Thursday, May 9, 2013

Suburban commuter boldly taking lack of passenger rail service into own hands

The coffee spills on the center console of the two-door, 2007 BMW 300 series--some, perhaps, years old--act as proof (and, incidentally, lint magnets) of the often relentless stop-and-go traffic that is standard on the Schuylkill Expressway, a nearly 25-mile long spur that connects the Pennsylvania Turnpike to central Philadelphia.

The road accounts for more than half of Dave Berstein's daily one-hour-plus commute from Royersford, Pa, a former mill town on the Schuylkill River, to Center City, roughly 32 miles to the southeast. "I don't like to use the word hate, but I really do hate my commute. I want to be able to kick back and read, relax during the journey," said Berstein, an insurance claims adjuster.

Don't let Royersford's nearly 5,000 residents fool you, the borough is part of rapidly growing western Montgomery County. With a population of 800,000, most in the urban and first ring suburban eastern half, the County boasts more people than Boston, D.C., or Baltimore.

Also making up part of Berstein's trek to the city is US Route 422. The spine of the rapidly developing 422 corridor, the highway stretches from King of Prussia to Reading and beyond and threads together portions of Chester, Montgomery, and Berks Counties.

"It wasn't until the 1980s that 422, the highway, was completed in MontCo," said Ben Kalvin, an urban consultant with the sometimes controversial Southeastern Pennsylvania Federation of Counties. "Why, for the most part, large stretches of land adjacent to the highway remained undeveloped for years is somewhat of a mystery. But, western Montgomery is growing now and it needs transportation alternatives to ease pressure on the roads."  

The Delaware Valley, when it comes to national or international congestion reputation, may not rival Los Angeles or Mexico City, but traffic in the tri-state area can crawl, even if it doesn't appear on a top ten roadway congestion list. Traffic can be awful at peak hours, uglier and nastier than a non-Philadelphian's pronunciation of Schuylkill.

The Schuylkill Expressway, built between a river and the steep slope that lines the waterway, is a highway that will most likely never expand beyond its current four lanes. As one civil engineer said: "It is what it is."

The brutal automobile commute from Brotherly Love's western suburbs has pushed many to passenger rail service. Specifically, to riding the two lines offered by local public transit agency Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority: the Paoli and Norristown lines. However, looking at a commuter rail map, there is a huge gap in service in the Schuylkill Valley.

Seeing this, the Royersford resident  is determined to close the gap and add to the rail service with his own train line.

"I don't know anything about passenger rail service," said Berstein, standing near a flatbed truck delivering a set of train wheels he purchased on craigslist, "but I'm just gonna do it. Really, how hard can it be, there's no steering wheel. There aren't even turn signals."

Over the past several months, Berstein has began assembling train parts to create his own passenger rail service from Royersford to Philadelphia. Taking a leave of absence from his insurance job has allowed the claims adjuster to piece together two passenger cars, and, pending an eBay bid, a 1992 diesel engine to pull these cars.

Depending on the success of the rogue passenger service, Berstein hopes to eventually include towns further west of Royersford, including Pottstown and Reading. As of now, the train will leave his home town heading southeast along the tracks hugging the river and make stops at Phoenixville, Pawlings Rd Station, Valley Forge West, and Valley Forge East before continuing non-stop into Philadelphia's 30th St Station.

"It will definitely be a nail-biting inaugural journey," confessed Berstein. "I'm not sure how the switches work, or what tracks SEPTA or CSX trains will be on. This whole thing is just a shot in the dark. There's still a lot of work ahead." Part of this work includes writing up a waiver that passes on responsibility of any accident onto "someone else" and creating a local advertising campaign to attract riders.

The father of four did point out that he knew not to take the first right after leaving Royersford because that would lead the train to a dead end at the old Cromby power plant. Also, passing through the Black Rock tunnel in Phoenixville will confirm the journey is "on course."

"It's exciting because it's this crazy adventure. But, it's also very scary because I don't even know who owns the rail lines and what the freight traffic schedule is. I'm going to put the trains on the track, load passengers, and go. And, hope for the love of God that the tracks are clear all the way to the city."

The crane company, Yeah, We Got Cranes, LLC, based in Conshohocken, Pa, is scheduled to lift the three train pieces onto the tracks on June 24, 2013 at 6 a.m. "Is this illegal?" asked Gary Teilchuck, repeating the question presented to him out loud. "Honestly, that's not my concern. The customer is always right, isn't that what the saying is?"

No, it is not legal. In fact, it's a federal crime. Passenger rail service is regulated by the federal government. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, enforces safety regulations for the expansive American rail network.

"Oh, Mr Berstein should definitely think twice before executing this little stunt," warned Baker Shallister, managing supervisor for the FRA. "If I didn't have a stack of paperwork this high, I would investigate this matter further. But, I'm so backed up in forms it's ridiculous. We can't really stop him. All I can say, really, is be careful and don't do it."

Berstein, perplexed about how his rail plans have leaked, read a letter from CSX, the rail freight carrier who owns the tracks along the river: "Dear Mr Berstein, CSX recently learned of your intention to create an 'experimental passenger rail line' that you intend to operate on CSX-owned tracks. We strongly suggest that you cease and desist this thoughtless and egregious plan, which places residents, passengers, freight operators, and the general public in great danger."

The future rogue train operator smiled after reading the letter and said: "How can you tell a train just went by? It left its tracks."

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