As life begins to return to normal, commuting is too with the restoration of SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line.
SEPTA suspended the regional rail line in April 2020 but brought it back this past March after action from community groups.
“At one point, our ridership was 1% of what it was pre-pandemic,” Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations, said. “We were counting passengers by the hundreds instead of by the thousands.”
Low ridership and travel restrictions led to the closure of public transportation lines across the city and region. However, when SEPTA returned some of the lines, others, like Chestnut Hill West, stayed closed.
Low ridership and Amtrak construction delayed the line’s reopening, Sauer said.
“During pre-COVID times we would have encouraged them to do that work overnight or on weekends,” he said. “Then we would have created a schedule to run around it, which still would have been impacted by construction.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Chestnut Hill West line had the second-lowest ridership. The Northwest neighborhoods are also served by a nearby, adjacent route, the Chestnut Hill East line. At certain points in Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Germantown, the lines are just six blocks apart, which helped officials rationalize the decision to delay its reopening.
“When you look at Chestnut Hill, it’s served by two regional rail lines,” Phil Dawson, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said. “In normal circumstances, it’s supported by levels of ridership on both lines.”
When residents are commuting regularly, the two lines serve the neighborhood well, Dawson said.
“Of course, during a pandemic, that looks very different,” he said. “You have to take a look at which one of the two makes more sense.”
During the pandemic, there were worries that SEPTA’s losses would result in long-term changes, like the permanent removal of some lines.
“At some point last year, SEPTA’s doomsday scenario was talked about for a bit,” said Brad Maule, communications manager at Mt. Airy Community Development Corporation. “In that scenario, the Chestnut Hill West line would be cut.”
In response to the loss of the Chestnut Hill West line, 5th Square, a political action committee focused on urbanist policies in Philadelphia, circulated a petition asking SEPTA to restore service to its inactive regional rail lines. The petition also called for lower regional rail fares.
Camille Bogan, member of 5th Square’s transit steering committee, felt the petition not only put pressure on SEPTA, but also built strength at 5th Square.
“One of the effects was that a lot of people started to pay attention when this petition went out,” she said. “We were able to get it to a lot of networks here. Our organization has built our member list from this petition.”
The Chestnut Hill West line is valuable as a direct link between Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill and Center City, Dawson said.
“The Chestnut Hill West line is a really important connector,” Dawson said. “It’s the quickest rail link to Center City. It’s important for commuters going from Chestnut Hill to the city and also for reverse commuters working here and taking the line out.”
Many residents had grown used to the convenience of two lines in their neighborhood and felt the loss of the Chestnut Hill West Line as a disruption, especially as offices started to open back up and people needed to start commuting again, Maude said.
“People were upset and inconvenienced, but people also understood why it happened and why it happened the way it happened,” he said.
The line reopened on March 8, providing a reduced schedule on weekdays. Amtrak construction continued overnight and on weekends.
“I remember getting pictures of the first train that went to Chestnut Hill West station and he was greeted by residents, neighbors, riders with balloons and streamers,” Sauer said. “That’s important for our employees, to know how appreciated they are.”
While the line only runs on weekdays for now, Sauer said SEPTA is hoping to return to a more full service after the summer.
“Our planning group is working towards a September schedule that will increase service across the regional rail,” Sauer said.
SEPTA’s attention to this issue has also restored some confidence in the organization among leaders in the community.
“It’s been encouraging to see SEPTA make a commitment to maintaining and restoring the Chestnut Hill West,” Dawson said.
- Reported by Drew Bishop
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