SEPTA’s Broad-Ridge Spur an existential tunnel of digital wisdom

    SEPTA’s Broad-Ridge Spur connects Philadelphia’s two subway lines.

    But now, more than ever, it may be helping commuters connect with their inner places of peace.

    Standing on a subway platform along SEPTA’s Ridge Avenue spur can be an isolating, surreal experience. In flickering, florescent light, you hear the distant rumbling screech of a train, but chances are, it’s not the one you’re waiting for.

    It’s some other train on some other track — the sound emanating down from the netherworld of tunnels above you. Waiting for the spur, you’re below all that — and most likely, you’re alone.

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    As each moment of buried silence creeps by, it’s not outrageous to wonder if your train is ever coming. Maybe the spur is SEPTA’s idea of a practical joke?

    But there is one thing to reassure you.

    Hanging down from the ceiling there’s a scrolling LED display that gives riders a mix of messages. A consistent dose of date, time, station name, useful tips for travel, and also — kind of bizarrely — some fairly high-level new-agey self-help.

    There’s nothing quite like standing in a cavernous urban dungeon of a subway station and being told by scrolling red text how to live your life better.

    “I don’t really look at them that much, but they don’t seem to bother me. They seem to be OK,” said Bob Johnson, a 70-year-old Vietnam War vet who takes the spur to get from his place in North Philly to the V.A. building under the Ben Franklin Bridge.

    On an otherwise empty station platform, his brand of folksy wit brought the digital wisdom to life.

    “Ahh, here we go. ‘Today is a good day to show respect,’ yeah respecting one another. I guess that’s the way to calm people down. ‘Work to be positive in your encounters with others.’ Eh, not bad Does it work?” Johnson said laughing, “I don’t know.”

    “They’re nice declarative statements, but you know what, you just read them and say that’s a good idea if it would work,” said Johnson.

    A chance to reflect

    As we waited for the underground aphorisms to scroll by, Johnson talked big picture.

    “You know, in this grand society we have today, you begin to wonder. Everything’s so helter-skelter, economy and everything else, people out of work. You know, inflation and everything else. Tough times.

    “Ah, here we go,” he said, noticing another philosophical transmission: “‘Great people do great things.'”

    “Well, I agree with that,” he said.

    SEPTA says it started sending the messages eight months ago from its main control center as a way to cheer up commuters having a bad day. You can see the messages anywhere on SEPTA, but they tend to show up more on the spur because, well, there’s less going on down there, fewer service updates.

    Whereas the Market-Frankford Line gets 190,000 riders a day, and the Broad Street Line gets 120,000, the spur gets only 8,000.

    For Johnson, the messages do offer a chance to reflect.

    “‘Set your thoughts to be your best.’ That’s an interesting statement,” Johnson said. “They’re nice statements. They make you think, but eh — It’s just the everyday living can kind of wear people down, you know?

    “It wears them down a little bit; it wears us all down. I’m 70, and it hasn’t worn me down yet, but you know you can get there. But you do the best you can, that’s all.”

    When his train finally came, Johnson got on, but I stayed behind, lingering for a moment in the scrolling cheer SEPTA was beaming down to me from somewhere high above. 

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