Back in April, SEPTA shut down all Regional Rail lines to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Service to these lines has since been restored, with the exception of the Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd lines.
The closure of these lines has made it increasingly difficult for Philadelphians in the Northwest to commute to and from Center City, and often means overcrowding on the Route 23 bus during rush hour.
In response, 5th Square, a political action committee focused on grassroots organizing around urbanist policies in Philadelphia, has circulated a petition calling for SEPTA to restore service to these rail lines.
Camille Boggan, a member of 5th Square’s transit steering committee, said the group hopes SEPTA will start making necessary changes when presented with enough signatures.
“[We hope that] SEPTA will recognize that a lot of people care about this and that we can continue to sort of put a little pressure on them to consider this change to their system,” she said.
According to 5th Square’s website, the main goal of the petition is to help the working class citizens that rely on the Regional Rail services. As of December, the petition has received more than 1,000 signatures.
“A huge part of it is allowing people to get to their essential jobs, get home, take their kid to day care,” Boggan said, “and not need to be on these overcrowded buses and concerned about people not wearing their masks, [or] concerned about immunocompromised people at home.”
In addition to restoring service, 5th Square’s petition also asks SEPTA to lower Regional Rail fare and to accept weekly and monthly Transpasses on Regional Rail. Usually, the more expensive Trailpasses are the only ones accepted on Regional Rail lines.
“[Regional Rail fare] is almost twice as much as a regular bus fare,” Boggan said. “A lot of people ride buses because they just simply can’t afford to ride Regional Rail.”
State Rep. Christopher Rabb of the 200th District, which contains six of the Chestnut Hill West line’s nine stops outside Center City, said many of his constituents have been affected by this extended closure and have reached out to him via phone call, email, and social media. These calls pushed Rabb to sign 5th Square’s petition himself.
“SEPTA is an important lifeline for people who don’t have cars,” Rabb said. “[Restoring service and lowering fares] is a challenging thing in terms of budget, but we need to find a way to make that happen.”
According to SEPTA’s customer service management team, the Chestnut Hill West line will not return due to Amtrak work, and the Cynwyd line remains closed due to staffing needs elsewhere.
In addition, ridership throughout the entire system is down about 85% compared to pre-COVID, with SEPTA losing nearly $1 million dollars a day due to nearly empty trains, according to a statement SEPTA sent to Philadelphia Neighborhoods.
Currently, SEPTA does not have plans to restore service right away.
“We know about the petition, but until the track work is completed, the CHW cannot return,” SEPTA representatives said. “If and when actual demand returns next year, we will assess service levels commensurate with available funding.”
Rabb believes it is SEPTA’s responsibility to properly serve its riders.
“SEPTA’s a quasi-governmental entity, it’s not a for-profit private enterprise,” Rabb said. “It’s an entity created by the government to serve the collective benefit of SEPTA riders and the communities they serve … particularly in times of pandemic or crisis.”
As the petition grows in popularity, Boggan said, 5th Square’s intentions to push for a better SEPTA system is not just limited to COVID-19 crises. Ideally, SEPTA would find ways to make Regional Rail more affordable in the long term.
“We’re hoping that after things get better and people are getting back on to transit, that SEPTA will consider integrating the Regional Rail system with the regular bus system,” she said. “This is not just about providing better service to people during the pandemic.”
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