Monday, July 18, 2005


In Friday's editions of the Philadelphia Inquirer (a fully-paid subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee), columnist John Grogan - who rarely has anything intelligent to say - offered a follow-up to a previous column in which he absolutely slammed SEPTA's horrible performance on the Regional Rail during the Live 8 event. Here's Grogan's initial take on the Live 8 fiasco from July 11:

Did you know that our regional train-and-bus system, that beloved model of crack public-sector efficiency, operated "flawlessly" during the Live 8 concert?

Not "pretty good." Not "about as well as could be expected." Not even "beyond our expectations." Flawlessly. As in without flaw; perfect; incapable of being improved upon.
SEPTA. Flawless. No kidding.

That would be the same SEPTA that left thousands of tired and frustrated concertgoers waiting for interminable periods. The one that seemed caught off guard by the crush of humanity, as if no one had mentioned the fact that there was going to be a little gathering of, oh, about 700,000 people on the Ben Franklin Parkway July 2 and that city officials were urging everyone to leave their cars behind and take public transit.

Not to mention the same system that routinely botches subway-surface service after the 4th of July fireworks on the Parkway...

Who gave this A-plus assessment? Why, none other than the transit agency's top dog himself, Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon Sr., chairman of SEPTA's board.

He was so thrilled with his system's performance, he wrote a testimonial, which appeared in Wednesday's Inquirer. In it, Deon described a finely tuned people-moving machine rising to the challenge of transporting "people by the tens of thousands."

And who exactly tuned this machine, William Hung?

He praised the "dozens of yellow-vested SEPTA employees" who filled the stations, pleasantly helping tired concertgoers find their way.

Then thecoup de grace: "The rail system operated at its absolute physical capacity and it worked flawlessly."

Only one problem: Many passengers offered a starkly different version of reality. And they did it through gnashing teeth, so disgusted were they with SEPTA's performance during the concert rush.

They obviously have never riden the system during the week...

Chairman Deon, meet satisfied customer Lewis Ostrander, 30, a software engineer, who decided to ride SEPTA to Live 8.

Take it away, Lewis: "We were waiting for the R6 in Manayunk around 9 a.m. We were waiting and waiting for the train." When none arrived, Ostrander and about 50 other commuters walked to a nearby bus station.

"There was a woman at the bus station, whom we all assumed was in charge. She had her uniform on along with her walkie-talkie," he wrote. "The woman had no idea what was going on and why there were so many people waiting for a bus... . There were two buses in the lot behind the transfer station. Both drivers were sitting in the front seat reading the paper."

Finally, another bus pulled up. "Everyone is relieved that we are finally going to get to the event. It is now 10:30 a.m. We have been waiting for a train or bus for 1 1/2 hours," Ostrander recounted. "The bus driver pulls up to the entrance and flips on his 'Out of Service' light. About 50 people were about to go 'postal' on SEPTA. The bus driver refused to take anyone anywhere."

It's called rush hour deluxe...

The return trip was even worse.

"At the end of the day we took the R6 train from Suburban Station," he wrote. "It was jungle hot, no information and mass chaos. I think I saw about three SEPTA employees in the entire station. People were running around like chickens without heads."

...and it worked flawlessly.

Then there was Jan Waldauer, 36, of Media, who kept a minute-by-minute journal of her ill-fated commute home, which began at 11:15 p.m. at the Market Street East station and did not end until 2:30 a.m.

"We could have walked faster," she wrote. "Nice job, SEPTA; you actually made US Airways look good."

Anyone who has ever flown can probably agree with that assessment...

She described waiting with her fellow passengers for more than an hour just to make the hop to Suburban Station, where she continued to wait.

My favorite of her entries: "Suburban Station, 1:40am: Train pulls in going our direction, but doors do not open. Conductor walks through the train, ignoring people as they knock on the doors. Good God, are they going to leave us here?"

Of course they are. It's SEPTA...

Meanwhile, on Friday, Grogan wrote a follow-up column which in effect suggests that anyone who thought SEPTA was so "flawless" should be committed to Norristown State Hospital for a psych eval...

SEPTA is sticking with its story.

It operated "flawlessly" during the July 2 Live 8 concert, and that's all there is to it. No ifs, ands or buts.

