTA preps for a long night of snow removal

In Philadelphia this year, March is going out like a lamb — covered in the white fluffy stuff. Just a few days before Easter, yet another snowy nor’easter is buffeting the region.

That means another busy day and long night fighting to keep the trains and buses running for SEPTA.

“There is going to be some people working some long hours just to get everything up and running for service tomorrow for the morning rush hour,” said SEPTA spokeswoman Carla Showell-Lee.

To aid in this seemingly Sisyphean endeavor, SEPTA deploys maintenance and repair crews across the system for comparably quick responses to fallen trees and downed catenary wires, and employs a handful of heavy machines to keep the rails relatively snow-free. That’s been particularly helpful for SEPTA’s suburban rail routes.

“We sometimes have problems on our Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) because of that third rail,” said Showell-Lee. “But now we have a machine; it’s called the Geismar 360, which is able to combat heavy snow and get that snow off that third rail so we can keep service moving.”

SEPTA's Geismar 360 clearing the rails. (Photo credit: SEPTA)

SEPTA uses three Geismar 360s: one for the NHSL, one for the southern Regional Rail lines, and another for the northern lines. SEPTA also has three smaller snow removal machines to assist on those lines and the suburban trolley lines, plus a few plus a few other snow-throwers and ice melters on those routes.

The Market Frankford Line, which runs as an elevated line through West Philly and the lower Northeast, runs frequently enough that the trains themselves keep the tracks sufficiently clear.

There’s not much that can be done for SEPTA’s buses, though, when the roads get slippery. For bus routes that run up or down somewhat steep hills, SEPTA will run detours to avoid particularly dangerous areas, and, if safety dictates, will suspend the route completely. As conditions deteriorate, the number of bus routes detoured and suspended usually rises.

“We run service until it’s unsafe,” said Showell-Lee.

Like anyone else in the suburbs, there isn’t much Showell-Lee, and her colleagues can do when a snow-and-ice-laden tree falls on a PECO power line. And the things it can do aren’t without complication. Environmental groups, for one, aren’t too happy about a natural gas power plant that the agency is building to supply its Regional Rail lines with power, even when PECO goes down.

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