Yes, I know I’m late here – Paoli‘s new platform opened over a week ago, and this one is a much bigger deal than Secane. I go through these phases where I’m really busy and don’t have time to write, so…well, anyway: Paoli! Being SEPTA’s 11th-busiest Regional Rail station and Amtrak’s 4th-busiest Pennsylvania station, this one was a lot more deserving of an accessibility upgrade than the throwaway stop at Secane. In fact, it was upgraded because Amtrak was sued over the station’s low-level platform. Better late than never…both for the station’s new platform, and for my review of it!
Okay, let’s start with that platform! When I stepped off of my SEPTA train, I was super impressed with that they did to the place. They took out the station’s two middle tracks to throw in the new high-level platform, which allowed construction to take place while keeping the old station up and running throughout the process. And frankly, the middle two tracks aren’t really needed – every SEPTA train and every Amtrak train through here make the stop. Most of the platform is sheltered, and it has a ton of seating, plus plentiful wastebaskets and recycling bins.
There are lots of maps along the platform, and funnily enough, they forgot to mark Paoli as accessible when they printed them – the maps all have little wheelchair stickers next to the station. But while there are plenty of maps, there aren’t any schedule printouts, which is annoying for new riders or those without smartphones. At least the station has shiny new departure screens that show both SEPTA and Amtrak arrivals (bit weird for the latter, though – anyone waiting for the train to “AMTK 30th – NYA652”?). The speakers are very clear, but aside from a useful announcement about the Regional Rail schedule changes, they only spat out annoying canned messages about watching out for trains.
Still gonna call them “prison cells,” I don’t care what anyone says! Yes, these weird enclosures on both ends of the platform are some sort of fire code thing that’s required if a station doesn’t have a sprinkler system. So if there’s a fire…run into the enclosed area, and then…be stuck there, I guess! I dunno, I still don’t get it, but if the prison cells keep people safe, then so be it.
Okay. I hate these stairs with a passion. Why does anyone think that building staircases with such wide steps is a good idea? You can’t go up one-by-one because it feels like you’re not going high enough for the amount of forward motion you’re making, but you can’t go two at a time because then you’re getting too much forward motion and have to step up weirdly! Look, it sounds like a nitpick, but if you’ve ever used the stairs at the Dilworth Park entrance at City Hall Station, you know what I mean. Luckily, these are the only stairs like this in the station, and the elevator is fantastic – it’s all glass, and it moves quickly. Too bad Amtrak thinks it doesn’t exist on its website.
Paoli’s footbridge connects both sides of the tracks with the platform itself. While there aren’t too many Key readers on the platform, six of them have cleverly been placed up here, so you can tap in when you’re entering the station. We get more departure boards up here as well; these ones show the next train coming on the first line, and it cycles between the second and third trains on the second line. Again, pretty clever! For people running, it makes sense to always have the first train coming on the screen.
Beginning on the north side of the tracks, we actually have two floors to work with here, both connected to the bridge with stairs and an elevator. The first floor down from the footbridge is a designated drop-off lot. It has a really nice entrance, but…where are the benches? Just look at that poor guy in the photo above, squatting in the shelter of the awning! Throw a darn bench in there! Help him out!
It’s too bad, too, because the rest of the drop-off lot is really well-done. It has a little turnaround, and there are a few designated spaces where people can wait for pickups in their cars. Plus, this is where the bike parking is. Once again, SEPTA’s website gets it wrong, saying there are just two racks when there are actually ten. These are great, too – they’re all sheltered, and a sign decrees that the racks are secure and being watched by cameras. It’s a good change from the usual “La la la, we’re not responsible for your stuff” schtick that you see on most of SEPTA. Passengers can also exit to Valley Road from here.
The lower level of the station’s north side is actually the old outbound platform. Aside from a few parking pay machines and an “Information” board (again with no schedule), there’s not a ton here. But what do we have as one walks toward the Valley Road overpass? An outdated map, but more importantly, schedules for both SEPTA and Amtrak! They may be outdated now thanks to recent changes for both agencies, but still…I’m glad they’re somewhere.
But the outbound platform merely acts as a path to the station’s main parking lot. The station offers a total of 177 non-permit spaces for $1 a day, and 309 $25 a month permit spaces, with only the latter offering overnight parking. It’s not enough capacity and the lots regularly fill up, but since Paoli is a wasteland of suburbia with plenty of land to spare, I believe the lot is being expanded.
And yes, the first thing you notice on the station’s south side is more parking. This is a smaller lot, but it’s also home to Paoli’s…er…”busway.” Good for SEPTA for putting signs up where they’re supposed to be, but having buses just stop in the middle of the parking lot seems like kind of a dumb idea. This bus stop serves the 204 and 206 (but both the SEPTA website and Paoli/Thorndale Line schedule claim the recently-eliminated 205 comes here too), which are suburban feeder routes that connect to trains, while street stops down on Lancaster Ave serve the longer 92 and 106.
