1 (Parx Casino to 54th-City)

It’s always interesting to see what transit agencies choose for their route 1. The MBTA’s 1, for example, is one of the busiest bus routes on the system, running frequently down a major urban corridor. What does SEPTA’s 1 do? It runs hourly service, six days a week, through suburban areas on a ridiculously long journey with a million variants stopping at different termini or serving random industrial parks. Okay…well, that’s different.

I’m gonna be on this thing for two hours. Two hours!

The 1 began as the “Boulevard Limited”, running limited stops along everyone’s favorite monstrous street, Roosevelt Boulevard. It has grown and shrunk over the years, morphing into the beast it is today: a hopeless mess of legacy elements and tacked-on extensions that makes absolutely no sense. And this is SEPTA, so of course I had to get a very specific trip to satisfy my “riding the whole route” requirement – just four northbound and five southbound runs per day operate via “Drummond and Decatur”, an insanely long deviation where usually buses terminate. But a few trips per day operate via instead of to that location. The 1:36 PM from 54th-City is one of those trips.

A big apartment building.

54th-City is right in the midst of Saint Joseph’s University, but it sure didn’t feel like a college part of town when we pulled out onto City (Line) Ave. All I could see was a bunch of suburban businesses, random apartment buildings, and corporate office buildings all clustered together. There were a few points of interest, though: Bala Station, Belmont Reservoir, and that weird standalone Saks Fifth Avenue. Seriously, don’t you belong in a mall somewhere?

Looking across Belmont Reservoir.

We entered a highway interchange with the Schuylkill Expressway before crossing the expressway’s namesake river. While the route ultimately heads east on Ridge Ave, we first had to deviate to Wissahickon Transportation Center, going west on Ridge for a bit. We pulled in, looped around, and headed back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Crossing Wissahickon Creek with the Norristown Line sailing over.

Ridge Ave had a line of rowhouses on one side, while some recreational centers occupied the other side. A section through the woods led us to East Falls, where businesses and apartments lined the road, along with a riverfront park. We went by a newer apartment development and underneath some train tracks along a cemetery, then we turned onto Allegheny Ave.

A restaurant under a bridge.

Allegheny was lined with dense rowhouses, set back from the road with long steps up to the doors. The headquarters for Pep Boys was right smack in the middle of the neighborhood, and there were a few more industrial buildings as we merged onto Hunting Park Ave. We also passed some suburban businesses, some parking lots, and some giant abandoned factories.

Houses in the neighborhood.

It was at Wissahickon Ave that the 1’s weird limited stop section began. Yes, the route has a “limited stop” bit in the middle, which often translates to “the distance that every SEPTA stop should be” – there’s one about every two blocks. We proceeded down Hunting Park Ave, drifting in and out of legacy rowhouse neighborhoods and later-built suburban businesses and apartment buildings.

A Walgreens and a McDonald’s mix with older apartments at Broad Street.

We crossed Broad Street at Hunting Park Station, then our road became…Roosevelt Boulevard. Noooooooo! It very quickly grew to become the giant twelve-lane behemoth that cuts through neighborhoods and ruins lives. Indeed, dense rowhomes lined the street leading into neighborhoods with more of them, but the giant road itself was like a scar through them.

Houses along 9th Street

The “limited stops” were incredibly stupid, too. Sometimes they’d be, like, a mile and a half apart – pretty good – but more often than not, the bus was stopping every two blocks, which is essentially local bus spacing in every other city except Philly. Then there were some idiotically close ones: stopping at both Front and Rising Sun? They’re less than 500 feet apart! Geez!!!

A road directly next to the Boulevard.

Then after the stop at C Street, there was suddenly an over 1 mile gap in stops! Huh? Where did that come from? During that time, the Boulevard crossed Tacony Creek and passed some suburban businesses, including a strip mall at the first stop after that gap. Another 0.6 mile nonstop run led us to Pratt Street, where the limited stop portion ends. I guess that makes sense – this is where the 1’s only independent section begins, and there was actually a full-seated load of people on the bus.

Head down there and you’ll end up at Frankford.

The independent section only lasts for a mile, and it was mostly residential, with a few businesses at the insane Oxford Circle. The busyness of the bus is the reason SEPTA insists on keeping the 1 around: people use it to get from the southern portion of Roosevelt to the northern portion. We’ll talk about why this is bad reasoning later on, but for now, we joined up with four other Boulevard routes at Bustleton Ave (three of which are frequent) to continue the journey.

A giant penguin!

Yet despite the 1 now being with four other routes (two if you only count the ones that run on the Boulevard for a long time, but still)…it doesn’t become limited stops again. It makes every stop at every block! Sure, the Boulevard Direct already runs a limited stop service, but why shouldn’t the 1 only make those stops too? Is this not supposed to be the “Boulevard Limited” or whatever?

Well, this is depressing.

What about the scenery? Ugh. Rows upon rows of houses that all looked the same, with lots of random suburban businesses with giant parking lots to, er, break up the monotony? Going through Pennypack Park offered a nice five-second nature break before the suburban dullness began again. At least now the houses looked different from one another.

Dude, you’re blocking the crosswalk! Oh wait, probably no one’s used that crosswalk in twenty years.

Trees blocked the view of the large Northeast Philadelphia Airport, while a playground with sports fields occupied the other side of the road – tell your kids to enjoy inhaling the diesel fumes! There were still more suburban shopping plazas everywhere, but at least a new kind of relentless building type joined the mix: the single story industrial warehouse thing. And once we started that infamous Drummond and Decatur deviation by turning onto Comly Road, we would be seeing a lot more of those industrial buildings.

Dunno why my camera chose to focus on that little signal box, but it makes for an interesting photo. Look, I have dozens of pictures from this ride of just factories – I gravitate towards the ones that are different!

One side of Comly was occupied by houses that looked the same, while industry took up the other side. We went by a few more sports fields and the northeastern boundary of Northeast Philadelphia Airport before running along its southeastern side, Decatur Road. This took us to a loop via Drummond and Red Lion Roads, and it was just a bunch of industrial and corporate buildings. A decent number of people got off, but this area is served by two other routes, and they don’t have to deviate to get here! By the time we returned to Roosevelt Boulevard, it had been thirteen minutes since we had left. A thirteen minute deviation. Good lord.

The dead winter trees don’t help make this place feel more inviting.

Okay, back on Roosevelt, which had a full-on cloverleaf interchange with Woodhaven Road, because of course it did. We entered a big random park after that, finally leaving the City of Philadelphia in the process (oh yeah – we were in Philly that whole time). Roosevelt Boulevard’s name changed to Lincoln Highway on the other side of that park, and it finally lost its express lanes and shrunk down to a lowly eight travel lanes. Wimp.

We’re still running through this stuff, though.

We changed from industrial buildings to suburban businesses and hotels, but it was no less dreadful. At least a cemetery was on hand to break it up a bit. And right after that cemetery, we pulled onto a highway ramp leading to Street Road, which ended up not being a highway, but just a further collection of random businesses. A big gaudy sign let us know that we had made it to Parx Casino, and here, we turned onto Casino Way (good name) to loop around one of the facility’s many parking lots to get to the SEPTA stop. We were 12 minutes late. I needed to get out of that bus.

The front…
…and the back.

Route: 1 (Parx Casino to 54th-City)

Ridership: Okay, my trip got 79 people, which is certainly a high number. But remember that the 1 is a really really really long route, which negatively affects its productivity and generally makes that trip-by-trip number higher. It’s also super infrequent, so it’s overall ridership is going to come out really low, and it does: 2,847 riders per weekday, or SEPTA’s 66th most-used route. It also averages out to around 49 riders per trip, meaning mine was way above average for some reason.

Pros: I can’t deny that the route serves a purpose. People do genuinely use this as a quick way to get between the two halves of Roosevelt Ave. So for that, I give the 1 credit.

Cons: But ugh, this route is so stupid! It’s one of those SEPTA routes where I have no idea where to begin. Okay…the schedule. No Sunday service, first of all. Great. Hourly headways on Saturdays from 6:33 AM to 5:45 PM. Brilliant. And then weekdays…good luck deciphering what’s going on! This thing requires ten buses at rush hour, purely because of the insane amount of peak-only, peak direction-only service offered: every 12 minutes? Really? And then it just drops to hourly midday. Plus there are two random late-night trips that only go from Drummond and Decatur to 54th-City, five hours after the previous trip.

And then the variants! Oh gosh, there are so many! It mostly comes down to practically every timepoint being a possible terminus. Some trips begin at 54th-City, some begin at Wissahickon, some begin at Roosevelt and Broad, and it’s similar on the other end of the route. So you end up with all these different combinations of termini, not to mention whether or not trips do the Drummond and Decatur deviation, and the route comes out with 15 variants – the tenth-most complicated route on SEPTA. What an achievement.

But the elephant in the room: this route is moronic. Almost the entire thing duplicates other, frequent routes, and aside from the limited stop section that makes absolutely no sense, it does nothing to set itself apart from those other routes. “But the one-seat rides!” you might say. Well, assuming SEPTA keeps its backwards transfer fee, which has led to awful routes like this, then you have a point – it would genuinely be cheaper to use the 1 if you’re trying to get from one side of Roosevelt to the other. But the 1 is hourly. If you have a pass (or if SEPTA gets rid of the transfer fee, COUGH COUGH), it’s often way better to just hop on the first R you see (every 15 minutes at worst), take it to Frankford, and transfer to the first 14 or Boulevard Direct you see (also every 15 minutes at worst). Heck, even if you’re trying to go to Drummond and Decatur or Parx Casino, the 20 runs to the former every 15 minutes, while the 50 serves both every half hour, which isn’t great, but it’s STILL MORE FREQUENT THAN THE FREAKING 1!

Nearby and Noteworthy: I spent this whole post groaning about Roosevelt Boulevard. There really isn’t much to see along most of the 1. But okay, hmm…ooh, a bowling alley near Oxford Circle! But also, like, just take the 19, 59, or 67 from Frankford or Arrott…

Final Verdict: 2/10
The 1 is the embodiment of everything wrong with SEPTA’s bus system. It’s hopelessly long, it stops too frequently (even when it’s “limited stop”!), it only exists to provide people with one-seat rides because they’d have to pay extra for a two-seat ride, the schedule has an insane amount of peak service at the expense of equally-busy midday service, and it has enough variants to make your head spin. I wish I could give it a 1 to match its number, but people do actually use this – it’s partially because the network and fare structure forces them to, but they do use it. I think Jarrett Walker sums up the route and how to fix it best in his description on page 7 of this PDF: basically, let other routes do the work, and use the 1’s resources to make its replacements more frequent.

The 1 is definitely not Number 1.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 41 (Charlemont/Greenfield)

Welcome to the most rural route that the FRTA operates! The 41, the system’s westernmost route, runs out to a tiny town called Charlemont that I wouldn’t have heard of if the 41 didn’t end there. Also, it only runs four times per day…

The minibus comes rolling in.

