After a decade of steady growth, ridership on the PATCO commuter rail line is down for the first eight months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.
It's unclear if the passenger decline is related to escalator failures and train delays that have plagued the railroad and angered customers in recent months. Ridership was down about 4 percent in August, when nearly half the escalators were broken, and dozens of trains were canceled or delayed.
And the 14-mile line between Center City and South Jersey may be challenged to keep ridership from dropping further, as it continues to send rail cars off to a New York factory for rebuilding and begins a $103 million reconstruction of the railroad on the Ben Franklin Bridge.
That project will mean delays next year, as trains will be forced to use just one of the two tracks so workers can replace tracks, ties, power and signal systems, and train control and communication systems, repair supporting structures, and apply three coats of new paint.
One vehicle lane also will be closed to traffic.
The work is expected to start in April and take about 21/2 years. Preparatory steelwork that began in August is slowing eastbound trains every day.
"It's work that needs to be done," said PATCO president John Matheussen. "But the turning off of the southern tracks for a couple of months will impact schedules. Headways will be impacted," he added, referring to the times between trains.
PATCO ridership for the first eight months of 2013 was down 1.7 percent compared with the first eight months of 2012. PATCO carried 7.07 million riders through August this year, about 121,000 fewer than the 7.19 million in the same period last year.
Tony DeSantis of Collingswood, an officer of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, said, "I think that PATCO blew it on the escalator contracts, as they have openly admitted. My fear is the same thing may happen with the car fleet."
"We could reach a point where the cars are breaking down faster than PATCO can replace them. And that could be happening right now."
PATCO is spending $194 million to retool its 120 cars, replacing interiors; brake and propulsion systems; lighting and messaging systems; and heating and cooling systems.
Delivery of the first refurbished cars from the Alstom Transport factory in Hornell, N.Y., scheduled for September, has fallen behind schedule.
"I think things will get worse before they get better," said DeSantis, a member of the citizens advisory committee of PATCO and its parent, the Delaware River Port Authority.
Vehicle traffic is also down this year on the four toll bridges operated by the DRPA, continuing a six-year slide.
About 32.3 million vehicles went through the toll booths through August, down about 423,000 or 1.3 percent, from the same period a year earlier.
Revenue on PATCO is down $470,000, about 2.5 percent, for the eight-month period, while bridge tolls are off by $830,000, about 0.4 percent.
In 2012, PATCO carried 10.6 million passengers, the most since 1999. Meanwhile, vehicle traffic on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross toll bridges dropped to 48.1 million, the lowest since 1995.
Bridge traffic had been rising each year since 2000 until tolls were increased from $3 for cars in September 2008 to $4.
Tolls rose again July 1, 2011, to $5. The DRPA board has said it has no plans to hike tolls again in the near future.
After reaching an all-time high of 55.1 million vehicles in 2007, bridge traffic has been declining every year since.
BY THE NUMBERS
Drop in PATCO ridership for the first eight months of 2013.
Drop in ridership in August.
Revenue drop for PATCO over the last eight months.
Cost for reconstruction of the railroad on the Ben Franklin Bridge that begins next year.
What PATCO is spending to refurbish 120 cars.
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