With a commitment to rebuilding SEPTA and making improvements across the board, leaders are already seeing their efforts pay off in a big way. Energy savings from new equipment and modernization of stations has freed up more money to start plans for other capital projects and targeted investments into recent projects has led to increases of ridership in recent years, with more than 39 million boarding SEPTA last year.
“Our dependability is our strong point,” Knueppel says. He adds, “We keep it moving.”
Rider Ennis Suttles, of Philadelphia, was aboard the Market-Frankford line when he reached out to Knueppel to thank him for the job SEPTA does in serving its customers. Suttles says he has rode transit systems in other major cities, but none of them match the ease of use SEPTA has.
“Hands down it’s the best,” Suttles says. “You just get on and you’re there.”
One third of SEPTA’s rail fleet was recently replaced with Silverliner V cars. Other Silverliner IV cars in service are from the 1970s while Silverliner II and III cars were getting retired just shy of 50 years of service in 2012. While the agency wants to upgrade the rest of its fleet, Knueppel says the new sets have already improved on-time performance dramatically. Performance was 95 percent during March and on one weekday that month, it reached 99 percent.
When SEPTA got the new Silverliner V vehicles, it also unwittingly became the first rail operator in the United States to have seats designed to meet new safety standards.
Gene Germaine, director of business development for Kustom Seating, says after the company got the contract to provide seats to Hyundai Rotem for the trains after another contract had fallen through with a Chinese seat manufacturer. Kustom Seating provided a new design set to meet safety requirements despite the standard not being in place at the time.
“We went ahead knowing the sign-off on the new standards was inevitable,” says Germaine. “No one really talked about it, but we knew about it so we just designed and built it.”
Andrew Gillespie, chief engineer of the engineering, maintenance and construction division says the new trains automatically transfer diagnostic information to maintenance in order to alert of any issues. The newregional trains also have Wi-Fi incorporated, which allows for geographically specific messages to riders dependent on where the train is at. It also opens up potential to do specific advertisements for riders.
SEPTA has been careful in managing its money to keep the system moving. While many agencies let employees gradually come back once they’re downsized, Burnfield says SEPTA never lets those employee spots come back. Each year every route is ranked on performance so adjustments can be made to improve them to make it the best system possible. Burnfield says the agency’s budget has also been balanced for 13 straight years and has been audited numerous times.
“The worst thing they could find is that our board members, we give them lunch twice a month and on one invoice it said ‘gourmet potato chips,’ and they called us out on buying gourmet potato chips, so I get Pennsylvania Herr’s potato chips now for our unpaid board,” Burnfield says. “If that’s the worst thing you can find about SEPTA, then I’m very proud about what we’ve done.”
It may seem like a daunting task to meet the challenges presented to SEPTA, but leaders say they keep a positive attitude and remind people the system is a vital economic engine to the region.
Knueppel says SEPTA has proven itself a good steward of taxpayer dollars and it can operate efficiently despite shedding 1,000 employees in 20 years while having more robust ridership.
“Right now as you can see our future is threatened despite our best efforts,” he says. “We’re spending $200 million per year to get rid of the backlog and we’re still $130 million short of keeping ourselves at the same backlog level, but we’re ready to go and the stimulus really showed that. Right now we have $500 million in projects that we consider shovel ready and consider ready to go in case federal or state funds increase.”