I know this because SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney told me so the other day. I had called to ask him, in light of numerous complaints from concertgoers, some of whom waited at stations for hours to get home, whether he thought his description had been just a tad over the top.

And of course, anything that comes out of the mouth of SEPTA's Minister of Mis-Information has to be true. That's just the way it is...

Not at all, Maloney said. "We were able to move a historic number of people in a very short period of time. I am not the least bit apologetic."

Nor, sir, are you sane...

I wondered aloud if perhaps it was that word flawless that rankled so many. Not only had Maloney used it, but so had SEPTA board chairman Pat Deon. A poor choice, perhaps?

"No, it's not, because it was," Maloney said. Flawless, that is.

I am desparately trying to stifle laughter at that statement...

If you were one of the thousands of concertgoers crammed into Suburban Station on July 2, you might wonder from which planet Maloney just arrived.

It sure as hell isn't Earth...

He concedes that many had to wait in hot, crowded conditions, but argues that SEPTA rose to the challenge. "We had every single piece of equipment out there operating, and operating at ultimate capacity," he said. "We couldn't have possibly done more."

I have heard from dozens who asked why SEPTA did not, for example, organize park-and-ride lots with express buses. Or borrow extra trains from New Jersey Transit. Or abandon its normal Saturday schedule. Or spread patrons out among stations.

Because that would've made sense. And, as we all know, common sense doesn't exactly prevail in the alternative universe that is 1234 Market.

Maloney said some of those suggestions are impractical. Traffic was banned in a quarter of Center City, and train capacity is limited by the four-track tunnel running out of 30th Street Station. After the concert, SEPTA dispatchers ran trains as frequently as every six minutes, he said, adding, "We ran it like a subway."

Isn't that the normal mentality of those who run the Regional Rail Division at SEPTA?

Brian Gralnick, 26, of Elkins Park, was typical of the disgruntled commuters I heard from. He said he began his trip out of Center City at 11:15 p.m., was directed to the wrong train by a conductor, and got waylaid at the Fern Rock station in North Philadelphia, where he waited in vain for a train until 1 a.m. He finally gave up and called his parents for a ride.

"And SEPTA says it performed remarkably?" he asked.

No, Brian, they never said that. Flawlessly. That's even better!

Similarly, after spending 3 1/2 hours in SEPTA's clutches, Deborah Ebbert, 35, of North Wales, was forced to call her mother to rescue her, "like a 15-year-old stranded at the mall."

"They have some pretty skewed definitions if that was 'flawless,' " she wrote.

That's not the only skewed definition SEPTA has in it's book, Deb...

Robert Ciervo, director of academic strategies at Drexel University, complained: "Pat Deon is in fantasy land. They were totally unprepared on Saturday morning. Then they had to adjust on the fly and the only thing they did was add more cars to each train."

We haven't confirmed that Don Pasquale was in fact in "fantasy land" as Mr. Civero reports, but there are similarities to "fantasy land" and Lower Bucks. Perhaps Don Pasquale was day dreaming about his annual hack-o-rama fishing trip to Alaska. I'm sure there are more than a few people who wouldn't mind if his ticket to Alaska this year was one-way...

Meanwhile, as Maloney and I talked, I began to realize how he and his SEPTA bosses define flawless. Not as perfect, but rather as, "It sure could have been a whole lot worse."

Maloney pointed out that no trains broke down, no lines went out of service, no tracks had to be closed. That's a little like a brain surgeon bragging that he remembered to wash his hands before operating.

It all raises questions about SEPTA's grounding in reality. And its credibility - not just regarding its Live 8 performance, but its preparation for far more serious contingencies.

Credibility is apparently not in the dictionaries at 1234 Market...

In the wake of the London transit bombings, SEPTA officials have assured the public they are taking all steps possible to protect the public while keeping the system freely running. I want to believe. And yet...

When SEPTA tells lawmakers it has done everything in its power to cut costs and maximize efficiency - and still needs more money, I want to believe. But again...

Leaving people waiting during a post-concert crush is one thing. Preparing for the unthinkable is something else again. On that front, I pray SEPTA and the police who guard it do perform in the truest sense of that much-abused word: flawlessly.

So why do I tie the Live 8 complaints with the safety of the system?

