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Challenging Winter Sweetens 'Smell of Spring'

The Philadelphia region is welcoming the return of spring, and so is SEPTA.

The Authority and those it serves can finally breathe a sign of relief with this year's historic winter now in the record books. The season - punctuated by two February blizzards that dumped over three feet of snow on the region in a five-day span - presented an almost endless list of service challenges. But along with them came unique new opportunities.

Before, during and after the storms, SEPTA utilized a host of new tools and strategies designed to enhance service and communications with customers. With the right mix of the latest technologies and a wealth of old-school knowledge vital to operating the vast, complex system, SEPTA was able to effectively reach customers - even when it couldn't move them due to the ice and snow.

On Friday, Feb. 5th, as the first of two massive February blizzards approached the region, SEPTA announced a new strategy for handling severe weather. While still making every effort to keep service running, operations personnel would use their expertise to look ahead and determine when deteriorating conditions may force an end to business as usual. When that part of the picture came into focus, SEPTA would move proactively and decisively - even if it meant temporarily suspending some services altogether.

This change came from years of lessons learned, and one particularly defining moment at the start of this record-breaking winter season - the December 2009 blizzard. As with most similar situations in the past, during the December storm, most trains, buses and trolleys kept moving until conditions simply wouldn't let them move anymore. The goal then, as always, was to keep customers safe and provide service as close to normal as possible. But at the same time, it left customers largely without significant notice of shutdowns. It also hampered efforts to get the system back up and running full-speed after the storm, as a number of vehicles and trains stranded throughout the system had to be removed from the roads and rails, repaired, and then put back into service - a process than can take days to fully recover from after a major winter storm.

A key component of the new strategy was a promise from SEPTA's staff to immediately send service disruption notices to customers using every tool in its multimedia belt, including email blasts to local news organizations and alerts posted on and SEPTA's Twitter account. Whenever possible, SEPTA promised to deliver these messages at least an hour before wheels stopped rolling.

As the snow intensified heading into peak service hours on Saturday, Feb. 6th, the new policy was ready for its first test. After a few immediate shutdowns due to road conditions on individual bus routes, the decision-makers began seeing areas where service would need to come to a halt. Public announcements immediately followed, and word was spread to customers using every communications tool available. Most alerts went out online and over the air more than an hour ahead of service suspensions, including notice that all buses, trolleys and Regional Rail trains would stop rolling at 2 p.m. This helped prevent potentially unsafe situations for customers, and actually helped improve service in the long-run. Vehicles and trains pulled off the roads and rails were prepped for the return to service on Sunday, Feb. 7th. This resulted in a smooth morning rollout - even though more than two feet of snow still blanketed the region.

With barely enough time to catch a breath, the next storm loomed - although this time the potential impact was multiplied, as the storm came in the middle of the work- and school-week. Before the storm hit, SEPTA made public announcements about the potential service disruptions, and steps being taken to keep customers updated, inconvenienced as little as possible and - most importantly - safe.

As promised, the snow began falling late on Tuesday, Feb. 9th, and pre-storm planning turned into action.

While most Regional Rail lines and trolleys ran throughout the storm in some capacity - and the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines roared along as usual thanks to the subway tunnels that help shield them from the elements - the continued intensity of the storm was forced a number of service suspensions as it worked through the region on Wednesday, Feb. 10th. By early afternoon, with conditions continuing to deteriorate, the tough decision was made to bring bus service to a halt. Immediately, the alert system kicked in, allowing SEPTA to give customers over two hours notice before all buses stopped rolling at 5 p.m.

As efforts to resume service continued, proof of the success of the new service and alert strategies started coming into focus. Traffic at soared to unprecedented levels, with nearly two million hits registered at the height of the storm. The link to the storm alerts page was the most popular on Twitter among thousands of users making SEPTA queries. SEPTA also registered sixteenth overall on Google's "Hot Trends."

But the storm also proved that traditional media is still essential in reaching SEPTA's riders. Local news outlets aired and published emailed service alerts almost immediately, allowing SEPTA to reach hundreds of thousands of people across the region at a time. SEPTA also brought the media in for behind-the-scenes coverage. CBS 3 broadcasted live from the Command Center throughout the storm - giving viewers a first-hand look at the hard work and complexity involved in managing a massive, multi-modal mass transit system during severe weather. It also allowed SEPTA officials themselves to speak directly to customers with service alerts and critical information about the system's status.

Before, during and after the storm, crews worked around the clock to keep equipment functioning - requiring everything from shoveling snow from tracks to using jet engine blowers to get snow and ice off the rails - to try to minimize disruptions for customers. SEPTA also worked closely with the City of Philadelphia, municipalities in the suburbs, PennDOT and a variety of other agencies to help coordinate clean-up efforts throughout the region.

And while SEPTA is happy with how its planning helped minimize the storms' impact on transit, there will no doubt be new lessons learned from these historic weather events.

Hopefully, though, that knowledge won't be put to the test anytime soon.

A SEPTA bus stares down heavy snow.

A jet-engine blower removes snow and ice from the rails.

A Market-Frankford Line train plows through heavy snow.

Workers shovel snow from the tracks at Fern Rock.

The Norristown High Speed Line highlights this picturesque winter scene.