We headed to Main Street from the JWO Transit Center, going through downtown Greenfield. As far as driving straight out to Charlemont goes, staying on Main Street would be the most efficient thing to do; however, the route has to deviate to Greenfield Community College, so we instead merged onto Colrain Street. This took us through the woods for a bit, then it became College Drive after a roundabout and we ended up at the college. This is actually a major source of ridership for the route, with people commuting here from points west.

Downtown Greenfield.

We came back down on Colrain Road, passing “Big Y Plaza” without deviating like the 21 does. Taking a right onto Mohawk Trail (Route 2), we very quickly left civilization for lots and lots of trees. The road made its way up a hill, with only the occasional house showing up. We did, however, pass the “Longview Tower“, which is now rusty and closed – people used to be able to climb up the novelty tower to be able to see “three states.”

The fact that this place is called “The Outpost” should say a lot.

At some point along here, we entered Shelburne, not that that did much to the (quite pretty) scenery. There was one point where a few businesses were clustered around, including a farm market right next to its farm, a coffee shop with a little golf course behind it, and a random ATM next to a cemetery. We also deviated into the tiny parking lot for an antique shop for some reason – maybe it was safer to drop off there than on the main road? There wouldn’t be so many buildings in that close proximity to each other again for a while, but they did show up fairly consistently, mostly houses.

The deviation did grant a nice view of the main road.

Shelburne does have a “downtown” of sorts called Shelburne Center, and that’s the next major place we ended up. Along with an “Indian” trading post right on the highway, it has a fire station, a church, and a library, the latter two and a few other buildings offering fantastic old-fashioned rural architecture…but it could barely be seen from Route 2, which sped past, separated from the buildings by a curtain of trees. The route doesn’t even have a stop here.

Beautiful rolling hills.

So, we continued on our way, passing woods and farms, with still occasional buildings in between. Weirdly, the next stop on the route after that little clump of businesses where we deviated into the antique shop wasn’t until “Mohawk Trail and Mini Storage”, which was indeed next to a mini storage place in the middle of the forest – it was across the street from a state police building, so maybe that’s why there’s a stop here. Soon after that, we merged onto South Maple Street and took a left onto Bridge Street, where suddenly there were dense houses everywhere. This was the village of Shelburne Falls.

Shelburne Falls’s beautiful Bridge Street.

We didn’t get to travel through the wonderful little downtown on Bridge Street, as the route takes a right onto Main Street, but we were right next to it and the stop here was popular. Main Street was residential, and it led us out of the village, where did a little jog to get back onto Mohawk Trail. It crossed the Deerfield River to enter the town of Buckland, where three trips a day deviate to the Mohawk High School, before crossing the river again a minute later, entering Charlemont.

Running next to the river.

It certainly wasn’t dense, but the road in Charlemont did have houses at a fairly consistent rate. There was a lot of farmland here as we paralleled the Deerfield River. Also, near where we entered the town, there’s a 46-space park-and-ride that’s probably way too big for its own good. Every trip deviates into there…except ours, for some reason! People use the bus at 11 AM too!

More river running.

The next two stops were outbound only: the first was outside of the “Red Rose Motel” (wonder how often that one is used), and the one after was next to the “Olde Willow Motel” (another barnburner for ridership, I’m sure). A stop that did get someone was at the Academy at Charlemont, a private high school that encourages students to take the FRTA there. We pulled into its driveway to pick someone up (they stayed on in Charlemont, since for this particular trip, the stop is westbound only), and along the road soon after was a corn maze!

Okay…I feel like I’m in West Virginia or something.

There was a section of forest before the road was suddenly lined with houses. This was Charlemont Center, and since August 2018, the route has been terminating at the Federated Church, a cute little church building on the east side of the village. Back when I rode previously in that summer, though, the route went about a half mile down the road, looping around next to the village post office. There’s not much in Charlemont Center – a school, a general store, a few fishing stores – but it’s the end of the line.

We turned right around in Charlemont, so here’s the bus back in downtown Greenfield.

FRTA Route: 41 (Charlemont/Greenfield)

Ridership: Okay, raw numbers first: this route unsurprisingly gets among the lowest ridership in the system, with 32 daily riders in 2014. But…that would mean four people per one-way trip. Yet on my ride, 5 people rode out and 8 people came back in. Hmm…either the 11:00 round trip is exceptionally busy, or ridership on this route has gone up.

And it’s worth talking about the people, who are A) remarkably resilient for relying on this four-times-a-day route in the middle of nowhere, and B) very weird. One old guy with a very loud voice regalled my friend and I with a story about how he crashed into a parked car once. “Smell this,” he said as he held out his medical marijuana. And what was the purpose of his trip? He was meeting a friend in Shelburne Falls…for lunch. He would get a full 27 minutes there before hopping on the return trip of the exact same bus!

Another person was…whimsical. “I’m climbing out of the McDonald’s corporate capitalism pit like Batman in the Dark Knight,” he said before bursting out laughing for no reason in particular. He also told us “You should hitchhike sometime” and called me and my friend “the precocious young one” and “the old sage,” respectively. Yeah, it was an odd trip.

Pros: Okay, first pro: it’s pretty amazing that the FRTA even runs this bus in the first place! I mean, this thing is really rural, and there’s probably only, I dunno, 3,000 people who live along its independent section? With that being said, the ridership surprised me – an impressive amount of people use the 41. One thing that helps is the number of schools the route serves (Academy at Charlemont, Mohawk High School, Greenfield Community College), but my trip was a midday one in the summer!

Cons: Yeah…four times a day. Obviously not a great schedule. I will defend the FRTA here, though, as even if they did have the resources to operate more service, they would be much better spent on other routes. I do wish the schedule was more consistent, though; every trip should serve the Charlemont Park and Ride, for example. Having more stops along the route, particularly for the more populated areas like Shelburne Center, would be nice as well. Finally, for a pie-in-the-sky proposal, extending the route to North Adams to connect with the BRTA would be reallyyyyyy cooooool…but that’s 30 minutes away from Charlemont, and it would get really limited ridership. I would rather see a route from Greenfield to Brattleboro, VT – now that’s a rural transit investment that’s worth it!

Nearby and Noteworthy: Whoa, Charlemont has a ski resort? That’s neat! But more importantly, Shelburne Falls is amazing and the fact that you can take a bus there is incredible. Okay, first you have the Bridge of Flowers, which is an old interurban trolley bridge converted into a pedestrian walkway with tons of flowers along it – it’s beautiful for both your eyes and your nose. Then there’s the Shelburne Trolley Museum, which I haven’t been to, but it’s priced very reasonably and the transformation of their operating trolley from a chicken coop to the showcase of the museum is incredible. And finally, you have so many fantastic restaurants and businesses along Bridge Street. I know this bus has an awful schedule, but even if you come by car, I cannot recommend Shelburne Falls enough.

Final Verdict: 6/10
Hey, I mean, as far as insanely rural routes go, they run it pretty well. I don’t think a bus like this could really do better than a 6 just because of the nature of running a route as out-there as this one, but I think the 41 does a great job for what it’s trying to do. And for anyone with the patience to do the five-seat ride from Boston to Shelburne Falls to see the stuff I mentioned…kudos to you. You deserve a medal.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Levittown

SEPTA! Stop opening up new Regional Rail platforms! Let me get through my backlog without having to schlep up to random stations every couple of days! And you picked a real good place for me this time: Levittown. One of the first master-planned suburbs, and one with a pretty nasty history, this is now one of the most boring places ever. I spent about fifteen minutes at the station before hopping on the first train home.

Mm, sexy new platforms.

The inbound and outbound platforms are pretty similar. Of course, we’ve got brand-spanking new high-level platforms, and they’re awesome. Most of it is sheltered, and beneath that shelter, you’ve got benches, wastebaskets, departure screens, and Key readers – all the good stuff. Only the inbound side has a posted timetable, unfortunately, and while I don’t know for sure, I could see there being more outbound ridership from here than at your usual Regional Rail station. You could commute from here to Trenton or even New York.

Beautiful!

The inbound side does have an ace-in-the-hole, though: we’ve got a building! And what’s more, this seems to be a Secane situation where the building is open all the time. There’s a ton of seating inside this temperature-controlled room, plus a schedule, a departure screen, some water fountains, a few history placards (including a big rock in a glass case whose significance I didn’t have enough time to find out), and a bathroom (spotless, but smelly when I went in).

Coming off of the inbound platform.

Ramps lead to a wide sidewalk between the inbound platform and the parking lot. You can also access part of the lot via a piece of low-level platform that they kept for some reason (better than the outbound side, where the low platform doesn’t even lead anywhere). There are 382 spaces here according to SEPTA, but this article claims that it has over 400. At any rate, some signs say it’s a dollar a day, but the website claims it’s free, as does a handwritten sign that said “Parking is FREE until further notice. I have no other information.” My guess is that with the parking lot improvements (it was much smaller before the renovation), they’re going to eventually start charging, which isn’t a huge deal. It’s a dollar a day, come on.

Some more stuff along the sidewalk.

The building doesn’t have a ticket office, so much like Secane, SEPTA set up a little trailer for morning rush ticket sales – it’s open from 5:30 to 11:00 AM on weekdays only. There are parking pay machines along the building, then it turns into a sheltered drop-off area with benches to wait for pick-ups. The 127 and 128 (both insanely long and twisty bus routes) deviate into the station, so they get a bus stop in this area. Bike racks are dotted all along here, and SEPTA’s website gets this one wrong hilariously: “0 bike racks are available, accommodating a total of 8 bicycles.” More than 8 bicycles can park here, and, uh, there are definitely more than 0 racks!

Up on the footbridge.

How does one cross to the other side of the station, though? Why, you must use the footbridge! You can either take the elevators (although the outbound one was still being worked on, at least when I was here), which are glass and very nice, or you can use the stairs. Now, these stairs do have a small vertical increase like at Paoli, but the horizontal distance between each step is much smaller, making them so much more usable!

This entrance needs some work…

The exit from the outbound platform has a similar layout to the inbound side, but just smaller. A sidewalk runs alongside the platform, with a few bike racks and parking payment machines next to the stairs and ramp to the platform. There’s a tiny parking lot on this side, as well as a separate still-in-progress exit to industrial Oxford Ave.

A SEPTA train leaving the station…from above.
And the obligatory Amtrak.

Station: Levittown

Ridership: Levittown is definitely up there in ridership, with 567 boardings and 644 alightings per day (no, I have no idea why the alightings are so much higher). Being an almost purely residential town, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of ridership is people commuting into Philly (or other places) for work.