Three days after Grogan's second column bashing SEPTA's Live 8 service (or lack thereof), a serious crime takes place on the Broad-Ridge Spur (from the Inquirer):

Drifting in and out of consciousness, a woman who was beaten and apparently sexually assaulted under a Center City SEPTA platform this morning told police officers around her hospital bed that she was certain of one thing about her attacker: "He tried to kill me."

The victim, whose identity was still unknown, was in stable condition at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital this afternoon, said Sgt. Dan Bagnell of the Special Victims Unit.

The woman was attacked about 6:30 a.m. in the Chinatown station at Eighth and Race Streets. The station is diagonally across the street from Philadelphia Police Headquarters.

A train operator told officers that he thought he saw two mannequins under the platform as he was pulling into the station and that he tapped his brakes to slow down.

That squeal may have alerted the assailant. Witnesses saw him stand up, pull up his pants, and run, shirtless, from the station. He was later seen running southbound on Seventh Street.

Police will try to interview the woman again this afternoon, Bagnell said. She was passing in and out of consciousness when investigators spoke to her earlier, he said, but she did repeat, "He tried to kill me."

The suspect is described as a thin male about 5-feet-8.

It is unclear why the victim was in the station this morning. Investigators pulled paper bags filled with possible evidence from the area under the platform this morning and afternoon. The victim had also undergone tests to determine if she had been sexually assaulted.

The Broad-Ridge orange line spur was closed during the morning as police searched the crime scene. Service resumed about 1 p.m. SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said commuters had been diverted to parallel buses that run along the same route.

Nicole Whitney, 23, said she usually uses the station to get to her job at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, which is across the street from the station. Instead, she was rerouted and had to walk from City Hall.

"It just made me late," she shrugged.

She was not worried about increased danger at the station, noting that such a thing could have happened anywhere. But, she said, there are rarely SEPTA workers in the station. One day, she said, she got off the train and found one set of station doors locked.

The logic apparently is that since the Broad-Ridge Spur is lightly used, why bother making access easy?

The station is also across the street from the new Metroclub Condominiums. Resident Ellen Reese, 26, said she and her boyfriend moved from Rittenhouse Square to the luxury condo last month.

Despite the proximity to police headquarters, she said, "This area needs heightened security," such as more foot patrols and better lighting.

"At night, I'm scared to walk alone out here," Reese said. "You don't see the actual police presence."

One can assume Ms. Reese is referring to Philadelphia Police, but you could also make the same arguement for SEPTA Police to be more visible systemwide.

Meanwhile, there's word that Juan Covington, the 43 year old disgruntled former SEPTA driver accused of killing a Montgomery County woman in Center City after getting off a 33 bus, is reportedly the triggerman in the shooting of Odies Bosket at Logan Station on the Broad Street Line, according to the Philadelphia Daily News (a fully paid subsidiary of Moveon-dot-org):

A father of four described by family members as friendly and jovial is expected to be added to the list of people allegedly slain by Juan Covington, a source said yesterday.

Covington, charged last week with fatally shooting hospital worker Trish McDermott and his cousin, the Rev. Thomas Lee Devlin, recently confessed to killing Odies Bosket four months ago at a North Philadelphia SEPTA subway stop, the source said.

Philadelphia police spokesman Cpl. Jim Pauley last night declined to verify Covington's confession and said only that he had not been charged with another murder.

Bosket, 36, was shot once in the head and twice on his side March 7 at about 2 p.m. near the entrance of the Logan Station subway stop on the Broad Street Line. Bosket was on his way to pick up his 4-year-old daughter from preschool, his widow recalled yesterday.

"That was his routine," said Audra Bosket, Odies' wife of 15 years. "He'd drop her off at Broad and Olney in the morning, go to work, then head back up there on the subway in the afternoon."

Covington's alleged motive for killing Bosket, a clerk in the city's Revenue Department for the past three years, remains a mystery to the victim's family.

"It just didn't seem to make sense at all. Odies was a funny guy. Everyone knew him," said Audra Bosket, 34. "I had to walk around looking behind my back, worrying that someone was after our family."

A neighbor familiar with Covington, whom family members said has a history of mental illness, said that a funny facial expression could have set him off. He had been off medication for his illness for more than a decade.

Previous articles in the past few days indicated that Covington had worked for SEPTA as a bus operator out of Allegheny Depot. One article noted that he wasn't particularly well liked by his fellow operators and that his termination was as a result of an alleged assault of a co-worker.

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