PA: Miscues Turning Many Riders Away From PATCO

Feb. 13--PATCO rail commuters, distressed by chronic train delays, breakdowns, and unreliability, are starting to vote with their feet.

Ridership declined last year after a decade of steady growth. And the decline is likely to grow steeper after nightmarish commutes like those experienced Monday by many riders.

Trains broke down on the only operating track on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge during both the morning and evening rush hours, and in the evening incident, passengers had to be evacuated from smoke-filled cars to walk through a dark tunnel to safety.

"I took the bus today," said William McLaughlin, who commutes daily from his Mount Airy home to his job as a clinical law professor at Rutgers-Camden. "PATCO's gotten terrible. It's an unmitigated disaster."

McLaughlin was stranded for an hour Monday morning on a crowded platform at the Eighth and Market station in Philadelphia.

During the delay, a woman fainted and was caught in the door of a departing train. Waiting passengers banged on the train and yelled to the operator to stop, McLaughlin said. The woman sustained only minor injuries.

After spending two hours each way Monday to travel between Cherry Hill and Center City, legal secretary Lynn Lukaszewski said, "I will be driving on Mondays and Fridays, and if conditions do not show some improvement, five days a week.

"It's a small price to pay for my safety."

Melanie Cedrone, a librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, was on both disabled trains Monday.

Although she remains a fan of PATCO after 25 years of commuting, she said she was now going to take a NJ Transit train to 30th Street Station on Mondays and Fridays, or drive to work.

Jane Wells, who lives in Cherry Hill and commutes to work in Old City, was in the evening train that was disabled by a shorted-out electric traction motor, which sent smoke into several cars.

"It was horribly managed," she said. "The biggest thing last night was, there was no communication. ... You're thinking about 9/11 and being trapped. There was no escape. . . . I was talking to some of the men around me, saying, 'You'll have to break out the window.' But the wall of the tunnel was right outside the window."

Passengers eventually were taken off the train through the rear door of the last car. Escorted by Philadelphia police and firefighters, they walked along the tracks, on which the electricity had been turned off, to a platform at the long-closed Franklin Square station.

Kelley Gordon, a meeting planner who is more than 20 weeks pregnant, was on the first car of the train and was among the last to be evacuated.

About 45 minutes into her wait, said Gordon, "they called for elderly and pregnant women to walk to the back of the car.

"There was no one to escort us, and while many passengers were pleasant enough, there were certainly plenty of sideways glances and comments made as I tried to get through. I only made it two cars before I was stopped by people who didn't care that it was hot, stuffy, and we were without water. It's hard enough to take preferential treatment as a pregnant woman, but the passengers who wouldn't let us pass to get out should be ashamed of themselves. I hope to raise my children better."

At the Franklin Square station, she climbed out of an emergency exit to the street for a ride home to Voorhees.

Despite the unpleasant experience Monday, Gordon said she would continue to use PATCO.

"They are pretty reliable and quite a savings from the gas, toll, and city parking that it would cost to drive in, not to mention the traffic headache," she said. "I do wish to see a better method of evacuating the trains, and better customer service at the very least."

Many commuters were annoyed that PATCO was not putting out more information on social media to let them know what to expect. PATCO, unlike many transit agencies, does not engage in interactive conversations on social media, responding to questions or reports.

During the two hours of the evening emergency, PATCO's official Twitter handle, @RidePATCO, issued five tweets, warning of delays and reporting that a motor had shorted out on an eastbound train at 5:16 p.m.

"People are going to hate PATCO doing this construction," said Mark Gatti, a cartographer, who commutes from Audubon to Old City. "They need to give their riders an outlet for this anger and also a place to help fellow riders -- PATCO riders are overall a friendly bunch -- and feel that they are being listened to."

Gatti said that SEPTA, by comparison, "does a great job with its SEPTA_SOCIAL Twitter account. It responds to questions and complaints personally and with humor, understanding, and concern. They allow, and encourage, a sort of crowd-sourced 'eyes on the street' delay-reporting for the benefit of other commuters."

Ryan Lelache, an information technology consultant, who commutes from Stratford to Center City, said: "My concern with PATCO's social media presence is how slow they have responded to very serious issues affecting their commuters.

"On multiple occasions, issues like engine malfunctions and fires, medical emergencies, weather delays, and power outages have either been reported with significant delay or not reported at all via e-mail or social media."

A Twitter site called @PATCOWatchers on Tuesday chronicled a growing list of complaints from riders about late trains, broken escalators, and lack of information.

PATCO spokesman Tim Ireland said Tuesday that PATCO was "working to improve our customer-service communication. We're trying to get information more quickly from the source to our customers."

He noted that PATCO tweeted about Monday's problems, and he said PATCO was considering providing cell service in its tunnels in Philadelphia and Camden.

"The good news is that, in about three years, you'll have a whole new PATCO," with new bridge tracks and refurbished cars, Ireland said.

In the meantime, disenchantment with PATCO is likely to result in fewer riders and less revenue.

PATCO enjoyed growing ridership almost every year for more than a decade, but that ended last year.

Ridership slipped slightly, to about 10.5 million passengers, from 10.6 million in 2012, the highest since 1999, according to PATCO's most recent tabulations.

PATCO officials have acknowledged they expect ridership to slip this year because of a two-year, $103 million track-replacement project on the bridge. That project, which started last month, has prompted PATCO to close one of two tracks on the bridge from 11 a.m. each Friday until 3:30 a.m. each Tuesday.

pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587 @nussbaumpaul

Copyright 2014 - The Philadelphia Inquirer

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