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The Works

Commuter Hopes He Can Petition His Way to Better Train Service

SEPTA train

A commuter has started a Change.Org petition to run more SEPTA regional rail trains into Wilmington, Delaware. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

When David Curtis’ night classes at the University of Pennsylvania run late, it can cost him $60. Once a resident of Philadelphia, he followed his girlfriend down the Delaware River to, well, Delaware. Now a resident of Wilmington, he has to catch the last SEPTA regional rail train departing 30th Street Station for his home at 9:40 — or sleep on a friend’s couch. If an accommodating companion can’t be found, he has to take a $60 Amtrak ride to get there.

There are other inconveniences for the unwary traveler on SEPTA’s Wilmington/Newark line (the only spur of the regional rail system to enter Delaware). Miss your train during off-peak hours? Bring a book: That’s a two hour wait.

SEPTA’s regional rail system is largely structured for the use of commuters at peak hours, with few exceptions. But none of the others threaten as long a wait as the Wilmington/Newark line. SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) provides service for the heavily trafficked Delaware part of the line for a fee, and the First State isn’t paying much — just $751,300 annually. As a result, 41 percent of the trains on the line do not cross the border and instead terminate and originate at Marcus Hook, the last stop on the Pennsylvania side of the border.

“It always felt like an intractable problem, even though the trains are always super busy and half of the total ridership [on the Wilmington/Newark line] is on the four stops in Delaware alone,” says Curtis. “But I never knew how to go about changing it and then the bridge went out on June 2nd and it seemed like the right time to build public support for greater frequencies.”

President Obama speaks in front of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del. The bridge’s sudden closure this summer prompted a rise in train ridership. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The bridge he is referring to is the I-495 over the Christina River in Delaware, which was closed suddenly for structural repairs. Ridership on the SEPTA line increased 33 percent from Newark, Delaware and 28 percent from the Churchman’s Crossing stop, according to Delaware Online. Curtis decided to try to make a push for higher frequency, by allowing all of the trains to cross the border, with a petition on Change.Org called “Connect All Trains to Wilmington.”

The effort is inspired in part by the successful petition of Conrad Benner, who started a Change.Org campaign to restore 24/7 subway service in Philadelphia. (Curtis and I both signed.) Now SEPTA is a month into its nonstop trial run for the summer, and the post-midnight numbers are good thus far.

So far Curtis’ petition has been up for a little more than a week and gathered 683 signatures. The language attempts to appeal not only to Delaware residents who already take the train, but to car commuters, who he argues will face less congested roads, and Philadelphians, who he argues need access to more good jobs. (Of the total jobs available in Wilmington, 85 percent are held by those who do not live in the city.) Thus far, he reports, roughly half the signatories live in Philly and half in Wilmington. He hopes for 1,500 backers by the end of the month. So far, he has not heard feedback from any official sources.

“If Delaware was able to provide the funding, SEPTA would be open to discussions about enhancements to regional rail service in Delaware,” says Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesperson. Although the Delaware Transit Corporation does not have such a service expansion budgeted for fiscal year 2015, their response is not dismissive either.

“As part of the FY16 budget process DTC [is] evaluating the possibility of adding additional rail service to Delaware,” John Sisson, CEO of the Delaware Transit Corporation told me in an email. “The additional services may be in the form of additional service to Wilmington, additional weekday trains between Wilmington and Newark, or additional weekend service. Economic development factors such as the STAR campus at the University of Delaware and the development of the Newark Regional Transportation Center are key factors in determining service expansions.”

A discordant note is sounded, however, on the subject of the cost. Curtis insists that the price of the expansion he is pushing for would be between $350,000 and $1 million, based on SEPTA’s Spring 2014 report on “Route Statistics.”

“I divided the fully allocated expense of the entire Wilmington/Newark line ($27,072,301) by the annual vehicle miles on the line (2,143,420) to arrive at a per-vehicle-mile expense of $12.63,” Curtis explained in an email. “Extending all available trains to Wilmington would add roughly 82,000 vehicle miles at a cost of $1.03 million using the $12.63 rate. This calculation, however, incorrectly assumes there are no fixed costs when the trains and crews (the greatest fixed costs) are already available. Therefore, the marginal cost should be much lower than this.”

But Sisson says this fails to take into account the charges incurred for the Wilmington/Newark line using Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor track. (Busch was also careful to note that additional coordination with Amtrak would be required, although he did not bring up costs.) He says the calculations in the Change.Org petition are therefore inaccurate, and that the cost of extending all trains from Marcus Hook to Wilmington would be more than $3 million a year.

Still, $3 million seems a small price to pay for reasonable train service between Philadelphia and Delaware’s largest city, which is trying to market itself as an alternative location for the region’s middle-to-upper class urbanites who don’t want to suffer endless jokes about cheesesteaks. Wilmington has long been a jobs hub, if one predicated on a particularly predatory business model, but in recent years it has had a degree of success in populating its long-neglected riverfront and downtown. The city hopes to grow by 5,000 residents in the next five years.

Curtis sees better transit options as a way to fight the city’s brutally high levels of unemployment and poverty as well. Some of Wilmington’s neighborhoods, chiefly those that are predominantly Hispanic or African-American, have seen few of the benefits from downtown revitalization beyond a smattering of new service sector jobs, most of them low wage. “This type of transportation investment has a certain egalitarian quality that helps, even if only marginally, to close the divide,” he says. “And it’s not at the expense of anyone or anything. It’s simply improved access, improved opportunity, for all.”

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.

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