Papal Visit Preview: ‘Popecopter,’ SEPTA schedule changes planned for NE

Northeast denizens who for weeks have been wondering how to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis during his sojourn to a local prison, or how to avoid the typical traffic snarls, have instead been getting a hard lesson in intergovernmental protocols — some may prefer to call it red tape.

In any case, Pope watchers should be sure to pack their binoculars and focus skyward on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 27, as the pontiff is planning to commute via helicopter, according to a Vatican spokesman.

The surprise announcement seemed almost a footnote during Fr. Federico Lombardi’s press briefing in Rome early Tuesday, when he also discussed the pope’s likely meeting with Fidel Castro in Cuba and his use of a modified American-made Jeep as his popemobile. But for the people of the Northeast, the information was invaluable, although not quite timely.

It seemed a simple question: How will the Pope commute to and from the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on Sunday, Sept. 27?

His official itinerary that day begins with a 9:15 a.m. meeting of bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. He won’t have to travel far for that event as the seminary will be his base of operations throughout his stay in the Delaware Valley.

The pope’s visit to CFCF at 7901 State Road is next on the schedule. It’s planned for 11 a.m. The duration of that private meeting with inmates and staff has not been announced, but the pope will have to return downtown in time for his 4 p.m. Mass on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Seeking more detailed information about the Papal movements in the Northeast, a Times reporter began two weeks ago by asking several local police commanders, who generally replied that they weren’t at liberty to discuss anything of the sort.

The Times next contacted the police department’s official public information office with similar results. A spokeswoman advised that the mayor’s office has been responsible for disseminating all Papal information on behalf of the city since Day One.

Not in this case, however. A mayor’s spokeswoman referred the reporter’s questions to either the Secret Service or the media office for the World Meeting of Families (which doubles as the Archdiocesan media office). By early this week, the Times was still waiting for a reply from the WMF. As for the Secret Service folks, they were still keeping the secret.

Fortunately, at precisely 6:39 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Tuesday, the Vatican bureau chief for Catholic News Service, Cindy Wooden, Tweeted: “#PopeInPhilly to skip traffic restrictions for prison visit. Fr Lombardi says he’ll go by helicopter.”

The idea of a “popecopter” has been the topic of speculation for a while, although one veteran police supervisor told the Times that he had no recollection of a visiting dignitary using a helicopter to travel within the city, not even the president of the United States.

The helicopters used by the Philadelphia and state police departments aren’t exactly pope friendly, he added. That is, they seat four or five people, including two pilots, whereas the pope’s usual entourage is much larger. The police supervisor was also unaware of any dedicated landing pad at the prison. Presumably, the pope could land at Pennypack on the Delaware Park, but in that case may have to take a shuttle to the prison’s entrance on State Road.

Generally speaking, there should be little impact on police coverage in the Northeast during the Papal weekend, according to Inspector Benjamin Naish, commander of the Northeast Division. Police vacations have been cancelled and shifts will be extended.

Transportation-wise, SEPTA has modified routes and schedules for regional rail, the Market-Frankford El and bus service.

According to SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch, regional rail tickets are still available for purchase, although passengers will be able to embark only at selected stations, including Fox Chase and Cornwells Heights. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are available at those stations and downtown at Jefferson Station (Market East) and Suburban Station.

Travelers can choose a 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. departure window or an 8:30 to noon window. Express trains will run every half hour. Passengers from Fox Chase must exit at Market East, while passengers from Cornwells must exit at 30th Street.

Express service on the El will depart from the Frankford Transportation Center. Local El service will depart from Arrott Transportation Center.

SEPTA is also expecting increased passenger volume on bus routes, particularly those that connect to the Market-Frankford El. Other bus routes will be detoured or suspended, but few of those will affect the Northeast.

The following Northeast bus routes will have “enhanced weekday service” levels: 3, 5 (with detours), 14, 20, 50, 58, 66 and “R.” Route 8 will be suspended due to road closures. The following routes will have regular weekend service: 19, 24, 25 (with detours), 26, 67, 73, 84 and 88.

The Philadelphia Fire Department presumably is also making plans to handle large masses of people expected downtown while maintaining firefighting and paramedic service in outlying neighborhoods, including the Northeast. But much like the Secret Service, the fire department isn’t sharing that information with the public. A department spokesman did not return telephone calls or an email requesting comment. ••