DRPA CEO John Hanson says the changes are warranted for public safety after a pair of sexual assaults on the line this year. Local officials say they were blindsided by the news.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 7, 2019
UPDATE: (MAY 8, 2019) — After feedback, PATCO has delayed implementation of its ‘Night Owl’ service until June 1. Details here.
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Starting Monday, May 13, late-night riders on the PATCO Speedline must plan their trips more carefully.
As part of its new “Night Owl” service, the rapid transit system will be running less frequently, making fewer stops between Lindenwold and Locust Street, and adding a police officer in each train.
The changes come after a pair of sexual assaults occurred on the line this year—one between Collingswood and Lindenwold, and another to a train driver.
John Hanson, CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), which oversees the line, said grouping riders together at higher-volume stations and posting an officer on every train in their least-intensive hours of use should help to prevent such incidents.
“My number one priority is the people on the train and the employees of the train systems,” Hanson said. “These stations sometimes have between two and five riders a night on average.
“The goal is to group a sparse ridership,” he said. “It enables our police to focus on the open stations in a way that achieves our top priority of protecting people.”
Among the changes, the Haddonfield, Westmont, and Collingswood stations will be closed from 1 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. on weekdays, and between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on weekends. (So will the Ashland, City Hall, 9th-10th and Locust and 12th-13th and Locust stops.) A PATCO officer will be posted on each train, which will run hourly, and faster: travel times from Lindenwold to 15th-16th and Locust Street in Philadelphia will be cut to 20 minutes.
Although the agency says only affect a scant number of riders will be affected—maybe 40 people per week, Hanson estimated—the impact of an effective service reduction was a shock to community leaders, many of whom were scrambling for details early this week.
Haddonfield Mayor Neal Rochford said the news “hit me like a bolt of lightning.
“I understand safety and so forth, but it doesn’t seem like you disrupt the whole system to accommodate your police presence,” Rochford said.
“Police presence should accommodate your ridership.”
Plenty of Haddonfielders take PATCO to and from the city, and Rochford cited “a reverse trend” of Philadelphians using the rail line “to take advantage of the nightlife on Haddon Avenue.”
“On the face of it, it seems shortsighted,” he said. “Somebody from Haddonfield’s not going to drive to Lindenwold [to park].”
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said he too was blindsided by the decision, and told the DRPA as much.
“I expressed my extreme displeasure with, first off, not knowing anything about this, and secondly, for ending a service that the community has without any kind of discussion,” Maley said.
Maley also challenged whether any improvements in safety would be truly engineered by shifting officer presence from the stations to the trains.
“Who’s patrolling those stations now?” the mayor said. “Problems at those stations and parking lots are not just on the train. Just because there’s no riders, that even more now becomes a potential for bad things to happen there. ”
If the changes are meant to address a reduction in ridership, then PATCO could address it by changing the train schedule, Maley said. Instead, cutting access to the Haddon Avenue corridor “takes away a service that everybody in our community and in the surrounding community knows is available,” he said.
Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague said that losing any level of PATCO service is losing “that safety net of not worrying that you have to hurry up and catch a train” when visiting either side of the Delaware.
“It’s amazing how many people from Philadelphia are using PATCO to come to our town,” Teague said.
“The events that we have, busloads of people come off of the train.
“We continue to promote our proximity to PATCO to all of our residents and our potential residents, and I think that’s why our property values are appreciating right now,” he said.
Teague said the only winner in such a circumstance is likely rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, which he contended could cut into PATCO volumes.
“If they’re trying to maintain safety on the trains, that’s laudable, and I think they should,” Teague said. “It just seems like there’s this resurgence to use mass transit.”
Larry Davis, who serves on the DRPA citizen advisory committee and operates the PATCOWatchers Twitter account, said he was disappointed that the changes came down without the benefit of any public feedback.
“Of course everyone understands ‘safety first,’ but eliminating all those stations doesn’t make sense for me, especially because the stations that were cut are really walkable stations,” Davis said. “People choose to live in those towns because of the ability to walk back and forth [to the train].”
On the long list of those likely affected by the reduction in service, he listed medical professionals, service workers in the city bar and restaurant industry, concertgoers on both sides of the river, and students at Rutgers-Camden for whom the City Hall stop is closest to the campus.
“Were they consulted in all of this?” Davis said.
“It seems it might have been myopic in rolling with this on one week’s notice and with no public input.
“I would hope that DRPA and PATCO would postpone this schedule that is supposed to start in less than a week now,” he said.
“There’s no opportunity for people to come to any meetings, and some of this doesn’t seem to have been thought out and communicated with the mayors of the communities and the colleges along the lines.”
When he opened his acclaimed restaurant Hearthside in Collingswood, chef Dominic Piperno said he was counting on being able to court talent from either side of the bridge. With the Night Owl changes, he worried that his staff might be caught short on their commutes home.
“My employees use [PATCO] to get home after work,” Piperno said. “I used to take the 2:20 a.m. home from 15th-16th every night.
“I totally see both sides of it, but it’s a shame,” he said.
For hourly wage workers, a $25 or $30 rideshare fee from Uber or Lyft can be punitive; Piperno also wondered whether, conversely, the popularity of such services might have decreased the heavier PATCO ridership he remembers.
“Eight or nine years ago, the trains were busier,” he said. “Maybe Uber crushed it.”
‘This is the best idea we have right now’
For Hanson, the paramount goal is safety, not cost savings; adding an officer to the trains will increase labor costs.
PATCO lots also are surveilled by video 24 hours a day, and officer patrols will include the stations shuttered during the Night Owl hours, he said.
“I put an officer on the train, both of those [assaults] would have been prevented,” Hanson said.
The majority of PATCO riders will not be affected by the changes, but the CEO acknowledged that for those affected by it, “this will present a hardship, and I regret that.
“It gives us no pleasure taking action that is going to negatively impact 40 people in the system a week,” he said.
Hanson also pointed out that PATCO monitors its operations continually, and considers public feedback when making adjustments, so the changes could be modified if necessary.
“There’s always that possibility that we’ll do something different,” he said. “This is the best idea we have right now to protect our riders and protect our employees.”
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