Pros: Well gosh, they just did a really good job here! The high-level platform is fantastic, with all the amenities one would expect. The station has about as much parking as can fit around it, while good drop-off facilities, a busway, and plenty of bike racks provide an alternate way to get in. And of course, the building is wonderful, and I love this new approach SEPTA has been taking by keeping them open all the time, with a separate ticket building for the morning rush. Plus, Levittown is actually an important station because it’s legitimately far from its neighbors!

Cons: Honestly…the only substantial thing is just a few rough signs. And they’re not even that bad – one has a misleading arrow, another awkwardly points to multiple “BIKE RACK,” and another lists “INBOUND AND OUTBOUND TRAINS” when it’s only pointing toward inbound trains. But for SEPTA standards, I’ve seen much worse…

Nearby and Noteworthy: Well, for what it’s worth, the station is well-located right next to “Levittown Town Center.” Which is a strip mall. Yay.

Final Verdict: 10/10
Levittown gets a 10? Levittown gets a 10? Levittown. Gets. A. 10. Levittowngetsa10.

I hate myself.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 21 (Greenfield Community)

Okay…time to do the 20, but in the opposite direction! Yeah, sorry if the 21 ends up being a bit redundant…

Yikes, what an unflattering angle.

So we headed straight up Federal Street, leaving downtown Greenfield pretty quickly in favor of more suburban businesses (complete with parking lots), with residential side streets. We did a slight deviation from the 20’s route, both literally and figuratively, by heading up to and looping around Cherry Rum Plaza, a mall that’s even more dead now than it was when I rode this thing. We came back down to the 20’s route on Silver Street, running through the mostly residential neighborhood that was also home to the Greenfield High School.

Yeahhhh…not sure why we have to deviate in here.

We crossed a train track and then turned onto Leyden Road, crossing I-91 and heading past some increasingly far-apart houses. It led up to the Leyden Woods apartment development, though, which was a huge ridership destination. We took Leyden Road back down, and it eventually became Conway Street before we merged onto Elm Street.

A farm across the street from Leyden Woods.

Elm Street was mostly residential, both with houses and apartment developments, although there was also a random prison along there. We suddenly turned onto the woodsy Colrain Street, which ran over I-91 and entered a roundabout, where we continued onto College Drive. After some open fields and farms, we looped around Greenfield Community College.

Aw man, it’s starting to rain…

We came back down to that rotary and headed south on Colrain Road (different from Colrain Street). This led us to our next deviation, this one into the Mohawk Mall Shopping Center. Wait, FRTA has a different name for it…”Big Y Plaza”? Oh great, so we’re on the PVTA now.

Looping ’round the parking lot.

Now, my friend and I had very specifically chosen one of the two 21 trips per day that deviates into the Greenfield RMV – very important. So you can imagine my sadness when we took the Mohawk Trail straight past it without deviating! Come on! At least this was also one of the every-two-hour Corporate Center trips, meaning a long jog on the way back. That began with a turn onto Newton Street.

Oh, hello!

We passed a Tractor Supply Co. as we turned onto the woodsy Fairview Street, then there was a very small residential area and a church when we took a left onto Munson Street. That essentially entered the woods again, with a few houses and industrial buildings here and there. Once we headed left on Wisdom Way, we passed a bunch of stuff: more houses, a couple of cemeteries, an apartment development, and a horse racing track. Things suddenly got dense after we crossed the Green River, with lots of houses leading us back to the JWO Transit Center.

Better angle this time!

FRTA Route: 21 (Greenfield Community)

Ridership: The 21 got the second-highest ridership on the system in 2014, and that was with a 90-minute headway! Now that it’s every 60 minutes, I would guess that the 112 riders a day it got then have gone up slightly. My trip got 11 people, which for a minibus circulator in a small town is pretty good!

Pros: For a system whose service area is as rural as the FRTA’s is, it makes sense to have something that circulates around the most urban part of the that system. It’s the FRTA’s most frequent route, with consistent hourly headways from 8 AM to 7 PM – the only exceptions are the 2:00 trip leaving at 2:15 instead, probably to time with the end of the day at Greenfield High School, and the last trip departing at 6:50 for some reason.

Cons: This circulator needs three variants? Really? Yeah, there’s the one that skips the Corporate Center and the one that serves the Corporate Center (which alternate between each other throughout the day), plus the one that serves both the Corporate Center and the RMV, although apparently it doesn’t actually serve the RMV. The running times are all over the place, too, with some weird inconsistencies throughout the schedule. And it’s a shame the route only runs on weekdays, but I suppose you can say that about any FRTA route – as their most urban run, though, it feels especially prudent here. I could get annoyed about the fact that it’s a one-way loop, but the FRTA has such limited resources that I get it; the 21 gets a pass on that front.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Not much that’s not within walking distance of the JWO Transit Center.

Final Verdict: 5/10
Between this and the 20, the whole Greenfield circulator system is just a mess. This is obviously the better of the two because it runs all day, but streamlining the two routes into one and cutting back on variants would be a good start to simplifying the system. The 21 is middle-of-the-road otherwise – it does its job, but in a very loopy and unattractive way.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Paoli

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!

The far end of the platform.

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.

Are those heat lamps up there? I guess we’ll find out come winter!

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.

Ahhhh, Boston Landing flashbacks!

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.

This photo does not capture how brutal these stairs are.

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.

The empty footbridge.

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.

Mm, that “SEPTA | AMTRAK” lettering looks so good!

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!

Nice bike parking.

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.

Coming down to the lower level.

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.

Ah, this is what we came for.

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.

The other parking lot…from above.

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.

The other old platform.

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.

And we come to the building.

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.

Inside the building.

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.

Ooh, clean!

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!

The crown jewel of Paoli Station.

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.

Some of the awesome stuff on the walls. And look, a schedule!

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.

A SEPTA train…from above.
SEPTA and Amtrak meet! Good timing!

Station: Paoli

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.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Service Change: Scotland, Part 2 – To the Isle of Skye

After our adventures in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the urban part of my family’s Scotland trip was essentially over. It was time to take a train way up into the Scottish Highlands, and on the eponymous (West) Highland Line, no less – widely considered to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world. Our trip began in the currently-not-too-beautiful Glasgow Queen Street Station, which is under renovation.

It sorta feels like a big shed right now.
Our train on the five-times-a-day route looked like a bit of a clunker…
…but the inside was pretty nice…
…and the bathroom was fantastic!

There was a brief underground section after Queen Street, and once that tunnel ended, we were out of the urban part of Glasgow and into the surrounding sprawl. We flew past plenty of local stops, although the seemingly insignificant Dalmuir got one – it’s at a junction between two lines, which is why it was deemed worthy of stopping. There was a break from the constant rowhouses after that as we ran along the River Clyde, but our next stop in the sizeable town of Dumbarton came pretty soon after.

Crossing the River Leven in Dumbarton.

We were in a land of sheep and farmland from there, getting some great views of the River Clyde as we passed a few small towns and villages. After a stop in the larger town of Helensburgh and another in the small village of Garelochhead, a conductor came around to check tickets. He saw me taking photos of the river views. “If you think this is good,” he said, “just wait until we get further north. The views are like…” And then he dropped his jaw like he was in complete shock. “And it’s too bad it’s a cloudy day, because when it’s sunny, it’s like…” He dropped his jaw even more. ScotRail conductors are awesome.

Gosh, but this is pretty amazing already!

By this point the land was too mountainous for farming, so the scenery got a lot more rugged as we twisted our way along various lochs. Long-distance trains to the Highlands are all that run along this stretch of track, so even though the villages kept getting smaller, a few of them still got stops. Ardlui, for example, was a tiny resort hamlet, but it still had a full high-level platform. And the views were absolutely stunning.

This is like a magical field or something!
The village of Arrochar.

Ardlui was situated at the northern tip of Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain, and there was some super rugged mountain running after that. The line twisted its way along the slopes until it reached another local village stop, Crianlarich. Here, we got a brief layover as the train split in two: half of it would head west to Oban, while we were continuing north to Fort William and Mallaig.

That is one twisty path.
The branch to Oban splitting off.

While the Oban line splits off just after Crianlarich, there is an interesting situation where both lines roughly parallel each other for a bit. As a result, the little tourist village of Tyndrum gets a stop on both of them, Tyndrum Lower and Upper Tyndrum, making it the smallest settlement in the UK with more than one railroad station. While the following terrain was mountainous, it was also green, and we got occasional views of farms and bodies of water.

A river carving through the terrain.
Look at how much the ground changes even in this small landscape!

Bridge of Orchy Station served a very small tourist village, but the next one, Rannoch, was basically just a small parking lot and a few buildings in the middle of nowhere! The scenery got really interesting around Rannoch, with this almost otherworldly ground texture that made it feel like we were on another planet. There were absolutely no signs of civilization.

This is so cool.
Running along a river.

Corrour Station was even more remote – in fact, it’s one of the most isolated stations in the UK, as well as the highest in elevation. There are literally no public roads to it, but it’s actually quite well-used by hikers. We ran along Loch Treig, after which the line curved west and it felt like we were back on Earth: the land was green and fertile along the River Speen.

That didn’t make it any less enjoyable to stare out the window, though!

Tulloch Station was on the remote side, but the next two, Roy Bridge and Spean Bridge, were in actual towns. It was woodsy for the next while before we started to pass some…industrial buildings? And then some houses! Yes, we were arriving at Fort William, a very major town (the second-most populated in the Highlands) with a stub-end station.

Fort William’s little platform.

The train reversed out of here to continue to Mallaig, but we decided to hang out in this town for four hours until the next train. The station was small, but it had decent amenities, including a waiting room, bathrooms, and luggage lockers (very convenient for our big bags). During our time here, we had lunch (long-distance ScotRail trains have snack carts, but it’s not substantial if you’re looking for a big meal), perused the shops along the pedestrian main street, and visited an amazing free museum.

The little waiting room.

Our train to Mallaig was pretty busy as we headed out from Fort William. While it is small as far as major towns go, Fort William does have a few “suburbs”, and the first two stops toward Mallaig serve these mostly residential areas. The next stop, Loch Eil Outward Bound, was built in 1985 for a (surprise, surprise) nearby Outward Bound center.

Crossing the Caledonian Canal; a series of locks takes boats up a hill on the other side of the train.

The line was remote at this point with stops serving small settlements, although the land was lush and green, with sheep grazing on open fields. Things got more mountainous after Loch Eil, and we soon approached the really famous part of this line: the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a gorgeous bridge that appears in several movies, including the Harry Potter franchise. The collective gasps on the train should be an indication of how darn amazing this thing was.

But first, some grazing sheep. Unfortunately, it was raining, which really ruins these photos!
It’s so not captured in the photo, but this was incredible.
And the amazing, again totally not captured view from the viaduct!

Post-viaduct, we twisted our way through the green mountains, with occasional views of lochs. Some stations were remote, while others served little villages. Glenfinnan Station, fittingly after the viaduct of the same name, had a cool-looking railway museum inside of it.

