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SEPTA Celebrates 150 Miles of Success

Heather Redfern and David Gaines
SEPTA Media Relations

Previously reported by Metro Magazine Transit Dispatches

Maintaining just basic levels of service with an aging, and often failing, infrastructure is a challenge many legacy transportation agencies across the country struggle with on a daily basis. And funding shortages often leave transit organizations battling to provide reliable service while identifying and making only the most needed and cost-effective repairs.

SEPTA's Regional Rail system was inherited from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads and the infrastructure in many sections of the system has been serving the Philadelphia area for more than 100 years. Fifteen years ago, overhead catenary system (OCS) failures were a common occurrence on SEPTA Regional Rail, a result of fatigue cracks and wear. The all too common OCS failures were frustrating for SEPTA customers who occasionally found it difficult to depend on train service for their travels and for SEPTA, whose crews were constantly working to repair and maintain the system.

"We performed an analysis of the failures and determined that the entire OCS needed to be replaced," said SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel. "Our crews were excellent at responding to and patching the failures, but we could not reduce their rate of incidence. Not only did we need to obtain the funding for materials and train workers for the replacement, we also needed to devise a plan that would allow us to replace the catenary while keeping the Regional Rail lines in service for our passengers."

SEPTA's Power Department measured their crew's skill level and the ability of their equipment in order to gauge what was needed to safely complete the work. Maintenance crews had electrical training and took Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee (NORAC) and Roadway Worker classes, and a training program for lineman was also implemented to ensure that the work was being completed entirely by the Authority's in-house forces.

Fast-forward 15 years and on Friday, June 12th 2015, SEPTA gathered at Wallingford Train Station to celebrate the completion of 150 miles of catenary wire replacement. Most of the work was completed at night or during mid-day service outages to minimize customer inconvenience. A modified open gondola car stores old wire without crews having to cut it into smaller sections. The open gondola and tower cars allow crews to safely and effectively remove, replace and store OCS wire and hardware. Five OCS lines have been completely replaced, three have been partially replaced and two will be completed over the next two years.

"My work is rewarding because I live around this area," said Will Wilson, a member of the maintenance crew that worked diligently to renew the wire. "I get to come out my front door every day and see how my work helps my neighbors get in and out of the city in a timely fashion."

Bernie Shine, who recently celebrated his 20th year as SEPTA maintenance worker, was thrilled at the celebration. "Safety is our top priority on this crew," said Shine. "We work next to a live wire in order to keep service running for customers. No other transportation organization does that, especially as carefully as we do here at SEPTA."

The benefits of replacing the OCS can be seen in SEPTA's Regional Rail ridership increase. "Over the past 15 years, our catenary-component related failures are down drastically," said Knueppel. "This work was among several key initiatives that allowed railroad ridership to grow 50 percent in this same time period. The investment in our infrastructure was done out of necessity, but has proven to be invaluable."

Knueppel gave a congratulatory speech at the celebration and presented the SEPTA Power Department with a commemorative marker to place on the new catenary wire.

"Back in 1999, when I became chief engineer, there were two issues in my division that were in crisis mode-one, elevators and escalators, and two, our railroad catenary wire system. Our customers were being impacted by both. If you flash forward to today, our crew is amongst the best in the country in both of these areas."