New Jersey Transit officials yesterday announced the agency’s plans for operation during the weekend of Sept. 26-27, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia.
The agency will change its regular service to accommodate the estimated 2 million people who are expected to travel to see the pope during his two-day visit to Philadelphia. The pope also will visit New York City on Sept. 25 and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24.
NJ Transit will offer a special, limited service on its Atlantic City Rail Line and River Line for people attending the World Meeting of Families and papal visit on Sept. 26-27.
At noon tomorrow, the agency will begin selling special tickets for travelers planing to ride the Atlantic City Rail and River lines — only those with special event tickets purchased in advance will be able to ride the lines during those two days, officials said.
NJ Transit will try to accommodate as many riders as the system will allow, said Executive Director Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim in a prepared statement posted on NJ Transit’s website.
“We have put forth a transportation plan that will get as many people as possible, as close as possible to Philadelphia, all with an eye on safety,” she said.
The agency has set up a webpage with additional details about the event. The New Jersey Department of Transportation also has posted a webpage with transportation information during the papal visit.
SEPTA immersed in ‘unprecedented’ planning for papal visit to Philadelphia
Ever since November 2014, when Catholic Church officials confirmed Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia over two days this September, there’s been an all-hands-on-deck mindset at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).
Philadelphia officials estimate 1.5 million to 2 million visitors will descend on the city for the pope’s Sept. 26-27 visit, which will coincide with the World Meeting of Families, a conference organized every three years by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family. Although the city and its affiliated agencies have prepared for many major public-gatherings in the past — Philadelphia hosted the Republican National Convention in 2000 and will host the Democratic National Convention in 2016, for example — SEPTA’s planning for the papal visit is unprecedented, says Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel.
“In all my years here, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Knueppel said. “It’s been a massive undertaking.”
SEPTA normally carries 1.3 million people every weekday on its commuter-rail, subway, trolley and bus lines. Add another 1.5 million or more potential riders to that mix, “and we know we can’t handle that level of crowd by running a normal schedule,” said Assistant General Manager of Operations Ron Hopkins, who has been in charge of putting together the agency’s transportation plan for the papal event.
SEPTA officials knew as early as spring 2014 that the visit was a possibility. Once they knew for sure it was a go, Hopkins and his team began drawing up a game plan. By January, they had the gist of the operations plan down and have been modifying and adding to it since.
The first thing Hopkins and his team did was study past planning mistakes. Their best example of lessons learned? The city’s parade honoring the Philadelphia Phillies after they won the 2008 World Series. Held just two days after the Series’ conclusion, the event brought more than a million baseball fans into Center City and along the parade route. SEPTA struggled to respond to the sudden big boost in ridership, especially within the hour after the parade ended. The result was gridlocked rail stations, overflowing and late trains, and very unhappy passengers.
“We learned a lot about what really moves people quick and what doesn’t, and what doesn’t is stopping at every station that we had,” Hopkins said of SEPTA’s service lapses. “We disappointed a lot of people that day and got a lot of complaints.”
One thing the agency will do differently for the papal visit is limit the number of rail stations that will be open. Also, the train schedule will be drastically altered. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced in June that SEPTA will cut back the number of open stations from the usual 282 to 31 on the regional rail lines, Market-Frankford Line, Broad Street Line, trolley and Norristown High Speed lines. Trains will operate express-type, pick-up only service to the event from 18 of the outlying stations; post-event, express service will leave Center City to those 18 stations.
The agency also set up online lotteries for a limited number of transit passes for commuters using the regional rail lines, the Norristown High Speed Line or Trolley Routes 101 or 102. The process hasn’t been without glitches, including a website crash when too many people logged onto the site at once.
Special holding pens the size of a single trainload will be organized at stations as a crowd-control measure, and to guide passengers to platforms and vehicle-entry points.
Limiting station stops, controlling crowds and tailoring the train schedule according to the weekend’s activities will address another major challenge: Security. While transit agencies typically heighten security measures to handle larger-than usual crowds, the papal visit has been designated a “national special security event” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which bumps up SEPTA’s security scheme to a much higher level of requirements.
“Security has been an integrated part of all our decision-making,” said Hopkins.
The agency has its own police force of 275 officers and a K-9 unit, which will have its own deployment plan to cover the crowds traveling to and from the event. Additionally, SEPTA’s team will be part of a coordinated effort among other agencies, including the mayor’s office, Secret Service, Philadelphia police and fire departments, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, Delaware River Port Authority/PATCO, New Jersey Transit, DHS, the governor’s office, Pennsylvania National Guard, State Police, and government agencies in surrounding Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.
SEPTA also has coordinated its transportation plan with Amtrak, and kept the freight railroads informed of the passenger-rail and security strategies.
Then there’’ the practical matter of keeping the trains running. SEPTA’s maintenance, engineering and construction crews already are thoroughly checking the entire system — trains, communications and signals, track and stations — to make sure “everything is working,” Hopkins said. Mechanics and electricians will be on standby at each open station to fix any problems that pop up during the big weekend.
SEPTA employees assigned to work the event will be trained and prepped in how to assist visitors — many of whom will be traveling to Philadelphia from other countries — with their transit needs.
“We have a plan in place for every station. Each will have designated transportation people, or ‘ambassadors,’ to help people. And the World Meeting of Families is coming in with their 10,000 volunteers, said Hopkins.
SEPTA officials are praying that their meticulous planning will pay off in a safe and joyous weekend.
“One thing we know about these events is that there will be criticism of why we did certain things,” said Hopkins. “But our task is to step up to the plate and do things creatively to get as many people onto mass transit and into the event area as possible.”
And who knows? Maybe Pope Francis, who was known for using public transit when he lived in his native Argentina, will take the train.
“We would be honored,” Hopkins said. “We would make sure that he enjoys his ride.”