I started writing this last week while riding SEPTA into Philadelphia and thinking over a few things that have been marinating for a few months.
1. The “Silverliner V” commuter trains have been around for a while now and they’re very nice. The next generation (double deckers like NJ Transit has long had) are in the works. These new cars have automated station announcements, display screens, better lighting, and nicer full-height seats. They’re obviously designed not only to replace the old cars, but also to position SEPTA for a reduction in necessary on-board conductors.
In some ways I will be sorry to see so many conductors strolling the aisles go the way of the horse and carriage, but ultimately I’m more sorry to see them still here now, still punching tickets. We both know, me and my conductor, that his days are numbered, union contracts be damned. His responsibilities only require maybe one or two of his kind on board, now. Yet he’s still here, doing something my iPhone will do better, cheaper, and more efficiently in about 24 months. Someday, when all the stations are ADA accessible, what really will there be for him to do?
We’ve got to stay ahead of the obsolescence curve. I think about this more or less constantly: what are the things I’m good at that just won’t matter? What are things I can learn that will ensure I’ve got specialized knowledge? How can I create mechanisms to make obsolete other things or streamline a process?
2. These new train cars are nice, and while I understand that SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines are commuter lines, I’m still left wondering why there’s no equivalent of Amtrak’s “Cafe Car,” except without the food service. In other words, where is the “work lounge” car for people to sit with tablets or laptops and do work comfortably on what might be a daily hour or more ride back/forth? There are a lot of daily man hours wasted because there environment makes it easier to take a nap than finish a book or start a new project.
3. SEPTA’s board of directors consists primarily of Pennsylvania politicians and suburban people. The Regional Rail lines to wealthier suburbs enjoy nicer service and heavier investment (I think) than the city’s subway and trolly system. New York City built a subway system to bind together its boroughs, and that helped create the entire city as we experience it today. Philadelphia needs a SEPTA board that shares a vision for the future of Philadelphia’s city system of subways and trolleys. We need to do more to bind our city and our region together, and to make it easier to spend a night in neighborhoods as disparate as Northern Liberties, University City, and South Philadelphia. We don’t have that now, and a vision for achieving this is, I believe, vital to the culture of Greater Philadelphia.