Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Odd Situation of Bala Station've got a train station right along a busy regional arterial, and clustered around that station are pre-suburban type garden apartments, along with later type office commercial and retail; behind are more single-family homes in three Census tracts with a combined population of 6,928. The station is serviced by one of the most frequent regional rail networks in the country--effectively an S-Bahn type network. You'd think that that station'd get high ridership, right? Even if mass transit ridership was a tenth of the local population, it would still be getting about 693 daily boardings. Even though later development has all been transit-proximate rather than transit-oriented? After all, even with transit-proximate development, ridership does tend to rise.
What kind of ridership would you expect from a neighborhood like this?
Well, meet Bala Station. All of the things I've just described...but this station has very low ridership, between 92 and 111*. It, in fact, has one of the lowest ridership counts in the system (an older ridership breakdown on Wikipedia shows Bala as having 78 boardings, while Wynnefield Avenue has 90 and Cynwyd 128**). Meanwhile, Overbrook station--also along City Line Avenue, about a mile away and nowhere near the main retail hubs, has a daily ridership of about 770.

Why does this station have such low ridership?

Two major factors converge, it seems, to undercut Bala's ridership: infrequence and invisibility. Unlike the Paoli/Thorndale Line, which has 87 daily weekday trains (along with 58 on Saturdays and 34 on Sundays), the Cynwyd Line has just 21 daily weekday trains (and none on weekends). These trains are clustered into half-hourly peak service (four trains peak with a fifth train roughly halfway between peaks and a final train an hour after the end of peak)--in short, trains for commuters without regard for any other potential wells of ridership. This infrequence is due in no small part to the brevity of the line; commuter trains once ran all the way up to Norristown along this line, but it duplicated Reading service and was thus curtailed to Ivy Ridge; in the mid-1980s it had the fourth-highest ridership of the Pennsylvania-side lines and was thus paired (as the R6) with the Norristown Reading-side line; and in late 1986 service was curtailed down to Cynwyd due to the Pencoyd Viaduct being deemed structurally unsafe.

The station's invisibility comes from it being right under the City Line Avenue bridge, with few notable walkways or driveways to the platform; even the station's lollypop*** is hard-to-see, set back a few hundred feet or so along Conshohocken State Road. People who pass by it on an irregular or semi-regular basis cannot see the platform from the road, and so it seems abandoned.

Far more damaging than its infrequency (lots of commuter rail operations realize higher per-station ridership on similar schedules) is its invisibility. It's easy to tell when a train's coming when you can see people waiting at the platform (this is pretty certainly a big boost to Cynwyd's ridership); since it appears the PRR sold the former station area a long time ago, the current platform is crowded behind garden apartments, offices, and an abandoned service station.
A simple site plan for Bala Station.
This abandoned service station can, however, provide the key to making Bala Station more visible once again. Being in disuse for quite some time, it might be able to be qualified as "blighted" and thus begin the process for a taking. With that property, station improvements not dissimilar to this possible site plan might be made. And with the increased ridership from better-designed stations, a case can be made for improving service frequencies--extending them longer and adding bi-hourly Saturday service, say.

And building up an improved Cynwyd Line ridership is necessary for getting more ambitious plans rolling.
* The most current given ridership of the Cynwyd line is 553, and there are 5 stops on this line. 553/5 = 111. However, a ridership breakdown shows that the bulk of the boardings come from Cynwyd, so that I was moved to consider Cynwyd as offering two stations' worth of ridership (553/6 = 92). The actual ridership count for Bala Station is thus roughly 100.
** (128+90+78)*365=108,040 (annualized ridership), suggesting that these figures are a decade old. Even so, the per-station ridership breakdown is useful.
*** Name given to a distinctive type of station sign SEPTA brands its Regional Rail with.


  1. Do you know what SEPTA's take on this station is?

  2. Actually, yes. I had the opportunity to discuss this with a SEPTA bigwig before I wrote the post. His take is also that the station has really low ridership relative to potential utilization, and that--since Lower Merion is looking to extend the Cynwyd Heritage Trail down to Bala--the combined project could make a taking of that abandoned service station, for trail and rail station access, feasible.

  3. Not sure why SEPTA still sinks money into this 3-station line. It really shows the power of the wealthy and politics. No other towns have their own railroad line line Bala and Cynwyd. The line should be killed. Commuters should go to Overbrook where there is 30 min service and turn the rest of the Cynwyd line into a trail.