Well, here we are back in Philadelphia, now for the final time.1 To finish out Philadelphia and in fact the Northeast in general (of the “first gen systems”), here’s the Septa Subway-Surface lines, in which we’re including the 15 – Girard Avenue line. This is a huge and rather disorganized system, so get ready for a massive post.
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This system is in the core of Philadelphia, which has not moved since our last post and is still in the Northeastern United States. The lines start in downtown and head west, with some exiting the municipal boundary into Darby.
This system consists of 6 lines, the 10, 11, 13, 15, 34, and 36, totaling about 48 miles of trackage.2 This is a standard first-gen streetcar-subway-with-branches, with the 11, 13, 34, and 36 meeting up at the 40th Street Portal, and the 10 joining at 33rd Street, and from there continuing to 13th Street. At street level, there are various conditions, with the majority of track being flat-out street running, with stops a mix of “wait on the sidewalk” and some protected islands at intersections. There’s also a tiny bit of car-separated median running in the system. The 15 is missing from that above description, because….well, the 15 is kind of its own separate system, running refurbished PCCs down a major thoroughfare in North Philadelphia.
The combined subway trunk runs in the same tunnel as the Market Frankford Line (a subway line) from 30th Street to 15th Street in an interesting arrangement where the streetcars provide local service and the MFL runs essentially express, stopping only at 30th and 15th streets.3
A fun thing about the trunk going westbound/away from Center City is that trains do not stop unless flagged, which is pretty hard to do when you can’t see the headsign until the train’s directly in front of you because of bright headlights. Going eastbound of course, you can just flag any train.
As you can see, trains run fairly frequently, especially on the trunk, and some lines even run 24/7, which is nice to see coming from somewhere which… doesn’t do that.6 Frequencies may seem a little sparse during nights and weekends, but these trolleys do go out to fairly far-out areas, so the headways are still somewhat reasonable.
As mentioned earlier, the 10 splits from the trunk before the others, where it continues down Lancaster Avenue to eventually reach the 63rd-Malvern loop in Overbrook, where there’s a half-mile-not-really-connection to the Paoli/Thorndale Line’s station in Overbrook.
The rest of the routes split off at 40th Street Portal, where the 11 continues down Woodland Ave before curving onto Main St, where it continues to the Darby Transportation Center, with connections to the 113, 114, 115, and the rush-hour extension of the 13.
From the 40th Street Portal, the 13 continues down Chester Ave, Kingsessing Ave, 65th Street, and a different Chester Ave, to the Yeadon Loop. From there some trips continue down the 9th and 10th one-way street pairs to Darby Transportation Center. These appear to be pull-outs and put-ups to/from the Elmwood Carhouse, a short backtrack along the 11 and then a short section of non-revenue trackage down Island Ave to connect with the 36 at Elmwood Ave, where the carhouse is located.
The 34 continues down Baltimore Ave (US-13) to the Philadelphia/Delaware County Line just before Cobbs Creek, where it connects to the G and 46, both crosstown routes that cross the trolley lines. Both continue up to Overbrook, connecting with the 10 and 15, while the G also continues southward to connect with the 11, 13, and 36.
The 36 follows Woodland Ave with the 11 for a bit, before turning onto 49th St to get to Grays Ave, where it merges onto Lindbergh Ave and then Elmwood Ave. At the major intersection of Elmwood Ave, Passyunk Ave, and Island Ave, there’s the Elmwood Loop by the Elmwood Carhouse, used late nights and early mornings. From here, the 36 turns onto Island Ave southbound, where it gains a car-separated median to its terminus at the 80th Street and Island Ave Loop, right outside the “Penrose Plaza Shopping Center”.
Every Sunday night, from 10pm to 5am, the trolleys are all diverted along extra trackage to 40th Street @ Market St, where you have to connect to MFL trains or MFL Owl buses after midnight to Center City.
That’s what these lines should be doing, but as a testament to the messiness of SEPTA, the 36 is currently bustituted due to “water department work”, and, in addition to the Sunday night diversions, Monday nights trolleys also end at 40th @ Market St from 10pm to 5am for SEPTA’s “COVID-19 enhanced maintenance and station deep cleaning program”.
As for the rolling stock, the subway surface lines run 112 50′7 long 1981-1982 Kawasaki built cars, which differ from the cars used on the suburban 101/102 in that they use trolley poles instead of pantographs, are single ended, and are slightly smaller, though they’re otherwise largely identical. They’re high floor, have no articulation, and have two doors on the right side only. These cars are really starting to age now, so SEPTA’s starting to think about replacing them.
Now that we’ve gotten the true subway surface lines out of the way, we can continue onto the Girard Avenue Line, which probably could’ve gotten its own post based on how separate it is from the subway surface lines. The 15 runs from 63rd-Girard in the west to Richmond-Westmoreland in the east. It runs 18 refurbished PCCs, or as SEPTA calls them, “PCC II”s. It’s entirely street running with those typical Philly side platforms at intersections in the middle of the street.
