Officials: Fire on SEPTA train not suspicious

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - November 4, 2009 The fire, authorities said, likely started in a heating unit.

PHOTOS: The burning R5 Regional Rail train

Flames could be seen shooting from the front of the SEPTA regional train shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday. A big cloud of smoke also billowed from the train, which was heading east from the Overbrook station in West Philadelphia toward the Amtrak station in Center City.

Wayne Rafferty, 27, of Pottstown, a lab technician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said he had to calm down another passenger on the packed train, and he saw other passengers kicking out the removable emergency windows. Once outside the train, he took a picture of the front of it with flames and smoke.

"I already texted in the photos to my boss. I said 'This was my train,"' he said. "He said he'll see me when he sees me, so I'm going to start making the hike." Rafferty esimated that it would take about an hour to walk to his workplace.

"It started to smoke while were stopped at the (Overbrook) station," said paralegal Laura Bryans, 37, and conductors soon told everyone to move to one of the rear cars. She eventually moved all of the way to the final car and got out when the train stopped and was evacuated.

"You could smell something, but I thought it was the brakes," said Cynthia Reid, 55, who works in a community college financial aid office and was in the second car on her commute from Thorndale in Chester County. Black smoke began pouring out soon after the train pulled out of the station, she said.

"I don't understand why we even left the station," Reid said. "I have no idea how I'm getting in to work today."

The sudden strike called early Tuesday by Transport Workers Union Local 234 all but crippled the agency, which averages more than 928,000 trips each weekday. The transit agency's largest union walked away from negotiations on a new contract over disagreements on wage, pension and health care issues.

Regional rail service is still operating because their workers are represented by a different union, but trains have been delayed as they experienced larger-than-normal crowds.

Union workers, who earn an average of $52,000 a year, are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike and want to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of health care coverage. Their contract expired in March.

SEPTA was offering an 11.5 percent wage increase over five years, with a $1,250 signing bonus in the first year, and increases in workers' pensions, Maloney said.

The strike also affects buses that serve the suburbs in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties.

A 2005 SEPTA strike lasted seven days, while a 1998 transit strike lasted for 40 days.

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