No Way to Run a Railroad

The PATCO so-called “speedline” light rail between Philadelphia and some of its Camden County suburbs has the worst fare technology I have ever seen. Whoever proposed, approved, and implemented it should be thrown in the pillory for the next few decades. If there is an Iraq of transit technology, this is it.

The system revolves around “first generation” magnetic cards — the entire back is magnetized. In theory, one inserts the card in a reader at the station of entry, which returns it, having marked the station’s identification. Then, at the station of exit, one msut again insert the card in a reader, which verifies that the card has sufficient value to pay for the fare between those two stations.

Perhaps this reminds you of the D.C. Metro or the San Francisco BART. The resemblance is pursely cosmetic. Those systems, as cruddy as they were through the 1980s and 1990s, are much more modern than the PATCO. For one, in case of error, the PATCO-approved procedure is to signal “call for aid” on the electronic turnstile. This is an actual light that lights up, not a display panel or even a set of LEDs, to give you an idea of the era we are talking about. A bunch of other numbers also then light up to tell you what’s wrong: I once had Defects numbers 1, 2, 4, and 6 all start glowing red at once.

Armed with this information, you’re then supposed to proceed to an (almost unmarked) phone, dial “0,” and report the problem to the operator who picks up after half a dozen rings. (During rush hour, they appear to have police officers stationed at the major stations to explain this procedure to the mystified.) The operator then asks for your name and has you drop the no-good ticket in a lock box, the idea being that you ring him or her up again at your destination to be waved through the exit turnstile. Of course, this conversation is incredibly staticky, and you wind up needing the operator to repeat most of what she says, anyway.

Have you noticed that this whole awful fallback game of Telephone so deeply embedded in their system that the turnstile is hardwired with the magic phrase “call for aid?” What. A. Laugh. Riot. And, of course, since this is first generation magnetic card tech, the whole “call for aid” dance isn’t exactly an infrequent occurrence.

And I haven’t even gotten to the vending machines. They don’t take credit cards. In fact, they don’t even take bills. It’s coins only, and let me tell you, coins only is a fun policy when you’re trying to make $2.45 even. They are nice enough to provide change machines. Mmmm, mmmm. I love carrying around a pocketful of Sacajaweas.

Any sane system designer, faced with creating a fare system for a single-line light rail “network” that takes less than half an hour to ride from end to end, would have said “tokens” and moved on to more pressing matters, like picking out train cars that didn’t suck and to selecting a better color scheme for them than earth-tone greens. But apparently the siren song of charging more to cross the river was just too irresistible.

I think PATCO is aware that something has gone horribly wrong with their fare-collection technology. Unfortunately, they show no sign of having learned anything from their past mistakes. They’re rolling out something called “Freedom” which will be a smartcard-based System of the Future. But only half-heartedly, since they’ll still have magnetic cards for occasional riders who can’t be trusted with full-fledged full-on full-frontal smartcards.

In fact, make that quarter-heartedly, since the Freedom system is currently in trial. Which means that there are now two completely incompatible vending systems and turnstiles at PATCO stations. Woe betide the poor fool who tries to use a newfangled Freedom card in an old-fashioned call-for-aid turnstile. In fact, woe betide the poor fool who mixes up the two kinds of magnetic cards now floating around the PATCO system. Perhaps that’s why they’ve rigged the new Freedom magnetic cards to expire 72 hours after purchase—so that we get accustomed to just throwing them out, instead of, heaven forfend, trying to use them in the wrong kind of machines.

If PATCO is looking for a new slogan, might I suggest “Incompatibility or death!” It seems to be their operating philosophy, so it might as well be official. PATCO is not the only train system in Philadelphia. In fact, it’s not even the only light-rail system. SEPTA (the worst acronym in all of mass transit) runs a system that keeps to the Philly side of the river, and I can see no reason other than pure bureaucratic turf wars why PATCO and SEPTA don’t interoperate. Of course, they have completely different fare technology. (SEPTA’s fare-collection system isn’t exactly state of the art, but it’s not the flaming river of snot that is PATCO’s.)

But that’s just the start of it. PATCO seems determined not to make its trains useful for anyone interested in going anywhere other than along their one line. Their tracks are collinear with SEPTA’s for a while, the one beneath the other (a little like BART and MUNI in San Francisco), but then PATCO takes a two-block dogleg so that it can run redundantly parallel to SEPTA while staying just far enough that you’ll get good and soaked if you try to run between them in the rain. And then, PATCO just stops in the center of the city. Does it run the last fifteen blocks it would take to reach 30th Street Station and connect up with commuter rail and Amtrak? Of course not.

In fact, this sad tale is repeated all along PATCO’s sorry-ass length. In Camden, it almost—but not quite—links up with New Jersey Transit’s River Line (which runs north to Trenton). At its New Jersey terminus in Lindenwold, you can look down from the PATCO platform to a little New Jersey Transit platform down below hidden where you’d never think to look for it. That’s an Atlantic City Line station, where you can catch a train direct to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. It’s so much more convenient than the disastrous PATCO-SEPTA double team that I take it almost all the time.

It would be all the time if New Jersey Transit saw fit to run a train along it more often than once every two hours. New Jersey Transit’s incompatibilities are a subject beyond the scope of this present philippic-cum-jeremiad, but at least they have had the good sense to make their ticket machines also sell tickets good on the SEPTA link that connects Philadelphia to their Trenton terminus. The actual ride from Philadelphia (or worse, from Atlantic City) to New York is still absurdly long, but you get the feeling someone in HQ at least sympathizes with the riders.

PATCO’s mandarins wouldn’t know a rider if one chewed their faces off. Given the horror of their farecard system, I’m surprised one hasn’t.