FOX 29 Investigates: SEPTA 'Crew Shortages' & Canceled Trains

- If you ride SEPTA, it's a problem you can't miss: canceled trains.

The authority says it's trying to fix the situation, but frustrated passengers are sounding off online and in rail stations.

Now, SEPTA wants a fare hike. Our Jeff Cole asks: Is it fair?

SEPTA riders are cheek by jowl on the deck at Jefferson Station. They shuffle on and off the Regional Rail, many drawn here by the renown Philadelphia Flower Show in full bloom at the Convention Center.

In fact, the flower show and Saint Patrick's Day likely made last week one of the busiest of the year for SEPTA.

On this day, heavy ridership – and possibly our camera – have drawn SEPTA's Head of Railroads to Jefferson Station.

It's not hard to find a happy rider.

"SEPTA has been great. I've been riding it for years, and I'm pretty happy with it," rider Brian Lawlor said.

That was Thursday, March 16, two days after the snowstorm. Had we spoken with him the day before, one day after Winter returned, he may have had a far different view.

FOX 29 Investigates has been tracking the number of trains SEPTA has been canceling in recent months as it has struggled with major equipment problems. We've done so by simply looking at the authority's social media postings. The day after the storm we count 36 trains outright canceled, 29 for "crew shortage" or "manpower" issues.

Outrage exploded online. Michael tweeted "@SEPTA_SOCIAL wanted to surprise someone at the airport-you cancel the train. Not much of a surprise now. Thanks."

Drew‏ tweeted "@SEPTA_SOCIAL thanks for canceling 515 when it was already late for arrival and people were waiting."

SEPTA responds citing a "crew shortage" and offers an apology.

Lolly tweets "@SEPTA_SOCIAL cold & miserable 'now' … where's the crew?"

Again, @SEPTA_SOCIAL writes, in part, "Experiencing crew shortages."

Roseanna Goulos told us she has felt the sting of canceled trains: "If they cancel the train and the next train is not for like one hour, it's gonna be really tough, right? And sometimes they even cancel the line. It's so hard, I have to find some other way because I have my car parked in the parking lot."

FOX 29 Investigates asked to interview a SEPTA official directly involved in Regional Rail operations. SEPTA refused. Instead, Director of Media Relations Carla Showell-Lee sat down.

Cole: "What's your on-time record right now?"
Showell-Lee: "Right now we're about 90 percent of on-time performance."
Cole: "Are you sure you're at 90?"
Showell-Lee: "Yup."

It's not. According to SEPTA'S own records, its monthly on-time average as of February was about 87 percent.

Cole: "I think your February numbers show you're under 90 percent, right? "
Showell-Lee: "Our February numbers?"
Cole: "You're under 90."
Showell-Lee: "I'm sorry."

Cole: "Is that one of the worst on-time performances in the rail systems in the country? Do you know whether it is or not?"
Showell-Lee: "I don't know if it is in the country, but for us it's historically, it's bad, and it looks bad."

It was worse the month before, under 80 percent in January. And after a slight uptick in December, it was under 70 percent in November.

FOX 29 Investigates compiled a daily list of all train cancellations for "manpower" or "crew shortages" posted on the authority's Twitter page for the last six months. The grand total is about 500 trains dumped, leaving riders in the lurch.

SEPTA admits 191 of them have occurred since Jan. 1.

Matthew Mitchell is the Vice-President of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, a 600-member advocacy group. He says SEPTA is short crews, so when there are sick calls, trains tumble.

"Does it undercut its ridership in some way?" Cole asked.

"Sure, any kind of negative experience that the passengers have is going to get around. It's going to lead to bad word of mouth," Mitchell said.

SEPTA claims it has 196 engineers (the people who operate the trains) but needs 213.

It hopes to have them by December and says it's training still more to cover retirements.

Still, in the wake of possibly the toughest year in its history, SEPTA now wants its riders to pony up, proposing rate hikes.

"SEPTA had the worst year last year, you've told me. But now you're going to ask passengers to pay more with an on-time record of under 90 percent?" Cole asked. "Is that fair?"

"Well, it's… well, you know … it is fair in the sense of the fact that this is what is needed to – it is fair," Showell-Lee said.

FOX 29 Investigates has found some of the highest train cancellations came on weekends and around big sporting events.

A general comparison of other commuter rail lines shows Boston's MBTA at 89 percent reliability for the last 30 days. New York's MTA also reports an 89 percent on-time performance for February.


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