Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Serving Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties

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The Pump Room: Keeping Tunnels Dry

Jim "Happy" Harrigan has been banished to the basement of the Frankford Transportation Center. But the 35-year SEPTA veteran isn't being reprimanded or otherwise punished for some indiscretion; as a matter of fact, this underground office is his reward for being good at his job.

Harrigan, an Electrical and Mechanical Foreman, monitors and maintains the underground equipment, storage and mechanical rooms. The most important of these are the pump rooms. It's Harrigan's responsibility to keep SEPTA's subterranean tunnels dry so trolleys and trains on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines are operational.

Harrigan, a Philadelphia native, is very familiar with this region's heavy rain and unpredictable snow and winter weather. He also knows water will always seek its lowest point, and an excess of water volume in the tunnels could severely impact service. With his dedicated millwrights, who are responsible for all mechanical and electrical underground equipment, Harrigan regularly inspects tunnel areas, while also staying tuned in to weather forecasts and any possible impact the weather could have on tunnel conditions.

Harrigan's crews, which are based in South Philadelphia and Frankford Transportation Center, work along with a roving crew, securing pump facilities.

"We have 22 pump rooms that we monitor and maintain," Harrigan said. "Water draining from the street often finds its way to the tunnels."

"People don't realize it takes less than 30 minutes for a tunnel to flood, with water coming down stairwells and through vents creating a critical situation," Harrigan added. "This can also create power failures, leading to service interruptions with trapped or injured passengers. The pumps allow us to re-direct the flow to the main city storm drains away from the tunnel and stations. My emergency response team is also dispatched to any affected area to make sure the system works as should. We never know what nature will hand us."

Harrigan also stays on alert for trash infiltration from the street, which could prevent the pumps from performing effectively.

The two four-foot wide, six-foot tall, 100 horsepower pumps operate in tandem. They utilize a "lead-lag" system, and are placed below the tunnel floor. Each one will only operate for 17 minutes so the system doesn't overload. A spare pump is also onsite.

"We really work to make sure the pumps are operating properly," said Harrigan. "Although the equipment and the majority most the pump rooms have been upgraded, we know that we can't depend entirely on technology."

"If I see it's going to rain real bad, I keep an eye on low-lying or otherwise affected stations," Harrigan said. "The systems' proximity to the Schuylkill River and the water table are always a concern."

"We are responsible for providing customers with safe and reliable service," Harrigan added. "I want to do my part to protect them too. None of us wants to swim to work."

Electrical and Mechanical foreman Jim Harrignan.

Harrigan inspects the reserve pump at Tasker-Morris Station on the Broad Street Line.

A diagram of a pump.