A river speeding through the terrain.
Hugging the side of a beautiful loch.

The third-to-last stop was Arisaig, the westernmost station in Great Britain. It was here that the line curved north and the land got flatter, since we were close to the ocean at this point. After the second-to-last stop, Morar, a few buildings were dotted throughout the landscape, and we eventually came straight up to the sea. That was the sign that we were coming into Mallaig, and indeed, we soon pulled up into the small fishing village’s little terminal station.

That conductor I mentioned before told us about Morar Beach, seen in the background – it’s apparently beautiful.
Running along the sea!
The station. That red car on the right belongs to the Jacobite Steam Train, a tourist train that traverses the route from Fort William to Mallaig a few times a day.

So, thoughts on the West Highland Line: I mean, what else can I say? The hype is justified – this really is an incredible journey. It was covered by our Spirit of Scotland passes, but it’s a pretty reasonable £40.50 round trip (£27.20 one-way) otherwise. You could make a day trip from Glasgow out of it if you wanted to, but it would basically be a full day of riding trains with a few hours of layover in Mallaig. However, Mallaig is a gateway to even more amazing places. Speaking of…

Time for a ferry ride!

Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac, is the main ferry operator to many of Scotland’s islands. After spending the night in Mallaig, we took their Mallaig to Armadale service to reach the next leg of the trip on the Isle of Skye. While the ferries are already cheap to begin with (just £3 for the 35-minute trip to Skye), they’re fully covered by the Spirit of Scotland pass, too!

The cars line up along here and get shuttled onto the boat – it was a surprisingly efficient process.

The Mallaig to Armadale service has kind of an odd schedule thanks to changing tides, with gaps anywhere from 30 minutes to over two hours (and the frequencies are worse if tides are low). It’s a car ferry first and foremost, and the vehicle slots tend to sell out quickly, but we booked our passenger-only tickets at the very last minute and they said there was plenty of room. After the parade of cars got onto the ferry, we headed on ourselves.

Yeah, I’m seein’ a lot more room for cars here…

The boat didn’t have much as far as passenger accommodations go – this balcony above the cars with some seating was all we got. The ride was really pretty, though, especially on a foggy morning, with fantastic views of the mountains. When we got to Skye, they made the one other foot passenger and us wait until the cars were all off, then we set foot onto the island.

Mallaig harbor, with lots of fishing boats docked up.
Gorgeous!
Armadale had a nice little building with a ton of features and amenities.

Oh boy, now it was time to deal with the Skye bus system. Operated by Stagecoach (whom we’ll see a lot more of – they operate most of the local bus services in the Highlands), this system is essentially a public school bus system that runs a few additional trips throughout the day. The service is amped up a tiny bit in the peak of the peak tourist season with extremely limited Sunday service, but most guidebooks tell you to bring a car onto Skye for a reason. Most routes only run a few trips a day. Tickets on Skye are confusingly zoned and insanely expensive (although there is a £9.50 day pass), but luckily any Stagecoach bus on the island is free with the Spirit of Scotland pass.

With all that being said, a surprising amount of their bus stops have shelters.

The 52 is the route from Armadale (Skye’s principle ferry terminal, remember) to the island’s main town, Portree. It runs three full trips per day, except during the peak tourist season, when it operates a staggering five. Yikes. The schedule shows ferry arrivals, but the quality of the connections…vary. We could’ve gotten the well-timed 10:35 trip, the first one of the day, but we decided to wait three and a half hours until the next one so we could visit Armadale Castle.

Wow, it’s a real bus!

This trip had a ten-minute connection with the arriving ferry (er…not that the bus schedule tells you that – it appears the Saturday ferry times listed are wrong), and when we boarded at the castle, there were six people already on board that seemed to have made the connection! The road hugged the water for a while, offering fantastic views toward the mainland. There was at least some civilization along here, with houses showing up at regular intervals.

The inside of the bus. The seats had seatbelts!
A few shots of the amazing scenery.

Once we pulled away from the ocean, there was no development anywhere, and the land was shrubby and rugged. Pretty soon, though, we reached the other side of this part of the island, and houses practically lined the road. A few businesses showed up at Broadford, Skye’s other main settlement – the bus took a brief layover at its post office.

Civilization!
The layover point.

We headed out from Broadford and the scenery just kept on giving. Coming up to the water again, we got an amazing view of the mountainous Isle of Scalpay, and then we started to enter a mountainous area ourselves, and…wow. I cannot describe how incredible it was.

Look at that beast!
Ahhh!

As the road reached the coast again, we ran through a small settlement called Sconser. It has a few houses and a church, but it’s most notable for being the departing point of a CalMac ferry to the Isle of Raasay. We passed another tiny settlement, Sligachan, and it was back into shrubbery from there. The many houses of Portree eventually came into view across the loch of the same name, though, and we soon pulled our way into its main square.

Oh hi, CalMac!
A campsite, maybe?
Portree!

Portree Square is the hub of all bus service in Skye, including intercity and tour buses, but there’s not much to it. There are three lanes for buses, which doesn’t seem to always be enough, and then a single shelter with not enough space in it. That thing can get crowded at busy times!

Granted, we’re dealing with a tiny town on an island – there’s not a ton of space to go around.

Once in Portree, I thought it would be fun to embark on a trip on the 57, the massive 2-hour long route that loops around the north side of the island. It runs four full loops a day in each direction, but despite that, it was fairly well-used by both tourists and residents. Also, the scenery is SO great.

Yeah, like this!

Like I said, Portree is a tiny town, so we very soon left it and entered the middle of nowhere. Alongside a loch, the road switched from two lanes to something seen very often on Skye: one bidirectional lane. These single-track roads have passing points every once in a while, and sometimes other drivers have to back up to let vehicles going the other way get through. And we were traversing one in a 40-foot transit bus.

Ahhh, this island…!

I had picked the mountain side while my parents got the water side, and truth be told, their views were almost always way better. Still, that didn’t make the trip any less enjoyable for me – there was amazing stuff even on the non-water side. We stayed on this main road, passing through little settlements occasionally, with long mountainous stretches in between.

A loch; sheep were everywhere.
A cluster of houses.
These gates are designed to keep animals from wandering in.
This sheep was tottering down the road in front of the bus; we had to let it wander to the side so we could pass it.
Yes, this is a bus shelter in the middle of nowhere. I wonder how much usage it gets.

We crossed the north side of the island by going inland a bit, but we were right by the sea again on the way back south. It was basically the same scenery as before…until we got to the village of Uig. The road came down the side of a mountain here, providing a fantastic view of the town and its ferry terminal (CalMac runs ferries from here to islands further west) – and it was on my side, too!

Had it not been raining, this photo of a stream would’ve probably been a lot better.
Uig!
A hairpin turn on the way down; we had to shift in reverse to make it around.

Once we got down the hill, we did a deviation to Uig’s ferry terminal and layed over for five minutes. The half-hour trip back to Portree was on a proper one-lane-per-direction road (super high-capacity, I know!), and it was more “occasional settlement with lots of middle of nowhere segments” running. Portree had a bit more “sprawl”, as it were, coming in from the northwest, but it was less than five minutes from the start of the developed area to the center of town. That was an absolutely amazing ride.

Back in Portree.

Ultimately, I have a hard time recommending Stagecoach’s Skye system to anyone who doesn’t have a willingness to plan around incredibly infrequent services laid out in convoluted timetables. Also, remember that its primary purpose is getting kids to school – if you’re a tourist trying to get to all the major sites, you can only do so much with the public buses. Heck, even though they do add some Sunday service in the height of the summer, weekday service on some routes gets massively cut back because school is out. My family did a guided tour around the island the next day, firstly because it was a Sunday so the buses weren’t running anyway, and secondly because you just see a lot more that way. So while it’s possible to get around Skye using transit, I would say it’s best to keep it to getting on and off the island.

That bus on the right wasn’t the exact vehicle we would eventually take, but it was the same type of bus.

Speaking of getting off the island, we were originally just going to use Stagecoach, doing a two-seat ride to Kyle of Lochalsh. We ended up getting to Portree Square early, though, and there was a Scottish CityLink (the Scottish intercity coach network) bus sitting there. Now, Spirit of Scotland tickets are valid on certain Scottish CityLink routes, including on their Skye runs, but it theoretically only works if you book in advance by phone, which costs 12p a minute, plus there’s a £1.50 reservation fee.

The inside of the bus.

We hadn’t done that, but that didn’t stop my mom from showing the driver the passes in a plea to get a ride. He was sympathetic to our cause, pulling out his phone to call his manager. As they talked, he gave us a wink, and once he hung up, he told us we were good. We were in there! The inside of the bus was similar to any American coach bus, with reclining seats, individual light and temperature control, and USB ports.

Passengers boarding in Broadford.

The route is duplicative of the Stagecoach lines it parallels, right down to making generally the same stops. For a while, it was the same thing as the 52 from before, right up until a little after Broadford. The road ran along the sea from there, and we eventually approached the Skye Bridge to the mainland and Kyle of Lochalsh. We had to deviate to village called Kyleakin first, though.

The view of the beautiful Skye Bridge.
Looping around Kyleakin.

We looped back around to the rotary at the foot of the bridge. The bridge was fantastic – it climbed really high up, then fell back down onto an island. One more smaller bridge took us to the mainland, and we were soon in the village of Kyle of Lochalsh. There was a little bus loop where a surprising amount of people got off along with us. Well, the one-seat CityLink ride is cheaper than the two-seat Stagecoach ride, so frankly, I get the appeal!

The view from the bridge.
Loading and unloading, with a great view in the background.

How’s about one more scenic train ride to round out the post? While the Kyle of Lochalsh Line isn’t held in quite as high regard as the West Highland Line, it is still a beautiful ride. The train station here is on a peninsula, and it has a cute little building with a bathroom-equipped waiting room, as well as a small railway museum.

The station with our little two-car train ready to go.
On the platform.
Part of the waiting room; ignore one of our giant bags.
The view from here is just fantastic!
We had a nice, modern train.

The Kyle of Lochalsh Line is just as infrequent as the West Highland Line, with four trips per day (two on Sundays). The first 40-odd minutes of the trip hugged the coastline, and as you can imagine, there were some awesome water views. The stations were pretty remote, but there was nothing insanely out there like on the West Highland Line – each one did serve some form of settlement.

Does anyone own that ship?
Not a beach I’d swim in, but what a view!
Looking out to the village of Plockton.
Ah, the return of the ubiquitous sheep.
Starting to get more mountainous.

While the trip beyond was mountainous, it was nothing like the alien world on the West Highland Line. This was definitely Earth, with lots of grass and rivers, and some occasionally lush foliage. It was also the middle of nowhere for sure, and some stations seemed to only exist to serve a couple of houses.

I love the single house out in the distance.
Some of that “occasionally lush foliage.”
Ooh, this is a change.