A couple of parking payment machines and a wastebasket flaunt the entrance to the stairs, while if you keep going past them, you end up on the station’s old inbound platform. It has a few goodies, including a bit of seating and hey, (probably outdated) schedules! Also, if you’re looking for spotted lanternflies to kill, they’re rampant on this platform.
While the station’s 1950s-era building isn’t an architectural majesty by any means, it’s functional enough. The outside operates mostly as a drop-off area, although instead of substantial shelter, there’s just a tiny awning, and instead of seating, there’s just an insane amount of newspaper boxes. Not only do cars drop riders off here, but this is also where a ton of office park shuttles bring their reverse commuters.
While things feel a little cramped inside the building thanks to some Amtrak ticket office construction, it has lots of amenities. There’s plenty of seating, ticket booths for both Amtrak and SEPTA (where you can also get actual updated schedules), a little library, and some Amtrak Quik-Trak machines. Vending machines and an ATM occupy the other wall.
Ah, and this is important: we’ve got bathrooms! The men’s room was pretty good, with nice sink facilities and no bad smells in the main area. Two things, though: there really should be a separator between the two urinals; and someone left a nasty surprise in the single stall. Yuck. And unfortunately, while the building used to sit on the inbound platform, one now has to climb up to the footbridge and back down to the center to get to their train. Still, you can’t argue with its hours: it’s open from 5 AM to 6:45 PM on weekdays, 7 AM to 3 PM on Saturdays, and 8:15 AM to 2:45 PM on Sundays. Not bad, not bad at all!
And finally, shoved into the end of the building is this unassuming door from the outside with nothing but a stylized “OPEN” sign on it. When you walk in, you enter this wonderful coffee shop that is absolutely covered in charm. The walls are meticulously decked out with railroad memorabilia, newspaper articles about SEPTA and Amtrak, and comic strips about coffee. An oldies station plays over a little radio set up on a shelf.
This isn’t just a place to get coffee and light pastries, though. The shop, open from morning to evening on weekdays, is run by a lady named Renee, and she is amazing. I was in that shop for an hour and a half just talking to her about anything and everything, while occasionally regulars or newcomers would come in to buy a drink. “You’re my mentor in life,” one of them told her as he headed out the door to catch his train home. At one point I mentioned how much I love the station architecture along the Main Line, and Renee whipped out a book on the topic for me to flip through. While I was impressed by the modern footbridge and the high-level platform, this little coffee shop absolutely made the station for me. I’ll be sure to come again.
Ridership: This one is a heavy hitter for both SEPTA and Amtrak. It’s the busiest station on the Paoli/Thorndale Line for SEPTA, with 1,187 boardings and 1,278 alightings per day. Amtrak performs really well, too – this is its fourth-busiest station in Pennsylvania, getting 232,158 passengers in 2018, or about 636 per day. And the trip patterns are interesting: obviously there’s lots of commuting into Center City, but a ton of people reverse commute out here as well, and mostly on Amtrak! Yeah, Philadelphia is Amtrak’s most-used destination from here, and I can sorta see why. If you’re commuting into the city, SEPTA provides lots of express service; if you’re reverse commuting, though, you’re stuck on the local making every single way-too-close stop. Yeah, that Amtrak monthly pass is looking a lot more attractive now…
Pros: All of the new infrastructure is just fantastic. The platform offers so much shelter and seating, while the footbridge is modern and flows well. The elevators work great, and the egresses on both sides of the tracks were super well-done. While the building is aesthetically mediocre, its operating hours are among the best on SEPTA, and it offers everything you would want from a station building inside. And that coffee shop…oh man, just icing on the cake. I adore that place. Plus, this station gets frequent service – on weekdays and Saturdays, it’s two trains an hour or better most of the time!
Cons: As far as substantial cons go, there’s really only one: it’s a real pain to have to go up and around to the platform. It’s especially annoying if you’re coming from the building, which offers great waiting space that’s hardly worth waiting at because you have to make your way up to the footbridge to get to the platform.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Paoli’s downtown is centered around a strip mall called the “Paoli Village Shoppes”, and then a bunch of random businesses with parking lots out front. It’s right outside the station, and I’m sure some of the restaurants are good, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
Final Verdict: 9/10
This is the first (only?) SEPTA station where, for at least a little while, I was considering giving it a 10. As I was taking pictures of the platform, I was thinking “Wow, there’s very little wrong here!” But then I got to the building, which is great, but is in an inconvenient location. And someone in the coffee shop was complaining about how he doesn’t get to spend as much time there because he has to climb the footbridge to get to the platform. Okay…yeah, it’s still a great station, but going up and over will always be a pain, and it renders the building less useful than it was before. While constructing it this way let the old station stay open the whole time, it has made the station a little less easy to use. So close, Paoli…so close.
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