Inside SEPTA’s “Nerve Center”

April 17, 2012 |  by  |  Last Light  |  , ,

It’s rush hour on Good Friday and SEPTA’s Broad Street line is running at maximum efficiency. At a horseshoe shaped array of dispatcher desks, a 3-person team sits in front of a wall-size, immersive display, where all subway traffic under Broad Street is shown in real time. The workers direct trains along the route based on rules outlined in a 2-inch thick manual. On smaller screens, a live video feed from station platforms and entrances shows commuters going about their day.

This is SEPTA’s “nerve center.” Wrapping around the massive facility, similar stations keep an eye on the Market-Frankford line, regional rail, trolley, light rail, and bus traffic. SEPTA is the only multimodal transit agency in the United States with a room like this: nothing like it exists in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, or any other American city.

I’m here as a guest of SEPTA’s Director Emerging and Specialty Technology Michael Zaleski. The tour falls somewhere between Mike’s natural tendency toward pragmatic and collaborative openness and the transit agency’s very real need–the room oversees the schedules and safety of more than 320 million annual riders–to maintain near top-secret security. SEPTA police and paratransit service also share space and resources here and as Peco Energy’s largest customer, SEPTA even monitors its own power grid.

In practical terms, the compromise between openness and security works like this. I’m not allowed to say where the nerve center is, but I am allowed to photograph it.

About the author

Steve Weinik works a photographer for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. He also freelances in photography, writing and documentary film. His work has been widely published in print and on screen. You can see more at steveweinik.com.

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12 Comments


  1. So why are using the same token machines as they were back in the 1930’s?

    • SEPTA is working on a new payment system (http://www.septa.org/fares/npt/index.html) but who knows when it’ll actually become active… I, for one, would LOVE to see an expansion of subways and/or trolleys as an alternative to busses. OK, maybe not so realistic, but I live out in West Chester along route 3, and the idea of hopping right out my door and a short walk to something rail-based to get into Philly appeals to me 😉

      • Vote more Democrats into Harrisburg in November and i’m sure it’ll happen. The more Dems, the merrier.

        • I would love to think so, but it seems like our choice is between Democrats who lack the will to trim waste and fight corruption, and Republicans who oppose mass transit categorically. As always, we have to pick the side of waste and corruption, since it’s better than nothing. But I wouldn’t call it “merrier.”

      • Only if they restore service on the Media/Elwyn line to West Chester…..

  2. I don’t work for Septa, but after this tour I do have a new respect for just how massive a job the implementation of a new payment system is. To their credit, they seem to be tying the implementation into various other upgrades, including to the data that’s fed to the room in this post.

    As for subway expansion, I’ve long fantasized about how development in this city would be different if some or all of the A. Meritt Taylor plan had been built.

    • No disrespect for the people who work in this room; they seem to do their enormously difficult job admirably. (And the pictures are fascinating, by the way.)

      SEPTA’s worst shortcomings are mostly the fault of its board of directors, who have no vision, no imagination, and no political will to bring our rapid transit into the 20th century, much less the 21st. I’m sure the geeks in the nerve center chafe under their lack of leadership as much as the rest of us do!

  3. This is quite a sexy room.

  4. so this is ground zero for their constant screw-ups and mismanagement? fascinating.

  5. >In practical terms, the compromise between openness and security works like this. I’m not allowed to say where the nerve center is, but I am allowed to photograph it.

    That’s okay – we’ll just ask the mayor of it on Foursquare.

    https://foursquare.com/v/septa-control-center/4d9142f3608fa1cde7499583

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