There was a very sudden switch from mountains to farmland at one point. This was the sign that we were approaching Dingwall, a town with around 5,500 people, and the point where the Kyle of Lochalsh Line joins the Far North Line. This town and all stations after it get a fairly regular service – it helps that every station from Dingwall was in a sizable town.

Civilization!
The towns were self-contained, though, with farmland in between.

Beauly was the second-to-last stop, and the line hugged the coastline from there. We had to slow to a crawl to get over a bridge crossing the Caledonian Canal, after which we entered a residential neighborhood. As the houses very quickly got denser, we went over the River Ness, curved our way into an industrial area, and arrived at Inverness – the largest city in the Highlands – ending another fantastic train journey.

Inverness’s riverside.
The train letting everyone off.

I say largest city – it still only has under 65,000 residents. With that being said, the station was legit, with seven tracks that were mostly sheltered by a big roof. It had a large, if mostly devoid of seating main area, and even faregates!

A number of trains waiting to go beyond the faregates – four lines terminate here.
See what I mean about the lack of seating? I guess there’s a waiting room, but still…
Okay…the outside is a bit drab.

And that’s it for Part 2 of Scotland! In the third and final part (which will come out at some point – these things take a long time to write, so give it time), I’ll cover our journeys around Inverness, as well as up to the Far North…and beyond.

GUEST POST: Grafton

Ben sent in his take on the Grafton Commuter Rail station. Thanks, Ben!

Grafton station. It’s a nice little station on the Worcester line. The station itself is in the middle of absolute nowhere, near the Shrewsbury town line, off of State Route 30.

The station is in Fare Zone 8, unlike neighboring Westborough (4 minutes by train), which is in Fare Zone 7. Personally, I think that Grafton should be in Zone 7, keeping Worcester (13 minutes from Grafton) in Zone 8.

The station has a relatively large parking lot, which is nice. It also features a sloping footbridge to access the side platforms.

For the platforms, they are the standard low-level with a mini-high that is seen in the rest of the stations in the area. Most passengers seem to use the mini-high, which is sheltered.

Service wise, the station gets all the stopping trains that run through here, however, with the May 2019 timetable, is a flag stop on trains #533, 535, and 537 (9:35 pm, 10:30 pm, and 11:30 pm, respectively), and all outbound weekend trains.

Finally, for connecting services, the WRTA runs a shuttle (Line B) to Northbridge, but that only stops twice a day (once in the morning, once in the evening).

A train entering the station.

Station: Grafton

Pros: It’s got the necessities needed for any accessible Commuter Rail station: a mini-high, and ramps to/from the exit. Service frequency is as good as it gets on the line.

Cons:  Mostly on the connecting services, I’d love to see a more frequent service to Northbridge, and possibly Shrewsbury on an extension of the 15. The station itself (the MBTA part) is perfect.

Final verdict: 10/10
I wish it was closer to town, but it just is where it is. Scenery in the station area is nice, especially with the hill. Footbridge is in good shape.

Wynnefield Avenue

You know, I wasn’t gonna do this, but I had already reviewed the other two Cynwyd Line stations…figured I might as well hop the one midday train once more to complete the trifecta with Wynnefield Ave. Plus, this’ll mean I’ll have done every station on the Cynwyd Line!

Weirdly, all of the station signs say just “Wynnewood.” Also…this is it.

Like Bala, Wynnefield Ave is fully high-level, and it has the exact same features on the platform – a single shelter with a single bench, some more seating and wastebaskets outside, a departure screen, and two sets of stairs and a ramp that lead to ground level. Parking here is free (as per usual for the Cynwyd Line), but while SEPTA claims to supply 71 spaces, I could only find about 20. There was another lot on the other side of the tracks, which you can only get to by walking down Wynnefield Ave; I thought it was for the big apartment building next to it, but it could be SEPTA parking? At any rate, there was plenty of space, with even a few spaces open in the smaller lot. The “official” bus connection here is at Wynnefield and Bryn Mawr Aves, but since the new station is on the other side of the tracks from the old low-level platform that has since been removed, it’s easier to walk to the leafy stop at 50th Street. The bus that serves this station is the 40, and it very conveniently took me back to Penn.

And with our blobby one-paragraph review over, a one-car train heads off toward Cynwyd.

Station: Wynnewood Avenue

Ridership: SEPTA’s “economic threshold” for Regional Rail station performance is 75 boardings per day; anything below that is subject to review. Wynnefield Ave gets 76 boardings per day. Wow – it barely escaped! This is the 11th least-used station on Regional Rail.

Pros: Same as Bala, really – high level platform and plenty of parking.

Cons: Despite being the most urban station on the Cynwyd Line, there’s no bike parking here! Come on! And geez, that ridership. I think part of why it’s so low is that Wynnefield Ave has a fraction of the average income of Bala and Cynwyd, as well as a frequent and relatively quick bus connection with a one-seat ride to University City and a two-seat ride to Center City – the economical choice is probably not to take the $5.25, ten-times-a-day train.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Just a few convenience stores and the like to serve the surrounding neighborhood. WPHL is headquartered across the street!

Final Verdict: 4/10
It’s basically the same thing as Bala (i.e. a good station on the surface), minus the bike parking and overall usefulness to the community. Barely anyone uses this place, and the 40 takes a pretty direct route to 40th with good weekday service. People around here are less likely to be working 9-to-5 jobs in Center City, making the Cynwyd Line schedule that much less useful. I’m glad they gave it a high-level platform, but for 76 riders per day? There were way better ways to spend that money.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Bala

Now why would Bala, with just ten inbound trains per day, have fully high-level platforms when so many other SEPTA stations are inaccessible? I wonder if someone powerful lives up here…

Well, here we are.

That high-level platform is mostly unsheltered, playing host to some benches, wastebaskets, information, key readers, and an LED screen. There is one shelter at the end with another bench inside and a “START” button – perhaps it’s for heat, but it didn’t work on the relatively cold day I was here. That thing must get pretty crowded on rainy mornings!

Some stuff below the platform.

Two sets of stairs and a ramp take passengers off the platform. Three bike racks are provided, so don’t trust the “No bike racks are at this station” on the SEPTA website. There’s parking as well, with a decent 76 spaces that are…free??? Okay, combined with Cynwyd‘s 46 spaces and another 71 at Wynnefield Ave, the Cynwyd Line has a heck of a lot of complimentary parking!

The remnants of Bala’s low-level platform.

Just because the station has this fancy new high platform doesn’t mean its old low one isn’t used anymore. A level crossing gets passengers across the single track to the west side of the station, where most of the parking is. The old low-level shelter has been repurposed into a waiting area for pick-ups. While the old staircases up to City (Line) Ave are in a sorry state, a new wooden one was built to the east, and the west has an accessible sidewalk along the parking lot approach road.

These one-car Cynwyd trains never get old.

Station: Bala

Ridership: It’s the busiest station on the very unbusy Cynwyd Line, with 126 boardings per day. You know, it’s tough to generate ridership when you only run ten inbound trains a day!

Pros: Hey, other stations need it way more, but I’m always gonna praise a high-level platform! Free parking for cars (and bikes) is nice, too, although again, other stations need it way more..

Cons: This station has a general air of being way overbuilt. Like, when half the Trenton Line (which does indeed run more than ten trains a day) consists of awful shacks that still manage to get more ridership than this place, it makes you wonder why the money ended up here. And despite getting this fancy new platform, Bala still has way too little shelter, and I’m sure the little one gets packed during inclement weather (remember that the vast majority of those 126 daily boardings is split between the five Cynwyd Line morning rush trains).

Nearby and Noteworthy: It’s City Ave. It’s suburban, uninteresting businesses. This is the closest station to a few student-oriented restaurants around Saint Joseph’s University, but you’re probably better off taking a bus or even walking from Overbrook on the Paoli/Thorndale Line.

Final Verdict: 6/10
I’m not as enamored with Bala as I was with Cynwyd. I guess this is an example of the sometimes subjective nature of the blog, since Bala is by most accounts a better station, with more parking and a high-level platform. But it also has no character, provides very little shelter, and still gets super limited service. Maybe if trains through here ran more often, the score would be higher, but that’s probably a non-starter for this tiny, insignificant line.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 20 (GreenLink Connector)

Okay, “GreenLink Connector”, huh? Makes it sound like some sort of frequent Greenfield shuttle. That would be great! A route connecting up major points in Greenfield that runs frequently all day! So, I’m just checking the schedule for the 20 now: let’s see, it connects up major points in Greenfield…it runs frequently…but it only operates…in the morning rush. Huh.

I guess I’m not surprised it’s a minibus.

So the 20 is basically a more frequent version of the 21 (which loops around Greenfield) that only runs in the morning rush and goes in the opposite direction, with a million variants. My friend and I chose the 9:00 AM trip, since it seemed to do everything, although for some reason there’s no “GCC” label at the top of it on the schedule, despite the fact that it serves Greenfield Community College. Then again, the schedule doesn’t actually tell you what the GCC label means, so perhaps we missed some important deviation. Oh well, let’s get on with it.

Downtown Greenfield.

We headed up to Main Street, proceeding through downtown Greenfield past businesses housed in 2-4 story buildings. But those buildings very quickly got shorter and devolved into suburban businesses with parking lots. By the time Main Street turned into Mohawk Trail and crossed the Green River, those buildings were interspersed with short woodsy sections.

An office building.

We went around a giant rotary interchange with I-91, then outside of the Mohawk Mall (actually just a strip mall, don’t get excited), we turned onto Colrain Road. After a small office building and a BJ’s, there was a short stretch of woods and fields before a cute little roundabout that led us onto College Drive. In an island surrounded by farms, we looped around Greenfield Community College, then came back to the roundabout and went straight across.

It’s an FRTA review, I gotta have a farmland photo somewhere!

We went through the woods a bit before rejoining civilization, turning onto Elm Street into a fairly dense residential neighborhood (but one that apparently only needs a sidewalk on one side of the road). A few apartment developments came up along here, plus a supermarket and a why-would-you-put-this-in-the-middle-of-a-residential-area jail. Things got sparser when the street turned into Leyden Road, but after two minutes of driving, we entered the huge Leyden Woods development.

Looping around the development.

Coming back down Leyden Road, we took a left onto Silver Street, running past more houses and Greenfield High School. Things got more commercial when we turned onto Federal Street, which was almost entirely lined with suburban businesses with small parking lots out front. We passed the Greenfield Middle School, and eventually it started to get denser as we reentered downtown Greenfield. Crossing Main Street, we returned to the JWO Transit Center.

Some of the scenery along Federal Street.

FRTA Route: 20 (GreenLink Connector)

Ridership: This route was instituted after the FRTA redesigned everything, so my only ridership data comes from my ride, and that’s a big fat zero. I guess it was the 9:00 trip so it was a bit late in the rush…maybe earlier ones get more riders? Any riders at all?

