Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rebuilding the Diesel Network

In Gunn's Great Mistake, I outlined what I believe was SEPTA's greatest failure during the Center City tunnel construction era--namely that, in the name of tunnel electrification, SEPTA eliminated all of its diesel commuter services. While it is fair to note that the tunnel construction itself consumed all of the agency's resources, and thus that staff wouldn't have wanted to touch diesel-network issues with a ten-foot pole, I am also certain that had there been a will, there would have been a way.

Now I want to concentrate, going forward, on the moves necessary to recreating this network.

1. Build the Swampoodle Connection. A Swampoodle Connection, in its strongest form, has multiple uses: Not only does it shunt the Chestnut Hill West Line down the Reading trunk, it also offers a grade-separated junction between the Northeast Corridor and the SEPTA mainline. This is because (incremental) construction of the Connection is, at each step, an order of magnitude less expensive than the expense needed to rehabilitate Pencoyd back to the standard necessary for active rail service.

Because of this, Swampoodle would naturally include another connection beyond the ones I previously noted, as it would need to provide the following paths:
  • NEC to SEPTA Mainline
  • NEC to R6 Line
  • Chestnut Hill West Branch to SEPTA Mainline
Of these, the first was never considered, but is not difficult to extend the design to add it in.

2. Work with NJ Transit for Newark Service. NJT's West Trenton proposal: After all, the combined SEPTA and NJT route reflects the Reading's Crusader alignment; a direct train would offer a secondary Philadelphia-New York commuter service to complement the very busy Keystone Service - Northeast Regional trains. With a high-quality Swampoodle Connection (and Kearny Connection at the other end), this would allow for regular Suburban Station-Newark Penn trains.

3. Integrate with Reading commuter rail. 'Nuff said.

4. Rebuild the Bethelehem Branch north of Shelly. Not only that, but extend it into Allentown. This would complement NJT's own Lehigh Valley designs. It would also help springboard work on the key (missing) regional connection from Philadelphia to Scranton and beyond.

5. Rebuild the Newtown Branch north of Fox Chase. 'Nuff said.

These projects--Swampoodle in the core supporting reconstructions and upgrading (return to service) of SEPTA's 1980 commuter rail network--would do more than just return our system (nearly) all the way to its Bicentennial extent, it would also offer a framework to hang more rail expansions from. For example:

6. Consider the Octoraro Branch. Kennett Square is a strong natural terminus, and the Brandywine Valley, while semi-rural, has centralized population centers. Reactivation of the Octoraro Branch, while requiring ROW reconstruction from Chadds Ford to Wawa, would also offer improved service to the Concordville/Painters Crossing/Brinton Lake area.

7. Consider the Perkiomen Branch. While the line up the Perkiomen has been abandoned for so long that the ROW has been severed in places, the region also holds several good conurbations crying out for better service: Collegeville, Schwenksville, and the Green Lane/Pennsburg/Red Hill complex, to name a few. Reclamation of this line would improve access to these towns.

8. Consider the New Hope Branch. While the line out of Ivyland runs through the at turns exurban and rural Buckingham Valley, New Hope, despite its size, offers strong destination value.

This list can be augmented until one runs out of historic easements. Pennsylvania has been blessed with a wealth of good, high-quality small towns--not all of them even near historic rail easements--and while their continued development is by no means tied to rail access, the access itself functions as an augment, offering improved transportation choices to these places. And the key is, a reborn diesel network functions as a framework for providing service to these awesome places. This is, more than anything, our ancestors' endowment to us: Isn't it time to make it be all it can be?

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