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.