Pros: Alright, I’ll rep for the 20’s frequency: it’s about every 30-40 minutes, which is insanely good for FRTA standards, and it starts at 4:35 AM!

Cons: Okay, obvious first one: it only runs in the morning rush. Um, why? When you commute in the morning, you’ve got plenty of options, but those evening commuters are stuck with the hourly 21! And within the limited time that this route runs, it somehow manages to cram in a ton of variants! There’s a total of five route patterns here, including a single express trip to GCC and another to the Corporate Center (labelled on the schedule as the “Corporate Center Shuttle”). And ultimately, I just can’t see why this route needs its own number. These can’t be branded as the 21, just running in the opposite direction? I’m also skeptical about the amount of service provided – if the 9:00 trip was empty, how busy do the other ones get? Could these resources be better used on other FRTA services?

Nearby and Noteworthy: Nothing much. The only real commercial area besides downtown Greenfield is Federal Street, and it’s not an interesting one.

Final Verdict: 2/10
Nope, I’m not convinced. Maybe the earlier trips get a ton of people, but even if they do, the route is still too darn complicated, and it provides a level of service that isn’t matched in the evening. At the very least, it could be branded as the 21 in the opposite direction, since it’s really confusing on the system map to have two routes doing what looks to be the exact same thing!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Cynwyd

I was touring Temple University in 2016, and the guide was telling us about transportation access. “Every Regional Rail line stops at Temple, so it’s really convenient,” he said. And I didn’t know much about SEPTA then, but I did know one thing: not the Cynwyd Line! It ends at Suburban! I would’ve been a pedantic idiot and said that if I had actually known how to pronounce Cynwyd, but (probably for the best) I didn’t. So for the record: Kin-wid. Cool.

The length of the platform.

Of course, the Cynwyd Line not serving Temple really doesn’t matter when it only runs 21 trains each day, ten inbound and eleven outbound. Those are almost all at rush hour, with one midday round trip and one night round trip. With such limited service, then, Cynwyd Station has no right to be this nice!

[cuts to a photo of the gross underside of a bridge]

The station’s amenities are basic, but…you know, ten inbound trains per day, so it’s not that big of a deal. Montgomery Ave runs over the station, and beneath that overpass is a bench, a wastebasket, some train information, and…oh, a bike rack shaped like a bike! That’s…cute. I mean, you could put in two or three bike racks with the same space, and I saw bikes chained up to a number of other locations here, signifying demand for more racks, but…whatever, it’s cute, it’s cute. Further down, the station has a mini-high platform to make it wheelchair accessible.

Looking at the station from the eastern side.

Stairs and a ramp lead up to the east, and the same goes for the west. Small lots adorn both sides, adding up to a total of 41 spaces that fill up daily (as expected – they’re free!). A simple level crossing gets you to the other side of the single track, but be warned that if a train is laying over at the station, you’ll get a red hand and a persistent announcement of “WARNING. A TRAIN IS APPROACHING THE CROSSING. PLEASE DO NOT CROSS THE TRACKS.” It gets annoying real fast.

This is the reason I love this station.

So it’s fairly common knowledge in Philadelphia transit circles that the Cynwyd Line used to cross the Schuylkill River, serving Manayunk and terminating at Ivy Ridge. The line no longer does that, obviously (frankly, the service seemed a bit redundant to the Norristown Line), but it’s been replaced by a fantastic trail that begins at Cynwyd. To go along with that, the station’s house-like building is occupied by the Trail’s End Cafe, an amazingly quaint coffee shop that adds a ton of character to the station. It’s open every day except Mondays.

Look at all this great stuff outside!

Station: Cynwyd

Ridership: Okay, I’m going to read you a low number of average weekday boardings, and then I’m going to say “But considering that it only gets ten inbound trains per day, it’s not terrible.” Sound good? Okay: 119 average weekday boardings. But considering that it only gets ten inbound trains per day, it’s not terrible!

Pros: That cafe really makes this place shine, especially with all the benches and seats set up outside. The station has other good qualities, too: easy walking access to residential neighborhoods and a great trail; a wheelchair-accessible mini-high platform; and a bit of parking.

Cons: The limited service is the obvious one, but there are problems with the station itself, too. More bike racks would be fantastic, especially given the quiet surrounding streets and a clear demand for places to lock up. Also, why is the parking free? It’s kind of a slap in the face to (for example) low-income people from Coatesville who have to pay for parking at Thorndale, even if it is just a dollar a day, when wealthy residents of Lower Merion Township can just drive to Cynwyd and park for nothing.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Cynwyd Station is actually closer to Hymie’s and surrounding restaurants than Merion, so I get another opportunity to rep for a great Jewish deli! There’s a little downtown around the station too, but aside from a BMW dealership (literally the first thing you see when you leave the station) and an expensive-looking Italian restaurant, it hasn’t got much.

Final Verdict: 7/10
Okay, I’ll be honest, the station itself is pretty darn good. I’m not going to remove points for providing free parking, although the bike rack issue is a bigger problem. The only thing really holding Cynwyd back is its limited service, and the area may not generate the ridership needed for more, if it even wants it to begin with.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

GUEST POST: RIPTA: 24x (Newport/Fall River/Providence)

Jules rode RIPTA’s new 24x route recently. Here are his thoughts:

If you caught Miles’s recent post about the fall changes at the RTAs in southern New England, you may have been surprised to learn that RIPTA was tacking on an interstate express route connecting Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, to touristy Newport through the old Massachusetts mill city of Fall River with six round trips every weekday. Well, the 24x is real, it’s here, I’ve just ridden it, and I think you should, too.

The next photo in the roll has the bus up way too close, sorry!

For starters, it was nice to see the signage at Stop X in Kennedy Plaza was updated to include the 24x along with a dedicated sandwich board telling would-be riders of the new route!

I mean, it’s just two pages of the route pamphlet blown up to large print, but hey! It counts.

I wasn’t the only one learning the route that day — the driver brought an associate on board to train him on where to turn and which roads to take, so he was writing directions down on a notepad. Meanwhile, I have Google Maps and my own memory to work this out.

We turned south off of Exchange Terrace over to Dorrance Street, slogging it out with construction-induced traffic all the way through Downcity to the district court. Thankfully, we left that mess as we merged onto Dyer Street, passing by the new Providence Pedestrian Bridge along the way. Shortly after Dyer became Eddy, we hung a left onto the Point Street Bridge, then swung right onto South Water Street, crossing under Interstate 195 to join the highway heading east. 

The 24x does make local stops within Providence city limits in either direction. It does not do so anywhere else, though.

Apologies for the avant-garde photos here and up ahead – this would be about where the Brayton Point Power Station would’ve been if it wasn’t demolished earlier this year.

In any case, it was full speed ahead right through the border of the Commonwealth and past Seekonk, Rehoboth, and Swansea right up to Exit 4 to reach the first stop in the neighbor state, the rather small Somerset Park & Ride which, other than the 24x, gets one round trip to Boston via Peter Pan every weekday. 

The bus whipped around the small lot before turning right back onto I-195 and traversing the Braga Bridge into Fall River. We left the speedway again at Exit 6 to hit Hartwell Street, then took a left onto 5th Street before hooking into and even berthing at the Louis D. Pettine Transportation Center, SRTA’s Fall River hub. The driver said that people here have been giving the bus strange looks every time one has come in. I wouldn’t blame them — it’s still quite a foreign concept to see RIPTA come to town. 

The looks were weirder a second earlier…

After nearly plowing into the bollards, the driver pulled into reverse gear and headed out of the terminal with a right turn onto 4th Street, another right on Borden Street, then a slight right to get back with Hartwell. We made a left turn at Rodman Street and another one onto Plymouth Ave to get back onto I-195 South.

It was only a short jog before we drifted onto Exit 8A to head south on the route’s numbersake, MA-24 — also known as the Fall River Expressway. After a couple of miles wedged between South Watuppa Pond and SouthCoast Marketplace, MA-24 turned into RI-24 and just like that, we were back in the land of Roger Williams. We also lost exit numbering for a moment, too, but we don’t need no numbers to head to the Fish Road Park & Ride in Tiverton!

They’re serious about the no-numbers business.

After that diversion, we were on our way to our last stop. We got to the end of RI-24 through rocky cliffs, the Sakonnet River Bridge and the northern half of Portsmouth by S-curving down onto RI-114, better known as West Main Road, to join the local 60 service — but not to behave like it. We continued express to breach Middletown, but then swerved right onto Coddington Highway to avoid heavily-trafficked Broadway. To finish things off, we vaulted a left turn though a roundabout, then on-ramped to the last bit of RI-238 before it turned into Farewell Street. All it took was a slight right to America’s Cup Avenue and a couple of other turns before we slid into Newport Gateway Center.

Back to Newport garage for this bus until the PM runs…

RIPTA Route: 24x (Newport/Fall River/Providence)

Ridership: No official numbers for a new route, but the driver did say that ridership was pretty good for its first week. Having arrived for the last southbound trip of the morning at 9:00, though, I only saw 6 elderly passengers get off in Providence while I was the only one across the entire journey to board the return to Newport — I feel like I’m missing out on a prime peak direction trip.

Pros: I don’t think there’s much of a time savings against the 14 or even the 60 in many cases, save for summertime traffic clogging up Broadway and the Jamestown Bridge — and that ain’t nothing. All three routes are billed to take 75 minutes and I can see why: the 24x might have highways, but it uses a very indirect route while the other two use local streets oriented right toward their destination. The biggest pro here is probably the largest expansion of affordable mass transit access to southeastern Massachusetts from points north and west!

Cons: The 24x does make sense as a commuter-oriented express with three round trips for each rush period, but I feel like the lack of weekend service prevents it from achieving its full potential. There are plenty of connections to be had for a number of day trip destinations. Also, I’d like to see at least a couple of other local Newport stops made, at least in the northbound direction.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Uh, pretty much half of Rhode Island and all of the south coast of Massachusetts. Well, the places that matter.

Final Verdict: 9/10
I apologize in advance, but beg your patience for my indulgence here.

I was one of the few people to have been alerted before the rating was published thanks to a hankering for the almighty Chow Mein Sandwich from Mee Sum Restaurant… and a chance at appearing in a video for Great Big Story (blink at 1:54 and you’ll miss it). 

Coming from Boston, it takes a train to Middleborough/Lakeville and four buses through Wareham and New Bedford to get there by lunchtime — there’s no coach bus run direct to Fall River before 2pm! And while the food was cheap, filling, and delicious, it left me with the conundrum of how to head back home. 

