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SEPTA's Schuylkill Valley extension gets FTA green light

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Berks Area Reading Transportation Authority (BARTA) Jan. 30 received Federal Transit Administration approval to initiate preliminary engineering for the proposed 74-mile Schuylkill Valley MetroRail (SVM) project.

Under the SVM project, the authorities would build a 74-mile commuter rail line connecting Philadelphia and Reading/Wyomissing, as well as serving King of Prussia, Pa.

The proposed line would follow SEPTA’s existing R6 line for part of the route in downtown Philadelphia, then travel along a Norfolk Southern Railway corridor — on separate tracks. (Negotiations with NS to nail down the exact route are ongoing.)

After leaving NS’ territory, trains would continue to Reading on yet-to-be-laid tracks.

SEPTA also plans to use "off-the-shelf technology" for the rail cars, says Richard Maloney, SEPTA media officer. "We’re not building a new space ship, here."

But the authority is altering its current set-up significantly. For instance, SEPTA trains following the existing R6 line use high-level platforms in Philadelphia. As they travel toward Reading, suburban Victorian stations from the last century have only low-level platforms. So train operating personnel close trap doors enabling passengers to disembark onto the high-level stations, and open them in the suburbs so passengers can descend steps to ground level.

Trains used on the new extension would not need trap doors: Platforms would be added to the Victorian stations making the entire line high-platform.

And, unlike most commuter-rail cars that have doors on the ends of cars, SEPTA plans to use quarter-point subway-type doors, which means there would be two doors in the cars’ mid-section, dividing the cars into three parts.

Having the two sets of doors would be safer and, along with having all high platforms, would enable all passengers — including those with disabilities — to board and disembark trains faster and more easily, says Maloney.

And reducing dwell time is critical for this line, agency officials believe. The proposed route follows a very congested Highway 422 corridor, and people used to taking the subway in Philadelphia are accustomed to frequent-enough service that they don’t have to check schedules.

"It’s because of this, that we are so determined there has to be enough frequency to get people out of cars, yet still compete with cars as far as convenience and efficiency," says Maloney.

Through fiscal-year 2002, Congress has approved $25.72 million in New Start funds for the SVM project — SEPTA’s first new start since the 1920s.

Now, with FTA’s approval, officials can use the funds to design up to 30 percent of the final project. The next step would be to put the preliminary engineering portion out to bid.

The project’s total capital cost is estimated to be $1.83 billion; project completion is targeted for 2010.

Kathi Kube

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 1/30/2002