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 employees work on a commuter train that was stuck on the track because of overhead wire problems
SEPTA employees work on a commuter train that was stuck on the track because of overhead wire problems one afternoon in July 2011. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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).

A black and white photograph of people standing in a hall way, holding protest signs. The group of people fills the hallway, and most of the people are wearing casual clothes. In the foreground of the image are some people with their backs turned to the camera.
In 1980, demonstrators fill the hallway in front of the mayor’s office to protest a SEPTA fare increase from 50 cents to 65 cents. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University


South Broad Street Subway Expansion

After years of construction below South Broad Street, on April 6, 1973, the first SEPTA subway car traveled to the Oregon and Pattison stations in South Philadelphia. Pictured here is the first public "dedication train" that traveled to the new stations in South Philadelphia, bringing subway service within easy walking distance of Philadelphia's sports-stadium complex along Pattison Avenue and offering fans another way to reach Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and Flyers games. The Philadelphia Department of Commerce joined with SEPTA to plan and fund the expansion. Once the Pattison station opened to the public, SEPTA's Broad Street line consisted of over ten miles of track and eventually made local- and express-train options available to the public. In 2010, the SEPTA board approved renaming the Pattison station as AT&T Station as part of a revenue-generating deal that brought the transit authority more than $5 million over the next five years.

Protest Over SEPTA Fare Increases

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

When SEPTA announced in 1980 that it was raising fares for Philadelphia's public transit system, members of the Consumer Education and Protection Association protested, saying it would harm the system’s users. The association was established by Max Weiner in 1966 to protect consumers from unfair policies, price increases, and corruption in business or politics. These protesters, bearing signs with the name of Weiner's political group, the Consumer Party, stood inside Philadelphia's City Hall to protest SEPTA's fare increases in front of Mayor William Green's office. SEPTA had proposed the fare increase to pay for additional costs of the regional rail infrastructure and employee salaries. Protests and a lawsuit against SEPTA by Weiner did not succeed in altering the plan, and SEPTA increased the fifty-cent fare by fifteen cents. Later in 1980, SEPTA created the regional fare zone structure, under which fares were based on how far away from Center City riders traveled.

Thirtieth Street Station

Library of Congress

From the regional rail platforms at 30th Street Station, commuters catch trains to Philadelphia stations outside Center City and to suburban stations to the north, west, and south. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive)

Working on the Railroad

In an example of the challenges that go with running a rail system, SEPTA employees work on a commuter train that was stuck on the track because of overhead wire problems one afternoon in July 2011. In the background is 30th Street Station, whose Regional Rail platform is a stopping point for most trains moving in and out of Center City Philadelphia. This photo was shot from another commuter train that had been delayed as it left Suburban Station, one stop away from 30th Street Station. Because of the downed overhead wires, SEPTA engineers had to “single-track” for a stretch. Trains going both directions had to take turns waiting on the sole track available at a very busy point in the network where the tracks descend into the tunnel under Center City. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Regional Rail Train Crosses Schuylkill

One of SEPTA's Regional Rail trains crosses the Schuylkill River near the Girard Avenue Bridge on its way from the far reaches of the city into 30th Street Station and the Center City train stations. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

SEPTA Bus Routes

Every year, more than half of SEPTA's total ridership travels through the Philadelphia region on buses. SEPTA's fleet of over 1,300 buses blankets the streets of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs through 117 bus routes designed to move people effectively and quickly. Some of Philadelphia's busiest streets have bus lanes to improve efficiency, but many buses travel down the same lanes as other vehicles and the realities of daily city traffic or road construction often cause delay. Everyday traffic conditions, like this one on South Eighth Street, can affect the travel times for travelers using the public transportation system. (Photo by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.)

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Time Periods



Related Reading

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.

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