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.