Why, the solution was simple albeit dangerous! Just walk the 3 miles down from the end of SRTA’s FR 1 through heavy vegetation, blind drives and without sidewalks across state lines to the Fish Road Park & Ride in Tiverton and take the one odd reverse commute run of the 61x. After getting out of the early August drizzle and into the bus, I got into quick conversation with the driver about where I was coming from, how difficult it was to connect two cities in the same metropolitan region and, more importantly, economic region. It was then the driver revealed that RIPTA would be bringing on the 24x for the fall season to replace an agreement it had with, of all vendors, Peter Pan to provide beefed up Fall River-to-Providence service during rush hour.

Consider that a one-way Peter Pan trip costs $14 and that a 10-ride ticket is priced at $65. Now compare that to the $2 RIPTA charges for any of its buses. That’s cheap enough, my 24x driver told me, to let a working-class aunt from Fall River visit her nephew and other relatives in Providence way more often. 

And that, my friends, is enough for me to encourage you to use this bus and make it clear that there is a great demand for this essential bistate link.

124/125 (Chesterbrook/Valley Forge and King of Prussia to 13-Market)

Alright, let me just check my watch here. Oh look, it’s masochism time! We’re going to get a two-for-one deal of Schuylkill Expressway-related pain! What fun! Brace yourself for a double-dose of traffic purgatory on the 124 and 125.

Oh good, I have no idea which bus it is.

The 124 and 125 get their own special bus stop on the north side of 13th and Market, and we’ve already got problems. Specifically, the sign is one of SEPTA’s older ones that doesn’t show the stop ID, but the destinations are also all wrong: “124 Chesterbrook & King of Prussia” and “125 King of Prussia via Expwy.” First of all, why does the 125 get a “via Expwy” while the 124 doesn’t? And what expressway? Why not just say “Express”? Also, the 125 goes beyond King of Prussia to Valley Forge – to follow in the format of the 124, it could say “Valley Forge & King of Prussia Express.” And then throw the “Express” on the 124 as well. Also, the 125 gets a wheelchair symbol while the 124 doesn’t. What, is the 125 accessible but the 124 isn’t?

Ah, it was a 125.

And then there was the slight problem of the 124’s late departure. You see, several other people and I were specifically looking for the 124 (I was taking it to get to the 205), but one bus said “SEPTA” and the other was unmarked. The “SEPTA” bus turned out to be a 125, while the driver for the unmarked presumably-124 said she’d be back in a few minutes. Fifteen minutes later she returned, and we left ten minutes late. Not a good start to a route with chronic on-time performance issues.

Okay, finally time to go.

We headed onto Arch Street, then in the shadow of the towering City Hall, we took a left onto Broad Street. That merged onto JFK Boulevard and we approached the main City Hall stop. A ton of people were waiting here, and since this was an evening rush trip, I figured we’d get packed. Or…like, three people would get on. I mean, that works too.

What an awesome building.

JFK Boulevard west of City Hall was office building central, but traffic on the three-lane, one-way road was actually flowing pretty well. We picked someone up at 19th Street, then in the next block the bus had to somehow maneuver across two lanes of traffic to make it into the left turn lane. Using 20th to get to Market, the traffic situation suddenly became a very different story.

The buildings on Market, with a weird window splotch in the top left.

Traffic on Market was at a near-standstill. We fought with cars and other buses for space as we inched down the road, eventually making it to the 22nd Street trolley station. It didn’t let up on the Schuylkill River bridge either, and we didn’t escape the traffic until we turned onto Schuylkill Ave to serve 30th Street Station. It had taken us fifteen minutes to do this Market Street portion, and we were now fifteen minutes late. Travelling on JFK Boulevard would surely get the bus across town faster – can a safe stop for 30th not be located there? It would speed buses up so much!

Alright, time for this.

As Schuylkill Ave became an on-ramp to I-76, I was actually hoping we would encounter traffic. I specifically wanted to ride the 124 during the evening rush to experience maximum delays. But while it was pretty slow past the Art Museum and Boathouse Row, the road actually sped up quite a bit after Girard Ave! In fact, traffic the other way was quite a lot worse. It may have been that this was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, so people were heading down the Shore from points northwest?

I took the 125 on a very different day long ago; here is Boathouse Row as seen from that trip, because Boathouse Row is beautiful.

We genuinely had a good clip going through the forests of Fairmount Park, so it came out of nowhere when the bus slowed down. Wait…but all the other lanes were still moving. Oh, I see, we had to do the Wissahickon Transportation Center deviation. And this exit was bogged down with traffic. Sigh…alright, so we slowly made our way from the off-ramp to the City Ave bridge to cross the Schuylkill.

I love the rowhouses climbing up the hill.

We finally made it off the bridge, and now it was time to make our way down Ridge Ave to the transportation center. Having ridden the express portion of these routes several times before, I knew this deviation would be worth it – lots of people always get on at Wissahickon. We looped around the bus station, and…no one. No one got on. So we slowly trundled back to the highway. This deviation literally took ten minutes and it was a complete waste of time!

Nice view from here, at least.

Once we got back on the highway, though, it was smooth sailing. We got some great views of Manayunk from the Schuylkill Expressway’s perch, and it was woods for a while from there. We rounded the Conshy Curve no problem, and despite a little traffic after that, we made it to our exit in decent time. Turning onto Trinity Lane, it was all woods and houses until we reached Gulph Mills Station, deviating inside and holding for a train (but alas, no one transferred).

Ooh, this is a nice view!

We headed up onto Gulph Road, and at the intersection of Gulph and Henderson Roads, we reach the splitting point of the 124 and 125. We’ll continue this 124 journey, then follow the 125 back to this point. So, the 124 turns onto Henderson Road, and in doing so, we entered a horrible wasteland of warehouses and offices.

A few of those establishments.

Passing the shopping plaza served directly by the 99, we joined that route by turning onto DeKalb Pike. It was just a lotttttt of suburban businesses, but after we crossed the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was time to deviate into the King of Prussia Mall. Lots of people got off here, leaving just six left for the route’s post-mall segment.

The busy King of Prussia lot.

There were several turns that led us to Swedesford Road, which passed the “King of Prussia Town Center” before going by a ton of office buildings. Houses lined the side streets, though. We came up along Route 202, a highway, and passed a strip mall. And then we crossed the highway and passed a number of other strip malls.

Okay, a Barnes and Noble, I’ll take that.

A couple of passengers from Center City got off the bus at a Residence Inn, which is a pretty impressive commute for people who may very well be tourists. It was basically all offices from there, and we sped past them at what felt like 50 miles an hour. The last bit was a deviation to Chesterbrook: right on Chesterbrook Road, left on Duportail Road, and right onto Morris Drive to reach the end of the route. We had managed to come in “only” 15 minutes late.

I did a mini-photoshoot for this bus just because the terminal felt so bizarre.

Okay, time to shift to a Sunday in early December at Valley Forge National Park. The 125 has a very different terminus from the 124, ending at the gateway to some absolutely beautiful scenery in the Revolutionary War site. I came out here with my friend; we just hopped on the bus at the King of Prussia Mall, walked around the amazing (and free) Visitor Center during the layover, and came straight back on the bus bound for Philly.

At the Visitor Center.

The moment we crossed Route 422 on the bus, we were in suburban sprawl. We were running on Valley Forge Road, and while Valley Forge weekend trips don’t get to do the BNY Mellon (an office park) deviation, we did perform the one across the street to the giant Valley Forge Towers complex. Of course, both would be wholly unnecessary if the area had sidewalks, but why would they ever build those?

The three towers.

Still, while the bus had been empty before, a few people got on at the Valley Forge stop (which had a super old bus sign). We came back onto Valley Forge Road, which was now a bunch of offices as it crossed Trout Creek. But because the 125’s independent section up here is super twisty, we took a left onto 1st Ave soon, now heading back toward Valley Forge past more office parks.

Oof, this is desolate.

Outside of the Valley Forge Casino, we turned onto Gulph Road, which curved east again, passing a few more office buildings. Turning onto Goddard Boulevard, we ended up at the King of Prussia Mall, where the bus got slammed. I mean, for a suburban route, full-seated load plus standees is a lot!

Coming out of the mall.

Luckily, the 125’s routing to Gulph Mills is more direct than the 124’s. We headed straight onto Gulph Road, which was a weird mix of houses, offices, and a beautifully landscaped cemetery. There were a few apartment developments that got us more riders later on, and from there, it was a straight shot to Gulph Mills Station, where we would be heading onto I-76 back to Philly.

A different bus at King of Prussia.

And…okay, at the risk of making this post too long, I’m also gonna throw in a review of the King of Prussia Transit Center, just because these are the main routes that serve it. Signage from the mall is pretty bad (just an icon of a bus over the appropriate exit, which is a narrow hallway), but once you’re there, the transit center is pretty nice. It has an indoor portion with plenty of seating, a vending machine, two Key machines, and (outdated) information, while there are a few shelters outside as well. Aesthetics aren’t the best, but as far as suburban mall transit centers go, I’d give it a solid 7/10.

Here it is!

Routes: 124/125 (Chesterbrook/Valley Forge and King of Prussia to 13-Market)

Ridership: The routes get similar ridership, but the 125 wins out with 1,845 weekday riders compared to the 124’s 1,535. This comes down to the 125 having slightly more trips as well as the 125’s post-mall section serving a bit more than the 124’s. Despite getting good ridership for suburban routes, though, their farebox recovery ratios are atrocious thanks to the fact that most people are staying on for the long express section. It also means that buses get crowded for a longer period of time, and I almost wonder if weekend buses get busier than weekday ones. Still, the routes get lots of people at rush hour as well, mostly in the reverse-peak direction (I saw some packed 124s and 125s going the other way on my quieter peak-direction 124 trip).

Pros: Okay, an express bus from Philly to King of Prussia makes sense, and it lends itself to good ridership.

Cons: It’s just a shame that these routes are so bad. Where to even begin? Okay, the Schuylkill Expressway section is just the worst thing ever. I was lucky with traffic, and even then it was still a little miserable. And apparently their on-time rates are as high as 64% for the 124 and 60% for the 125? Those numbers are awful, but I wouldn’t be shocked if more often than not, more than 4 out of 10 buses are delayed!

And then the schedules are a mess, too. I’ll start with variants, because good lord, these routes have an unnecessary amount of those. I count nine possible places these routes can terminate, and those are on both ends, so there are a bunch of terminal combinations within that. Plus there are a few random super-express trips on the 125 that skip Wissahickon that are scattered around the schedule. What determines which trips get expressed? Why does it only happen in the outbound direction? Why does the 124 have one of these trips but the schedule doesn’t say “Express”, it just dots out the time at Wissahickon? And why does the headsign not tell you that it’s skipping Wissahickon, leading me to accidentally get on an express trip when I was trying to get to Wissahickon??? Yes, that actually happened. It was on, like, my second-ever bus trip in Philly.

