Pained by the Train

The PATCO High Speed Line just turned 40. But is this South Jersey commuter train on a track toward golden years or a mid-life crisis?

The first PATCO car from Lindenwold to Philadelphia rolled down the line on February 15, 1969. Little has changed since then—75 of the cars from that original fleet are still in operation—and PATCO is still an easy way to get from South Jersey to Philadelphia. I’m not the only one who thinks so—PATCO carries more than 38,000 people a day. Ridership is at a record high.

I like PATCO. It’s one of the reasons I bought a home in Collingswood, and I enjoy riding it into Philadelphia and Camden, where I sometimes teach. It offers a smooth, quick ride 24 hours a day. It continues to draw people to many of the towns along its route, making these areas attractive as places to live or visit. 

It’s an example of smart growth that worked. But recent changes handed down by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), which operates PATCO, and sheer negligence sullies its usefulness.

To start, the new ticketing system is inefficient and wasteful. Replacing re-usable plastic tickets with paper tickets that easily bend, void, and expire soon after purchase is not only unwise but environmentally irresponsible. Sure, you can buy a Freedom card, but it costs $5 and comes with a balance of zero, and won’t register at turnstiles if you don’t hit the reader exactly the right way.

Price is also an issue. PATCO fares increased last summer, in part to cover bad debt incurred by poor DRPA decisions. DRPA officials promised they would no longer invest in Philadelphia or Camden redevelopment projects, which is how DRPA got into a money pit in the first place, then turned around and pledged $11 million to non-commuter projects in January, including funds for a restaurant in Philadelphia.

That’s not the only confounding development. The DRPA added security cameras to PATCO stations after Christine Lynn Eberle was abducted from the Ferry Avenue station stop’s parking lot and murdered in 2001. Recently, journalist Brian Hickey was struck by a hit-and-run driver near the Collingswood PATCO station as he was walking to catch a train home to Philly. Hickey suffered a coma, and he’s still missing two parts of his skull.

A train had arrived in the station just before Hickey was struck. It could have helped in the police investigation to check the PATCO cameras for clues about who got off that train and into a car—except the cameras weren’t operational.

Hickey described his outrage to me last week. “I think it’s putrid, in the wake of the Eberle case, that passenger safety is still a secondary concern to PATCO.” 

For such a smart growth project to be tarnished with bad decisions and neglect is shameful. I don’t think these problems will bring PATCO down—too many people rely on it every day—but I wonder about its future every time I hear a train rumble past my window.

Jen A. Miller is South Jersey Bureau Chief for New Jersey Monthly. She also is the author of The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May and blogs about that area at Miller lives in Collingswood with her dog, Emily.

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