A Proposal to Extend Rail Service to a Town in Pennsylvania Is Ambitious. Proponents Are Undeterred

A plan to get a SEPTA Regional Rail link to Phoenixville in record time has its skeptics, but advocates are convinced they can make it happen.

August 30, 2018, 6:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

A SEPTA R5 commuter train heading for Doylestown, Pennsylvania from Lansdale station.

jpmueller99//flickr / SEPTA Rail Train

Phoenixville is a Pennsylvania Rust Belt town that bounced back from deindustrialization and today is home to craft breweries and mixed-use development. Now it wants to give itself a boost by connecting the town to SEPTA Regional Rail service.

A new proposal outlines a plan to get service up and running within 18 months of stakeholders agreeing to move forward. Jim Saksa explains that kind of schedule for a transportation project is unusual:

That would be nothing short of revolutionary in the world of public infrastructure, where projects are planned decades in advance and costs often grow like boa constrictors let loose in the Everglades, swelling to terrifying dimensions and strangling all they run across.

The pilot project calls for using Norfolk Southern freight tracks to connect Phoenixville to an existing SEPTA line. The projected cost for three barebones stations—just parking lots and platforms—and infrastructure upgrades is $15 million, with another $3 million a year to run the trains.

Critics of the plan say the cost estimates for building the stations and renting rails, rolling stock, and dual-mode locomotives are unrealistic. In addition, mixing freight and passenger service poses additional challenges.

Still the residents of Phoenixville are optimistic they can pull it off. "That’s an attitude born of Rust Belt rebirth -- the feeling that not all lost causes are lost, that through pluck and luck and some smalltown gumption, even the impossible is possible," observes Saksa.

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