After months of canceled meetings, I was beginning to wonder if the West Chester Rail Restoration Service Committee was still a thing or if they had yielded to pressures from the West Chester Heritage Rail to leave their tracks alone. Then I got an email inviting me to experience the proposed electric commuter concept firsthand. So last Monday I hit the road with a collection of local dignitaries, train aficionados, and reps of business and education to see the Pop-up Metro in action. The turnkey electric train promises to provide everything needed to reconnect West Chester to SEPTA’s Regional Rail System via the Media/Elwyn line. The ride took us to Rockhill, a town about two hours away in central PA that stands not only at the forefront of what hopes to be the modern train movement but what is a clear reminder of its past. Rockhill is home to the East Broad Top Railroad, one of the nation’s oldest and best preserved narrow gauge railroads, and the Rockhill Trolley Museum and now it also leases track space to Pop-up Metro, the brainchild of acclaimed rail entrepreneur Henry Posner. Mr. Posner joined us on our ride.
We started the day looking to the future boarding a gleaming, near noiseless, electric commuter train that took us on a 1.8-mile ride through mid-summer meadows and farmland sprawling in front of the rolling hills of the Saddle Back Ridge. Capable of hitting driving speeds of 60 mph and carrying up to 84 people per car (194, if standing is included), the electric train operation is legit. Batteries can yield 50-60 miles per charge and can be recharged in as few as 8 minutes. The proposed operational model for the West Chester train would be to garner a full charge overnight and then “top off” the batteries with short charges between stops during the day. The ride was pleasant – and the price tag, a mere $2.5 million a year seems more than attainable, yet the project still seems to be stuck in the discussion phase.
“I’ve been told it makes too much sense to succeed,” Henry told the group.
And he just may be right. For all that makes this operation a no-brainer, there are some very real obstacles standing in the way.
1. Actual costs and who’s going to pay? While the Pop-Up Metro markets itself as “turnkey” including everything you need to get your train operation up and running it does not include the work needed to get the track operational in the first place. (It does, however, include the trains, ADA-compliant platforms, charging equipment, maintenance infrastructure, training, and technical support.) So far, Pop-Up Metro has been unable to get SEPTA to grant it the access it needs to conduct a full assessment. There is talk, however, that SEPTA may concede – for a fee.
Once the actual number is in hand, there is the question of payment. While just a fraction of the initial estimate to re-establish rail to the Borough, $2.5 million a year (plus unknown capital costs), is well outside the means of the Borough’s annual operating budget. However, even without final numbers, financing doesn’t appear to be a major concern. There is still plenty of money left in last year’s big federal infrastructure bill, plus other grant opportunities, and of course, good old-fashioned fundraising. Henry even pledged his own donation and the West Chester Rail Restoration Service Committee left Monday’s meeting with an action item – create its own 501C3 organization to facilitate charitable giving.
2. The West Chester Historic Railroad. The West Chester Historic Railroad already runs a tourist line along the tracks that the Pop-up Metro would need to use. Pop-Up Metro maintains that both trains can operate in symbiotic peace, much as Pop-Up Metro and the Broad Top Railroad do now. WCHR is not convinced and to date, they are the only organization with a contract from the Borough of West Chester and SEPTA to use the lines.
3. Ridership – who’s going to ride this train? Last year, SEPTA’s ridership was still 61 percent below pre-COVID numbers. Predictions for this year are a bit more optimistic but are still way down. Remote work it seems is a big part of this – but even before Pandemic shifts, Chester County’s commuter numbers were much lower than its neighbors. Only about 16,000 Chester County residents commuted to the city for work in 2019. This is compared to nearly 65,000 people living in Montgomery County, 57,000 living in Delaware County, and 35,000 living in Bucks County.
While commuter traffic may remain soft, there is the university argument. West Chester University maintains a satellite campus in Philadelphia and employs 1900 people some of whom must commute either to or from the city. (I could find no specific stats on this but I know of at least one employee who commutes so I am sure there are more.) Then there is Cheyney University. The proposed commuter line would include a stop at Cheyney. This connection would finally give the historically black college of roughly 650 students convenient access to public transportation. Currently, if you need public transportation, the school’s website directs you to call SEPTA to arrange a ride. Then there is the Pop-Up Metro argument – that this is all wasted speculation. “For less than the cost of a full feasibility study, communities can test actual ridership and evaluate the operation,” the operational plan reads. So this brings us to issue #4.
4. SEPTA. Monday’s demonstration ended with a group brainstorm – how do we solve a problem like SEPTA? To date the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority has been receptive, accepting meetings with both Pop-Up Metro and West Chester’s Rail Restoration Committee, but not exactly responsive. The original meeting took four months to set up and organizers are still awaiting SEPTA’s response to an email sent in May.
The email contains seven concerns raised by the regional carrier on everything from safety to modifications of existing (SEPTA-run) tracks to labor issues and insufficient contingency plans should a train get stranded. “There does not appear to be adequate capacity to “rescue” trains that may be broken down,” reads one state concern.
Proponents quickly responded with what they believed to be answers – or solutions to all outlined concerns. SEPTA, however, remains hesitant, issuing a statement last week to the Daily Local, “Restoring rail to West Chester would require a detailed operational plan, improvements to infrastructure, and Federal Rail Administration (FRA) approval. Safety is SEPTA’s top priority, and the Pop-Up Metro trains do not meet FRA standards for rail vehicles.”
For their part, Pop-Up Metro points to over a dozen waivers granted by the FRA for similar operations.
“I can attest that there are now 35 locations around the US where the FRA permits this kind of sharing under its rules for ‘temporal separation,’” Rail Restoration Committee Vice Chair Tom Hickey shared in response to SEPTA’s statement.
“This project is too creative for them to understand,” one person threw out during our group brainstorm. It was also suggested the pop-up model could open the regional transportation authority up to a whole new means of reaching stranded riderships – a floodgate it may not be ready for.
The West Chester Rail Restoration Committee, however, is not giving up. It is has recently received indication that SEPTA is ready to come back to the table. Perhaps, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel after all.
Want to read more about the train? There was a nice article by my trip-mate Bill Rettew in last week’s Daily Local.
Originally published, July 28, 2023
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