More News:

June 17, 2022

Plan to restore commuter rail in West Chester could lower SEPTA's original price tag

The transportation authority's service to the borough was discontinued in 1986 due to low ridership

Government Transportation
West Chester Rail Provided images/SEPTA Transit Police

The Committee to Reestablish Rail Service to West Chester believes service could be restored with an upfront cost of just $16.4 million, which is much lower than the $380 million price tag SEPTA placed on the project.

Transit advocates hoping to bring back commuter rail service between West Chester and Philadelphia got an informal go-ahead to continue developing a plan from the Borough Council earlier this week.

The Committee to Reestablish Rail Service to West Chester presented a proposal to council during a work session meeting on Tuesday. The committee believes service could be restored with an upfront cost of $16.4 million, which is much lower than the $380 million price tag SEPTA placed on the project, the Daily Local reports.

SEPTA's service to West Chester was discontinued in 1986 due to low ridership, but the transportation authority still has the right to use the tracks.

The committee pitched using battery-powered, zero-emission trains, which would make the expensive task of electrifying the existing rail line between Wawa and West Chester unnecessary.

More savings could come by deferring the installation of signals and minimizing station construction costs by using gravel instead of asphalt for the parking lots.

Ongoing operating costs would depend on who runs the service. The committee is considering SEPTA Regional Rail, SEPTA Suburban Transit, the Transportation Management Association of Chester County, and West Chester Railroad, a company that currently operates tourist trains along the line, Mass Transit Mag reports.

There could be as many as 38 daily trips along the track between West Chester and Elwyn. There are two potential plans for service.

One plan would involve a direct connection between West Chester and Center City for a roughly hour-long trip. The service could attract 1,910 weekday riders by 2035, the committee estimates.

The other would involve a transfer at Wawa, another municipality along the currently unused track, which could attract 1,350 weekday riders by 2035.

SEPTA is nearly done with its extension of service from Elwyn to Wawa. The brand new station will open to riders on Sunday, Aug. 21.

By 1986, ridership west of Elwyn had declined to just 108 weekday trips. For reference, the Norristown High Speed Line – SEPTA's most popular suburban rail line – had 10,543 daily weekday riders on average in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, not everybody in Philadelphia's urban planning space is as confident on the West Chester extension as the committee.

"I would generally prioritize reforming the existing commuter rail network before expanding regional rail further out to the exurbs and satellite communities," said Daniel Trubman, a local public transit advocate. He's also not a fan of another rail project underway in Philadelphia's exurbs.

Last month, SEPTA finalized its plans for a 4-mile spur of the Norristown line which will serve King of Prussia, the region's second-largest employment center.

Before the pandemic, the $2.1 billion project was expected to have an average weekday ridership of 6,259 by 2025. That's fewer passengers than there are on many of SEPTA's bus routes and the transportation authority estimates that nearly as many construction workers, between 5,400 and 6,300, will be needed to complete the project.

This is one of the main reasons Trubman wrote an op-ed opposing the project for the Inquirer.

While he said estimated ridership statistics for the West Chester extension would only "modestly" expand the region's overall rail ridership, he said it could be a better investment for SEPTA than the King of Prussia extension given the lower price tag.