“The best of the best in North America.” Those are the words that President and CEO Michael Melaniphy of the American Public Transportation Association used while presenting SEPTA the 2012 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award.
While SEPTA administrators will be quick to embellish on the prestigious award, it doesn’t take long to find a SEPTA patron willing to sound off on how they see SEPTA. All too often I hear horror stories of buses running an hour late four out of five days a week or the last train home never getting to the station. The expletives that people use recalling their interaction with SEPTA services and employees make one want to avoid SEPTA the way I avoid walking past Spring Garden Street after midnight.
Maybe it’s a Philly thing.
SEPTA has won my praise, though. Recently, I was on the West Trenton regional rail line headed home at 9:30 p.m. from 30th Street Station after a long day here at Drexel. Writing emails, planning for the weekend and blasting music through my headphones kept me from realizing that we had arrived at my stop. In a scramble I jumped up, running out the door with my belongings piled in my arms.
My wallet never stood a chance.
Ten minutes into the car ride home, I realized what had just happened. My wallet was lying invitingly by my seat, squeezed out of my pocket in my hurry. Panic set in, along with frantic googling for phone numbers and train info. After cursing off the automated answering machine, I managed to get in contact with a SEPTA Police officer. He immediately transferred me to Brian Bormonaite, a customer service representative, who questioned as to where I had gotten the number I called, as it turned out to be an internal, employee-only line. Explaining my situation, Mr. Bormonaite called the conductor, Joe Latigona, on my train. The ticket attendants swept the cars, and a kindly customer pointed out the wallet wedged in the corner of a seat, right where I’d left it 20 minutes prior. I was instructed to head back to the stop. Half an hour later on its return trip, the same train and crew were there to return my wallet containing $50, two IDs, credit cards, business cards, gift cards and a TransPass.
That’s the best of the best in North America. From the SEPTA website to the police to the dispatcher to the conductor and ticket attendants — I was given the utmost respect, my problem was dealt with urgently, and everyone was so friendly and accommodating (especially considering all the normal offices were closed at this time). That is quality customer service, and I cannot thank the dedicated employees of SEPTA enough.
This came only a week after Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the Northeast.
Although Sandy’s impact on Philadelphia was buffered by the coastal areas, all SEPTA services were suspended for about two days. On Wednesday morning, almost 850,000 people were without power, and the city was straining to get back to work. I was one of those people, and my SEPTA station was one of the hundreds without power.
That didn’t stop Joe, the station attendant, from showing up to work at about 5 a.m. It also didn’t stop him from selling tickets, flashlight in one hand, pen and paper in the other. About 60 people huddled together in the cold, dark room, awaiting the first rush-hour train, but without power to the automatic schedule display, all anyone could see was the glow of a cowboy hat and a thin smile protruding from Joe’s grizzly beard as his flashlight scanned the register.
The train arrived and made it to 30th Street Station in time for my first class. Almost all the other regional rail lines were up and running that morning as well, proving that in the face of a generation-defining natural disaster, SEPTA is exceedingly well equipped to maintain its infrastructure.
The timely restoration of service is a testament to SEPTA’s work ethic, and it was a huge factor that allowed Philadelphia to bounce back from the disarray following Sandy.
APTA cited SEPTA’s financial responsibility, dedication to sustainability, and increased ridership as benchmarks for the award. SEPTA riders took 334 million trips in 2011, the most since 1989, and SEPTA carried out top-notch bus, trolley, subway and rail service even with a declining budget. SEPTA also maintained a balanced budget for 2012, the 13th consecutive year that it has done so.
I implore anyone interested in using SEPTA for commuting around Philadelphia to try it with an open mind. They won that award for a reason, and they offer an appealing alternative to driving at an affordable price.
Joe Massott is a freshman majoring in Materials Science & Engineering at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org