"Silverliner V's Are Coming Back!" - By Frank Tatnall

SEPTA Promises Full Service by Early October

The summer lull ended with Labor Day. Ridership on Regional Rail returned to somewhat normal levels and, as a result, the absence of those 120 Silverliner V's taken out of service in early July became evenmore noticeable. Potentially dangerous cracks had been found in the truck assemblies of the cars, forcing SEPTA to pull the entire fleet. The main culprits were the steel equalizer beams, which transfer the weight of the carbody to the trucks, and the seats or "feet" which attach the beams to the truck frames. There are four equalizer beams on each car.

No one can accuse SEPTA of not going all out to help meet its customers' needs, as it brought in a fleet of cars and locomotives from other agencies. By mid-September these included 26 cars from Maryland's MARC system, an eight-car NJ Transit push-pull set complete with ALP-45 locomotive, and five new Amtrak ACS-64 electric motors as well as a five-car Keystone trainset. During the week of September 19, the following ACS-64's were seen in service on SEPTA: #612, 624, 644, 645, 657 and 659, but these are often rotated back to Amtrak. There is an unsubstantiated report that SEPTA is considering the purchase of some of the MARC cars which are now excess to that agency's fleet, and could help deal with the longer-term issue of growing ridership on the Regional Rail system.

Since early July a series of "interim" schedules have been issued for all lines except Cynwyd to maximize the use of SEPTA's existing fleet, as well as the borrowed cars and locomotives. (Cynwyd passengers continue to be bused to and from 30th Street Station.) With each schedule change more trains were added-one of them especially welcomed by riders on the Paoli-Thorndale line. Effective Tuesday, September 20, train #9561 Great Valley Flyer, which runs express from 30th Street to Paoli, was returned to service, with a set of MARC coaches and cab car.

By the second week of September SEPTA thought it was well on its way to repairing the Silverliner V's, after 18 cars were released from the shop fitted with new equalizer beams and the feet that join the beams to the truck frames. But it was soon discovered that the heads of the steel pins securing the beams to the truck frames were 1/32nd of an inch too wide, causing friction that could lead to possible failure. Engineering the repair of the cars is the responsibility of the builder, Hyundai-Rotem, which has contracted out the fabrication of the replacement beams. (Some of the 480 new beams are being manufactured by PennFab, Inc. in Bensalem.) SEPTA has a warranty on the cars from Rotem, which holds the builder liable for the costs of repair under a so-called "liquidated damages" clause. But it's unclear whether SEPTA will be forced to shoulder the cost of leasing the MARC, NJT and Amtrak equipment, which is around $1 million per month and rising. Lost passenger revenues may not be recoverable.

Finally, on Tuesday, September 20th, the first re-rebuilt Silverliner V's emerged with newly-repaired trucks, and were soon in revenue service. SEPTA said that 14 cars had received the new equalizer beams with the correct pins installed, and again were ready to roll. It was hoped that the refitting program could be cranked up to a point where 15 cars are returned to service each week, and that all 120 cars could be back on line by mid-November.

But the immediate target date is October 3rd, when the system would return to a full weekday schedule of 788 trains as shown in the June 19th timetables, utilizing the available Silverliner V's as well as an expanded fleet of leased equipment, SEPTA's own push-pull cars, and the 40-year-old Silverliner IV's which have been performing admirably during the current equipment crisis. These aging General Electric-built MU's have earned a well-deserved shopping!

One of SEPTA's efforts to deal with the reduced number of trains hasn't fared as well. That is the recent plan to operate supplemental bus service during rush hours from busy close-in stations such as Jenkintown, Elkins Park, Fox Chase, Chestnut Hill East and Chestnut Hill West to Fern Rock Transportation Center and return, between Ivy Ridge and Suburban Station, and between Swarthmore and AT&T station on the Broad Street subway. Ridership on the buses has been well below estimates and the service may be discontinued.

Meanwhile, by late September three trains made up of MARC cars and hauled by Amtrak ACS-64 locomotives were in weekday service. At least one of them, seen operating on the Paoli-Thorndale line, was still a true "Frankentrain" (as employees have dubbed it), consisting of ACS-64 #624, six MARC coaches and SEPTA cab car #2408. Other MARC sets have been operating to Newark, DE, and Trenton, and sometimes on the West Trenton line. The NJT train IS in Trenton service and the Amfieet set is operating on Bryn Mawr locals. SEPTA's 45 push-pull coaches also are heavily utilized and apparently at least six of its seven AEM-7 locomotives and the lone ALP-44 are seeing almost daily use. A few MARC coaches have been seen interspersed with SEPTA cars on the push-pull trains.

One major concern for SEPTA management has been the sharp drop in Regional Rail ridership since the Silverliner V crisis began. No doubt this is the result of fewer and more crowded trains and daily on-time performance which has fallen into the 50-60-percent range. An additional irritation for riders is the vexing problem of annulled trains, caused by a prolonged shortage of engineers and exacerbated by the hours of service rules. This is especially true on weekends. Some regular riders, possibly encouraged by low gas prices, have found alternate ways to travel, while others have switched to SEPTA's own bus, trolley or rapid transit lines. SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey D. Knueppel told the Inquirer last month that "I feel for every person that's upset on the platforms." He added that the initial problems encountered in repairing the Silverliner V's would not prevent SEPTA from returning to full service next month.

SEPTA's figures for July show that Regional Rail ridership was down by 20.9 percent compared with the same month in 2015, and in August ridership declined by 10.1 percent. According to an internal SEPTA analysis, passenger revenues were about $5 million less than budgeted for the two months, or 21 percent and 13.1 respectively, but another estimate put the revenue loss at $7.7 million. (The City and Suburban Transit Divisions were off only slightly as compared with the year-ago period.) It is expected  that once RRD service returns to normal levels SEPTA will launch an all-out effort to recapture its lost customers.

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