Faulty software caused train delays between New York and Philadelphia

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority admitted Thursday that it ran the wrong trains on the busy route between New York and Philadelphia.

SEPTA blamed the mistake on a software bug that triggered the wrong order, despite an order to ensure all trains were running on time before the weekend. It also issued a second apology, this time to the city of Philadelphia for the “embarrassment” caused by its negligence in handling the problem.

The conduct of the transit agency is now the subject of a federal investigation.

SEPTA is the primary line for daily transportation between Philadelphia and New York, and more than 4 million people use the line every day. It faces deep concerns about its aging transit fleet and has recently cut or reduced service to and from airports as repair crews pursue a $1.5 billion overhaul of trains.

Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the line each day, making it a major federal transportation route, with multiple arrivals and departures around the country.

In a statement, the transit agency’s president, Joseph Casey, said that “we are committed to making appropriate changes.”

“I know that this will be one of the most challenging journeys that any commuter in Philadelphia and New York City have taken in a long time. We are committed to making appropriate changes at SEPTA that will ensure that if there is a similar problem in the future, all right-hand cars will be preceded by a letter ‘K’ in the order,” he said.

That change stemmed from a software bug that prompted SEPTA’s mechanical department to place the cars on the wrong side of the tracks. SEPTA announced a few days ago that it was delaying service from Friday through Sunday, including trains scheduled to leave New York at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

The computerized computer code that controlled all train movement came from another organization, the electric grid, SEPTA said. The timing issue not only caused delays on the busy route, but it also put those trains at risk.

“In the case of a power surge or other unforeseen circumstance, these trains may be affected,” SEPTA said.

More than a thousand workers responded to the problem, and about 1,000 cars were put back on the tracks, SEPTA said.

Since it has about 2,000 locomotives and 2,700 trains, many can take multiple trips through the system before needing to be replaced.

SEPTA said it has no internal train control computer technology. Instead, train operators are instructed to check to make sure all right-hand cars are “K”s and left-hand cars are “O”s.

Operators are supposed to obtain the right time codes from their train’s number for the system. If there is an issue, operators are supposed to check their own time codes.

Sean Spector, an SEPTA spokesman, said it was not clear if the “K” letter had been inspected, or whether operators did so. He also said it was unclear how many operators or switches have failed, but that the operator’s union should know.

SEPTA took steps to ensure such errors would not happen again. A software fix will be completed soon, and right-hand cars will now be preceded by the letter “K” from the last time a right-hand car should have been on the track.

On the other hand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was not satisfied with the apology offered by SEPTA.

“I don’t think you’ve apologized for the way that they botched it,” de Blasio said. “I think you’ve heard them apologize for the fact that they screwed up. The longer that it goes on, the more you’ll see it on the news.”

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