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Overnight Crews: Meeting Tight Deadlines To Keep System Running

In the wee hours, while most SEPTA riders are sleeping comfortably knowing they'll have reliable transportation for their morning commute, work vital to ensuring those rides go smoothly is being carried out in the bowels of the system.

Two tasks in particular, replacing corroded rails and cleaning subway track areas, are essential to keep the system moving. And like other similar tasks, they're done under cover of night - but with tight deadlines and the morning commute just hours away.

Like most entities that maintain infrastructure, water is one of SEPTA's biggest enemies. It weakens, wears - and just gets in the way.

"Water dripping on the rail can literally destroy it over time," said Dave Stump, an Assistant Director of Track Maintenance.

So, not surprisingly, SEPTA crews spend a considerable amount of time battling water and its effects. Nowhere is this more evident than along the rails, where corrosion is a fact of everyday life. And in most cases, there's only one option: replace the rail, spikes, plates and other equipment that gets beaten down by the wet stuff.

Stump and Dale Arnold, also an Assistant Director of Track Maintenance, work closely on carrying out this work, which is often nothing short of a Herculean feat. For example, a crew could be required to do four separate rail corrosion jobs in a shift, with each job requiring the replacement of 40 feet of rail by hand. And, all the while, the morning rush hour looms - with thousands of customers depending on these rails being in place for their commutes.

"To get it done, and get it done safe, under these circumstances, that's the main thing," Stump said.

And those circumstances often involve dealing with unforeseen circumstances - anything from a complication with the job itself to crew shortages. This makes quick, decisive action a must.

"The biggest part of doing this successfully is the ability to react in real time," Stump said. "You have to be able to evaluate a situation and react to it in real time to make sure we get the trains back running when they need to run."

"You just have to make the decisions and make the necessary adjustments," Arnold added. "It has to be done, so you just have to deal with it."

Another task for required for the upkeep of SEPTA's underground world is also carried out under similar deadlines. The job for these crews: heavy-duty clean-up work.

The Broad Street Line Vacuum Train runs often during the overnight hours. It's essential to preventing trash and other debris from collecting and getting into drainage areas.

"If those drains get clogged, that water will rise," said SEPTA Maintenance Manager Bob Hearon. "You'd be surprised at the volume of trash that builds up down in the subway."

Thanks to the vacuum train, SEPTA stays one step ahead of these potential problems. Pumping out 600 horsepower, this powerful piece of equipment can clear up to 200 pounds of trash and debris in just five seconds.

Even thought it operates at ear-piercing volume levels, the vacuum train does its work under the cover of darkness, just like the crews who carry out the rail replacement work.

While the dedicated SEPTA employees who carry out these jobs don't seem to mind that their hard work isn't usually visible to riders, they said just knowing they're there, keeping up with all these vital tasks, should be comforting.

"I think it's important for people to know from a confidence standpoint," Stump said. "I want people to be confident in the knowledge that we're out there doing these things, and that they don't have to worry about there being any problems when they get on the train."

"We're taking care of business," Stump said. "We're beating these problems before they get a chance to beat us."

Dave Stump, an Assistant Director of Track Maintenance.

The Broad Street Line Vacuum Train.

An overnight crew hard at work.