By Art Kramer
Art Kramer is a former editorial assistant.
The Phantom Rider says he was born with a brass token in his hand.
But on reflection, longtime transit critic Frank Dougherty admits he volunteered to write the weekly transit column "as a way out of the [ Philadelphia] Daily News gulag: the midnight to 8 a.m. police beat."
In October, Dougherty celebrated his 25th year as the Phantom Rider with his "noble adversary," the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Dougherty wore a conductor's cap atop the orange fright wig and mask he donned to preserve his secret identity (his column runs with a photo of the back of his head).
Dougherty, the self-described "Voice of the Riding Public," doesn't conceal his name. But he says he doesn't want the public to know that he's that fiftysomething balding guy with the "Budweiser tumor" busily scribbling notes on the crossword puzzle page during rush hour.
He rides incognito so he can get a firsthand look at the problems Philadelphia straphangers confront – everything from ankle-deep puddles in the stations to subway cars that suddenly catch fire. He often captures transit trauma through the eyes of harried riders.
Ironically, as the transit authority was honoring the Phantom at TrolleyFest, the Daily News was running a Phantom column ripping SEPTA for a 64-minute delay on the Chestnut Hill line the day before. But SEPTA spokesperson Joaquin Bowman defends Dougherty. "Phantom Rider is a service to SEPTA as well as to the riding public," he says. "When he finds a problem, we jump on it."
The Phantom's status as a Philadelphia institution, "somewhere between cheesesteaks and soft pretzels," according to Daily News Editor Zack Stalberg , sometimes obscures Dougherty's accomplishments as a reporter. According to Stalberg, his pursuit of Nazi war criminals living in Philadelphia between 1975 and 1985 almost developed into a separate beat.
Philadelphia native Dougherty, who began his Daily News career as a 19-year-old copy boy in 1961, says he plans to retire at the turn of the century. He says he hopes the puddles in the Vine Street station that he made famous as the "Land of Lakes" have dried up by the time he hangs up his transfers.