But now we get to the frequencies. Oh, these are a lot of fun. It’s impossible to discern any kind of consistent headway out of these because they’re so all over the place. Gaps can be as short as five minutes (the 125 outbound on weekday mornings) and as long as 140 minutes (the 124 inbound on Sunday nights), and everywhere in between. And look, SEPTA does provide a great service for mall employees, running buses relatively frequently during commute times, even on weekends. But when midday gaps are as long as hourly on each route with very little attempt at coordination, you end up with buses full of shoppers! These schedules are just pure insanity.

Ugh, and then the routings, too. The 124’s post-mall segment only serves office parks and small strip malls. The 125’s is super loopy and it takes forever to get to the Valley Forge Towers, which is where most off-peak passengers out here are going. And imagine if SEPTA had (yes, I know this is far-fetched) free transfers, and buses could end at 30th Street or maybe even Gulph Mills? Gosh, that sure would allow for faster trips and more frequent service, wouldn’t it?

Nearby and Noteworthy: For what it’s worth, I…kinda like the King of Prussia Mall. I haven’t explored the whole thing yet, but it seems like the largest mall in the country by retail space has so many stores that some interesting small businesses have managed to wriggle their way in. My friend and I were planning on walking around the whole thing when we came for the 125, but we ended up getting lost in a record shop that we found early on!

Final Verdict: 3/10
I hate these routes. I wish I could give them a lower score, but I can’t deny that they get good ridership and, at least for reverse-peak commuters, a decent frequency is provided. But ugh, they’re awful in every other way! And until King of Prussia Rail opens up (if it opens up), we’re stuck with these. So…here’s my radical proposal to fix them:

Firstly: the 124 and 125 become shuttles to the King of Prussia Mall. I think the 124 could run rush hour only, especially since it mostly duplicates the 92, but the 92 also kinda sucks so the 124 might need midday service. The 125 is converted to a one-way loop, which only speeds the trip up for people – it would run all day.

Finally, in my desired plan, there would be a route 122 that just goes from King of Prussia to Gulph Mills every 10-15 minutes, connecting to hopefully-just-as-frequent NHSL trains. Yes, this would be a three-seat ride from Center City to the mall, and yes, this can obviously only work if transfers are free, but it would be about the same amount of time as if not faster than slogging down the insanely unreliable I-76 (you could also probably cut the 123). BUT: if an express route has to happen, it should only go to 30th, again with free transfers. Even better would be only going to Wissahickon, especially since folks coming from here do get screwed over by this plan (barring Regional Rail fare integration, that is), but it might be an odd place to end the bus. I’d settle for 30th.

The best part about this plan is that it provides more frequent service with half the buses. The 124/125 at rush hour currently requires 15 vehicles; the Gulph Mills version of this plan would only use a maximum of 8, allowing for more service on, say, the NHSL or other suburban bus routes. The express version would obviously require more vehicles, but terminating at 30th would still save a lot of time and probably let the route shave off a few buses, and the service would be a lot less confusing. It’s also admittedly a lot easier to implement politically – Gulph Mills would be unpopular.

But for now and possibly forever, I’m just gonna keep losing one more portion of my sanity every time I take a bus on the Schuylkill Expressway.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

FRTA: 32 (Orange/Greenfield)

Our FRTA saga begins! For those who don’t know, the FRTA covers Franklin County, the least dense county in Massachusetts, with a hub in Greenfield. It is a very rural system, and that makes it a really interesting one to review. We begin with its route that runs the furthest east (and thus the furthest toward Boston), the 32.

The 32 is the connection between FRTA and MART, allowing for a two-seat ride from Greenfield to Gardner, and further connections on both ends. My friend and I didn’t come via MART, though – in order to ensure we’d be able to finish the whole system in a day, we drove to Orange early in the morning and grabbed the second 32 of the day from there. It has this big loop around which buses go counterclockwise in the morning and clockwise in the evening, so we went to the first stop on that loop and waited.

Okay…not my best photography work.

Right on schedule, a fancy New Flyer MiDi bus came flying in…but the driver didn’t stop! We had to flag it down and it pulled to a halt a little down the road. “This isn’t a stop,” the driver said as we got on. But…but Orange Riverfront Park is listed as a timepoint! The description for this stop on the list of them (which is funny that such a rural system even has fixed stops) says: “On E River St, at entrance to park across from bar.” Well, no bar exists as far as I can tell, and the FRTA doesn’t put signs at a lot of its stops, so who the heck knows. We got on, regardless.

Oh man, this is supposed to be the urban part of the route!

We headed down East River Street in our fancy MiDi, which felt super weird in the best way possible. The road was a bit of a hodgepodge, with individual houses, apartment developments, a few businesses here and there, and a lot of woods and fields. Passing the tiny Orange Municipal Airport, we then took a left onto Daniel Shays Highway when East River Street ended.

I love the little “Pine Crest Apartments” sign hiding in the trees.

This road featured similar scenery to before, but it also featured a bridge over the Millers River. We entered Athol along here and took a left onto Main Street, and right at the border between Athol and Orange, we pulled into a Hannaford. This is the transfer point between FRTA and MART, and right on cue, a MART truck minibus growled its way into the parking lot. We took a brief layover here.

Okay, better picture than before, but the darn destination sign is off!

A few people actually made the MART-FRTA transfer, so we pulled out of Hannaford with some new passengers. Continuing down South Main Street, it was still a weird mix of stuff, with a few houses and random businesses (including a Tractor Supply Co., which made sense for the area) between the trees. We picked up a few more people at a lovely Walmart deviation, and from there the buildings started to get denser.

Mm, the not-at-all-depressing Orange Center.

We were eventually among the faded brick buildings and empty storefronts of Orange Center, turning onto Water Street to serve the sorry little shelter that serves as Orange’s main bus hub. From there, we curved around Memorial Park, then we used Main Street to get across the Millers River again before taking a right onto River Street. There were houses for a bit, but we soon made our way up a hill into the woods.

A residential street.

We reached a highway interchange with Route 2 and merged on, starting what I suppose is an “express section”, but it’s the last proper interchange on the highway. There are no stops along here, though, and we were just speeding down the two-lane road past lines of trees (in a city bus, remember!). A bridge over the Millers River provided some views of mountains.

Some…cloudy, drab-looking mountains. It didn’t help that I was sitting on the left, so the road was in the way.

The first building along Route 2 was a factory, and then an auto shop a little later. There were some houses on a hill to the right after that, and once the road gained a sidewalk, we were in “Erving Center.” This tiny downtown had some residences, a few small businesses (including one in the old train station), and a town hall that looked like a community church. We sailed right through.

Okay, this place looks really cool, though.

It was pretty much straight back to forest after that, with a town cemetery and a few houses here and there. The road was built up on a mountain next to the Millers River, but it eventually descended to join up with it for a bit. We ran through a little village called Farley with a decent amount of houses; despite being “dense” (relative to everything else), though, it doesn’t have a stop.

Running along the river.

Besides Farley, it was all woods until the road suddenly curved north and civilization rushed in out of nowhere. We were in Millers Falls, and we got our first stop request: someone got off at a bowling alley next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, a post office, and an apartment development. The bus did a loop here, ending up on Lester Street to go under a Route 2 overpass.

Er…ignore the window dots on the left.

There were pretty dense houses along here, and when we turned onto Bridge Street to cross the Millers River, we were in Millers Falls Center. There weren’t many businesses here (it was basically a one-block main street), but it did have a really cute library. We took a right onto that Main Street in the opposite direction of downtown, now following the route of the 23. Ascending a hill, there were a few more blocks of dense houses before we were back in the woods.

A road going further into those woods.

This didn’t last for nearly as long, though. Some industrial buildings and a small, dense mobile home park were centered around Turners Falls Airport, and there were pretty consistent (if not particularly close-together) houses along the road after that. As the road changed to Unity Street, we arrived at a surprisingly major stop located next to and named after “Scotty’s Convenience Store.” It even had a shelter!

Outside of Scotty’s.

Unity Street came down a hill, but dense houses occupied every area with flat land. We continued our descent on 3rd Street, which passed a park before heading into the surprisingly dense Turners Falls Center. Like, there were rowhouses here! We took a left onto Avenue A, Turners Falls’s main street, and it was…awesome? Yeah, it was lined with two- and three-story brick buildings, and they had lots of interesting businesses inside!

A glimpse of some of the architecture.

Also, we were making regular pickups along here, and it got to the point where the bus was literally standing room only. An FRTA bus…with a standing load. I was not expecting this! We passed a suburban shopping center at the south end of downtown, and it got less dense from there, with suburban houses and a golf course along what was now called Montague City Road.

Crossing the Connecticut River.

Still, the houses were consistent right up to the rusty (and frankly a bit scary) bridge over the Connecticut River. They kept on going on the other side as we entered Greenfield, but we eventually hit a small industrial area before the road curved west and its name changed to Cheapside Street. That didn’t last long, as we soon merged into Deerfield Street, and after a mix of industrial buildings (including the FRTA garage), businesses, and houses, we pulled into the JWO Transit Center. One down, six to go!

Alright, finally got the front!
Ooh, this bad boy was about to start a trip in the other direction…

FRTA Route: 32 (Orange/Greenfield)

Ridership: The FRTA’s counts are from 2015, so things may have changed since then (the system itself was even semi-redesigned, affecting a few routes down the line) – at that time, the 32 got 96 passengers per day, which evens out to around 7 per trip. Well, I don’t know if the route’s peaky or if ridership has gone way up since then, but my morning rush journey got 21 riders!

Pros: The ridership seems to be there! And it’s there for good reason: the route provides an important connection to Orange, and it’s especially valuable thanks to the MART transfer there. I’ll bet the route has good ridership in both directions thanks to strong draws on both ends of it. There’s a lot of rural running in between, but that’s par for the course for FRTA. Plus, there are some great views!

Cons: Okay, I get that it’s a rural route, but aside from being really infrequent, the 120-minute headways are problematic for another reason: the MART connection is every 90 minutes! If the FRTA can scrounge up the resources to get the frequency of the 32 to 90 minutes, that would allow every trip to have a timed transfer with MART, which would be huge. One more trip at night (the last one leaves at 5 PM right now) would be awesome, and weekend service would be even better, but baby steps.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Okay, the FRTA has a route more or less dedicated to serving Turners Falls, so I’ll save that for then. For the 32, that leaves Millers Falls, Erving, and Orange. Millers Falls is the most interesting of the three, but you’re probably going to want a car to experience any of these places – a bus every two hours is really hard to plan around.

Final Verdict: 6/10
Yeah, these are gonna be really weird to score. For most bus routes, service every two hours would be blasphemy. But…the FRTA serves really rural places, and it’s working on a shoestring budget, even compared to other RTAs, so it deserves slack. This route does its job reasonably well, and the fact that so many people use it now seems to be a sign that it could sustain better service. Again, having a bus every 90 minutes to match up with MART should be the main goal for now, but other improvements would be welcome, too.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates