Behind the Scenes of World’s Toughest: Riding Philly’s Rails

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by Scott DeGraw, Producer

“You never know…”

We heard that a lot on this episode of World’s Toughest Fixes. It was usually in response to the question, “What do you do in a typical day on the job?”

For this show, our assignment was to head up the interstate a few hours to Philadelphia and investigate what it takes to keep the trains, trolleys, and buses of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — or SEPTA — running around the clock, everyday, all year long. This was a different type of story for us. It’s a never-ending fix involving a dedicated cast of thousands — and it proved a challenge for our small production crew for one main reason: there was no way to know what to expect on any given shoot day.

For shows like “Nuclear Turbine,” “2,000 Foot Tower,” or “Boeing 767” we documented small groups of experts who were sent to fix a very specific problem in a very specific place. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t. But you sorta, kinda know what to expect. For SEPTA we were covering the unknown, trying to capture the inner workings of an entire transit system where things are constantly breaking down over an area encompassing hundreds of square miles.

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Here are a few basic lessons we learned during our unpredictable two weeks in the “City of Brotherly Love”:

1. A good PR person is worth their weight in gold. This goes without saying for a show like ours. Our program lives or dies by the graciousness and cooperation of the people we are covering for a story. In this case, the SEPTA PR department went above and beyond the call of duty — keeping us on top of all the latest developments in the system. A derailed trolley in West Philly at rush hour? Richard Maloney, SEPTA director of public affairs, and his staff were on the horn. A lead on a catenary wire fix in the suburbs? The phone rang and off we went like a news crew on another adventure… which leads us to the next point:

2. A trusty production vehicle is essential. One of the challenges of shooting in such a large area is simply getting around. You need a BIG van or SUV — sometimes two — to transport a crew of five and the usual ten to fifteen cases of gear. So, on the second morning when the valet came running out of the hotel to tell us our truck was in the garage and wouldn’t start, we thought we were sunk for the day. What do you do? Take four cabs? Commandeer a SEPTA bus? Luckily, that day we were shooting with a local cameraman who had his own SUV. We stripped down our gear to the bare minimum and piled two high in the back seat to stay on schedule. We may not have gotten to our shoot locations in style that day, but we got there in time to catch the action we needed to.

But a good vehicle doesn’t do you any good unless you know where you are going. The next lesson learned:

3. Don’t go anywhere without a GPS. The World’s Toughest Fixes crew never leaves headquarters without a GPS. More often than not, we fly somewhere, collect our luggage, jam everything into the back of the rental, and we’re off to a fix somewhere down a road none of us have ever been down before. Navigating the sixth largest city in the U.S. would have been a nightmare without our trusty little unit. Some days we were darting from the hotel to 69th Street Station out in West Philly, to the northern suburbs, or from a random subway station in North Philly straight to Citizens Bank Ballpark down south. The familiar female voice of the GPS became like a sixth member of the team, always urging us along: “Make a left in 800 yards… exit right ahead…” or when we screwed up, the oft-heard plea, “make a U-turn as soon as possible.”

Another great upside to the GPS: You can find food… anywhere. And after a few days of running around town we found that:

4. Convenience stores have pretty much everything you need to survive for an indefinite period of time on a shoot like this. Here at World’s Toughest Fixes, we tend to shy away from shameless promotion of goods and services, but in this case it is a simple matter of fact that the mid-Atlantic mini-mart phenomena known as (Name of mini-mart deleted to avoid shameless promotion) became an integral part of each successful shoot day. Whether it was coffee for the crew at three in the morning, water in the ninety degree heat, aspirin, quick sandwiches for five between shoots, gas, beef jerky, a bathroom break, batteries — they’ve got it all. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a section with gaffer tape, hard hats, and high definition video tape hidden away in there somewhere.

Sometimes we’d hang out in the parking lot and wait for the next call from SEPTA. And there was ALWAYS another call. At times it felt a little bit like Mission: Impossible.

“Your new mission if you choose to accept it…”

After a few days of running from location to location it became very apparent that:

5. If you want to cover a story like this, you may as well forget about a good night’s sleep. Since SEPTA employees work 24 hours a day to keep the system running… so did we. There was no such thing as a “typical shoot day” on this gig. Sometimes it was midnight to 6AM — working with the track repair guys. Sometimes it was mid-day shop work or hanging out in the SEPTA control room during the evening rush hour. The folks at the hotel desk got used to us rolling into the lobby at 7AM covered in soot and mud — right around the time that all the tourists were finishing breakfast and heading out for a day at Independence Hall or to photograph the Liberty Bell.

It was definitely not your typical World’s Toughest Fixes. But then again, there’s no such thing as a typical World’s Toughest Fixes — each one presents its own challenges. The challenge for the men and women who work at SEPTA is that they never really know what they are going to face every day on the job. Neither did we.

The all-new episode of World’s Toughest Fixes: Philly Mega Transit airs this Thursday, June 10, at 9P et/pt.