The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (better known by its acronym SEPTA) is a state authority charged with funding and operating public transportation in the city of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery. Created in 1963, SEPTA often struggled with management issues, employee morale, strikes, aging equipment, inadequate funding, and poor public relations. Despite its challenges, SEPTA became the sixth-largest transit agency in the United States in terms of weekly ridership of its complex system of subways, buses, trolleys, and commuter rail lines.
SEPTA is an example of the regional authorities formed to stem declines in urban public transportation nationwide after World War II. The need for a regional approach for Philadelphia and its suburbs developed in the 1950s as the area’s largest provider of public transportation, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC), declined financially and the two largest commuter rail providers (the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads) threatened service cuts and fare increases. Philadelphia initially led the response in 1960 by subsidizing service and purchasing equipment for use on commuter rail lines in the city through a state-created but city-funded agency, the Passenger Service Improvement Corporation (PSIC). Philadelphia then joined with three of its four suburban counties to form the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Compact (SEPACT) in 1961 to explore regional funding. Delaware County did not join the compact because the largest provider of transportation in the county was a private company that did not desire subsidies. Finally, Pennsylvania created SEPTA as a regional authority in 1963, and the SEPTA board (the existing SEPACT board plus representatives from Delaware County) held its first meeting on February 18, 1964.
Inherent in the way Pennsylvania founded SEPTA were two serious structural flaws that have caused political and operating issues for the authority. The SEPTA board has equal representation for each county, so that although Philadelphia has the bulk of service and ridership, it has the same vote as each suburban county. This has created political friction between the suburban counties, which tend to emphasize regional rail, and the city, which seeks higher levels of service and lower fares across the board. As a creation of the state of Pennsylvania, SEPTA also has struggled to deal with the reality of operating in a tri-state region. The agency offers few interline fares with transportation authorities in Delaware and New Jersey, and only Delaware has contributed to the costs of operating the regional rail system.
SEPTA took over the functions of SEPACT and PSIC in 1965 and the next year entered into comprehensive subsidy arrangements with the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads. In 1968, it acquired the PTC and began operating public transportation services in the city and inner suburbs. Purchases of two private suburban companies in 1970 (Philadelphia Suburban Transportation, centered in Delaware County) and 1976 (Schuylkill Valley Lines with a hub in Norristown) completed SEPTA’s first phase of acquisitions. This phase established SEPTA’s initial structure: the bus, trolley, and subway lines operated by the authority with the commuter rail lines funded by SEPTA but operated by others (first the Pennsylvania and the Reading and, after 1976, Conrail).
In 1983, SEPTA was forced to take over the direct operation of the region’s commuter rail lines by a federal law that allowed Conrail to withdraw from the operation of commuter trains. Because of poor planning by SEPTA, the transfer was extremely difficult and commuters suffered disruptions in service. Initially SEPTA ceased all commuter trains in the region and then, under court order, restored limited service. Shortly thereafter, a three-month strike by the rail unions caused all service to be suspended again. With exceptions of the completion of the Center City Commuter Tunnel (linking the old Reading and Pennsylvania rail lines) in 1984 and the rail line to the airport in 1986, SEPTA’s operation of commuter rail service became a story of service cutbacks, line abandonments, and fare increases.
It was not until the early twenty-first century that service and fares on the rail lines stabilized. As the second decade of the twenty-first century unfolded, SEPTA succeeded in increasing ridership, replenishing its rolling stock with more than 400 new rail cars, and improving its on-time performance. In fiscal 2013, total ridership was at 337.3 million trips, with an average weekday ridership of about one million trips. Despite this positive news, an increased operating deficit raised the possibility the system might have to shrink.
From its founding, SEPTA struggled with structural, funding, and management issues. In addition, as a creation of Pennsylvania, it has had difficulty serving a region that does not end at state lines. These issues, along with the growth of reverse commuting and labor strife, continued to challenge SEPTA and its riders in the early twenty-first century.
John Hepp is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.
Copyright 2014, Rutgers University
Cox, Harold E. Philadelphia Car Routes: Horse, Cable, Electric. Privately published, 1982.
Cudahy, Brian J. Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.
Grow, Lawrence. On the 8:02: An Informal History of Commuting by Rail in America. New York: Main Street Press, 1979.
Messer, David W. Triumph II: Philadelphia to Harrisburg, 1828-1998. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co., 1999.
_____. Triumph III: Philadelphia Terminal, 1838-2000. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co., 2000.
Williams, Gerry. Trains, trolleys & transit: A guide to Philadelphia area rail transit. Greentown, Pa.: Railpace, 1998.
Harold E. Cox transportation collection (Collection 3158), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.
Map Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia.
Philadelphia City Archives, 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia.
Reading Company Collection and John F. Tucker Transit Collection, Hagley Museum and Library. 200 Hagley Creek Road, Wilmington, Del.
Places to Visit
SEPTA Headquarters and Transit Museum, 1234 Market Street, Philadelphia.
Jefferson Station (formerly Market East Station) and Reading Terminal Headhouse, Twelfth and Market Street, Philadelphia.
Sixty-Ninth Street Transportation Center, Sixty-Ninth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.
Norristown Transportation Center, Lafayette and Swede Streets, Norristown, Pa.