West Chester Borough Council supports effort to restore SEPTA passenger rail service

A group of volunteers operates the scenic train rides for West Chester Railroad on the existing tracks.

A group of volunteers operates the scenic train rides for West Chester Railroad on the existing tracks. (Dan Davis/Courtesy of West Chester Railroad)

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West Chester Borough Council is unanimously throwing its support behind a proposal to restore the area’s passenger rail line connecting the borough to Philadelphia.

Commuter trains have not operated in Chester County’s most populous municipality since SEPTA shuttered the service in 1986. A community-driven revival has been in the works for years.

A recent vote by borough council cemented a resolution that allows the Railroad Restoration Committee to seek funding to reestablish service from Wawa, Delaware County, to West Chester. They call the plan the Metro Concept.

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“It’s a less costly and more achievable approach to returning rail service using battery-operated cars, and what we’d like to do is lease the cars for two years as a pilot project to show that we can attract riders,” said Jo Ann Kelton, chairperson of the Railroad Restoration Committee.

Trains ran along the line for nearly 100 years before SEPTA put a stop to passenger rail service due to low ridership. Riders weren’t bringing in enough money to support improvements to the line.

The borough has been working since 2014 — when the borough council created the committee — to solve that issue.

PennDOT published a feasibility study in 2018 that showed it was possible ridership would return if passenger service made a comeback. However, the price tag for revamping the line and buying modern passenger cars came in at an estimated $380 million. West Chester and SEPTA saw the cost as a rather large and expensive obstacle.

“Since that time, my committee and all the members, of course, have been working on plans to try to develop an alternate method of restoring service until SEPTA would be ready to take it over,” Kelton said.

She pointed to the upcoming revival of the defunct commuter rail station in Wawa as a sign of progress. Once SEPTA officially reconnects its Elwyn stop to Wawa, Kelton believes that the Metro Concept will have an opportunity to build on it and put West Chester back “on the map.”

The plan is to reopen four stations: two in West Chester, one in Westtown Township, and one near Cheyney University. The idea is that passengers from West Chester would transfer over from the battery-operated cars once at the Wawa station to regular SEPTA cars.

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According to the committee, this endeavor would cost $16.4 million — just 4% of PennDOT’s original estimation. This is largely because the plan does not call for the lines to be completely refitted to operate with the modern SEPTA cars.

“We think it’s feasible, and we think we can do it. We think it’s a very attractive alternative. And right now, we’re looking for funding sources, both state, local, and federal,” Kelton said.

Committee members are often asked if the borough that created it supports their plans. Now, they’ll have a signed resolution to approach potential funders with.

Borough Council President Michael Stefano was aware of the plans to restore West Chester’s passenger rail service even before he was an elected official. He was also aware of PennDOT’s hefty price tag.

“I feel like we’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of trying to get some momentum going. And although we’re not there [yet] and we have a long way to go on whether we could actually accomplish this, it just feels like we’re moving in the right direction,” Stefano said.

West Chester is currently the only county seat in the four suburban counties that doesn’t have passenger rail service into the city.

The closest station would be in Exton, Malvern, or Paoli. Stefano wants his constituents to have greater accessibility to travel by train.

“I think it’s a convenient way to travel. It’s a quick way to travel. It’s a reliable way to travel — and it would be an incredible boost for our community,” Stefano said.

Kelton views the prospect of rail restoration as a remedy for the climate crisis, among other economic and social benefits. A revamped train line would reduce the need for commuting by car, cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

While the committee’s work has largely run smoothly, there is one small wrinkle in their plans. A portion of the line is currently used by the West Chester Railroad, which is a tourist train that has been in operation since 1997.

The borough leases those tracks from SEPTA and the all-volunteer nonprofit West Chester Railroad Heritage Association operates the train.

“We run mostly on Sundays from Easter through September. And then October, November, December, we run on Saturdays as well. We’ll run anywhere from one to five trains on a particular given day,” said Tyler Haney, the president of the West Chester Railroad Heritage Association.

Under the direction of the railroad volunteers, riders depart on the “scenic” trip from West Chester station to Glen Mills. There is a 30-minute layover at the Glen Mills station, which has been around since 1881. Visitors can look at the historical exhibits inside or enjoy a meal at the  picnic grove outside. Then the train makes its way back home.

Haney enjoys being able to preserve this part of history in Chester and Delaware counties before there were long, winding highways.

“West Chester Railroad’s position has always been that we’re leasing the railroad at the pleasure of SEPTA and if SEPTA ever decides they want to bring regional rail service back, we will give up the tracks of them and let them take over and we would have to move on somewhere,” Haney said.

As the caretakers of the line, the volunteers have been working to ensure that the tracks weren’t completely abandoned. The group has even built a new train yard.

“We’ve had meetings with the committee. We’ve taken in everything they have to say. And ultimately, we think it could have some positive impacts for us, if they are able to get money to rebuild the track,” Haney said.

Haney thinks it’s possible to run regional rail service and the tourist train on the same tracks as long as there is a plan for how it’s going to be operated and who’s going to be responsible for maintenance — and as long as it doesn’t impact their operations.

West Chester Railroad did discuss with the borough council to have an amendment put into the resolution that the commuter rail should not impact its weekend operations. Because the trains are set to operate at different times, Kelton doesn’t believe that there will be any overlap in services or tours.

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