According to area news outlets, Aug. 14 was a hectic night for SEPTA Police. Officers were dealing with a bus accident in Fox Chase and a burglary at a train yard in Wayne Junction, so they didn’t have time to lock up some Center City subway stations for the night — clearing the way for a woman to enter the closed Lombard-South station and fall onto the tracks of the Broad Street Line at 2:19 a.m., suffering electrocution on the third rail and lying there, undisturbed, until she was struck by the first train of the morning three hours later.
But the proffered answer (a crazy-busy night!) only raises questions, like: The SEPTA Police Department is the fifth-largest police department in the state — yet its officers were all called away to deal with one reported burglary and one bus crash? And: Hey, aren’t there people working at those SEPTA stations all the time, cleaning the floors and refusing to make change? Couldn’t they lock up in a pinch?
In fact, it turns out that the station cleaners used to do just that — right up until July 2008. “In labor negotiations [at that time], we hired additional officers, and with that hiring, the duties for locking down the stations were handed over to the police,” says SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams. “That way they could also patrol the station to make sure that nobody was there before locking up.”
That transfer of duties was made even though, as far as Williams knows, there had never been any kind of security breach up to that point related to locking stations — and even though, she notes, “Change is usually made based on an incident or event that comes up that incites the need for change.” However, “Now that we have had this situation, that’s why we’re going to be evaluating the process and looking into contingency plans.”
On the bright side, she points out, “that evaluation process comes at a good time,” given that SEPTA just brought on a new police chief, Thomas Nestel. Despite the tragedy, Nestel doesn’t foresee more issues with locking stations in a timely manner: “If one, two, three police to go an emergency, there are plenty of police available to backfill. You don’t take your whole department to respond to one call.” Still, he says, he’s open to ideas to improve the process. In fact, he’s been riding the rails for the past few weeks, soliciting feedback from riders. So far, though, he hasn’t heard much in the way of criticism: “People either said the transit police are doing a great job or they thanked me for my service and told me to be careful. I got feedback that people are concerned for the police and for our safety.”