Of course, because SEPTA, that’s again not what’s happening on the 15. In 2012, there was highway construction that forced trolley service to deviate to the Northern Liberties loop at Frankford-Delaware, where bus shuttles continued on to Richmond-Westmoreland along a wide variety of routes over the years as construction opened and closed various streets.
Then, in 2020, buses replaced all trolley service on the line, as only 4 of the PCC II’s could pass inspections, and while SEPTA tried to spin it by adding that the line would have another partial bustitution on the western half due to more construction, it’s still not a great situation… Trolleys are supposed to return by the end of this year, but it’s SEPTA, so who knows. It’s likely that they will return eventually, because of massive political pressure, though many transit enthusiasts have no faith at all in their return.
Fares are the standard $2 with SEPTA Key, including one free transfer and $1 for the next transfer, or $2.50 with cash, with no transfers. Free transfers are available to the MFL and BSL at 15th Street, and to the MFL at 15th and 30th Streets.
The subway surface lines each average about 12,000 riders per weekday, from 11,328 on the 10 on the low end to 13,201 riders on the 13 on the high end. Frankly, this is rather low, coming in at only the 15th busiest light rail system in North America,8 especially given the relative size of the system.9 The 15 comes in at an unimpressive 8,163 riders per weekday, though I suppose these low numbers are to be expected for Philadelphia, where the streetcar lines are less of major transit corridors than other cities, and more of just streetcar lines that happened to not have been converted to buses.
Stations in the tunnel have surprisingly few amenities other than a few benches and wastebaskets, often with no fare machine and fare gates only at a few stations.
From Horsecars to Electric Streetcars — Slowly
As always with the urban first-gen streetcar systems, we start with the horsecar system. The first horsecar line, of the Philadelphia and Delaware River Railroad,10 began operation on January 20, 1858 and ran from the Kensington to the Southwark neighborhoods of Philly,11 down the one-way pairs of 5th and 6th Streets. And as you can see, this was no railroad, so they soon changed their name to the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railroad Company.12
One of the next few companies to open up, on December 24, 1858, was the Philadelphia and Darby Railway Company, running down Woodland Avenue to Darby along the route of today’s 11. By 1859, at least 15 different companies had been incorporated, supposedly making it apparent that this “unrestricted competition” led to “unsatisfactory” service, so a “Board of Presidents of Street Railway Companies” was established, increasing cooperation13 between companies, and lasting until the formal merger of many of those companies into the Union Traction Company in 1895.
Also, because Philly, Sunday service started in 1867.14
Of the other forms of power explored before electric streetcars were: steam dummies, and cable cars! Steam dummies are essentially steam engines used on streetcar-type routes, usually with a exterior that looks like a coach instead of a locomotive, supposedly to be less likely to “frighten horses”. A line was opened from Kensington north to Frankford in 1863, as well as another line in 1877 down Market St from the Delaware River to the Exhibition Buildings at Fairmount Park. They were unpopular, and a year later they were determined to be too expensive, and removed.
In 1883, the uh… “Philadelphia Traction Company” was formed to convert horsecars to… cable cars.15 This system was… rather a failure, due to using their own unproven cable car systems, where the conduits froze shut. They were persistent though, so after opening (and closing) their first line on Columbia Ave to Fairmount Park, they reopened the line and another one on Market St in 1885. Finally, they gave up, and turned to electric streetcars, acquiring16 the Catherine & Bainbridge Street Passenger Railway Company, opening in 1892, finally bringing in the age of electric streetcars to Philly. The last horsecar ran in 1897.
In 1895, the Philadelphia Traction Company, People’s Traction Company, and Electric Traction Company and their 30+ subsidiaries were leased by the newly created Union Traction Company. 1898 saw continued mergers with some of the smaller streetcar companies, and the lease became a formal merger in 1899.
Of course, a city as major as Philly couldn’t survive with only a streetcar system, so in 1902, the Union Traction Company merged into the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company for the purpose of constructing the Market Street El. As part of this project, many of the streetcar lines feeding into Center City from West Philadelphia were to join the MFL in a tunnel from 19th Street to 15th Street. Beyond 19th, both rose onto an elevated structure with a stop at 24th Street, and then a dedicated bridge over the Schuylkill to get to 30th Street, where all the streetcar lines split off from the MFL. Streetcar service in the tunnel began in 1905, with full MFL service from Center City to 69th beginning in 1907.
Meanwhile, streetcar lines were also extending west into Delaware County, creating streetcar suburbs, which would become the famous Red Arrow Lines, today’s 101/102.
However, the PRT and its “secretive” and “grossly unpopular” leadership was struggling to pay off its loans for the Market Street line, and multiple strikes took place demanding higher wages. In 1909, with riders fighting higher fares and workers fighting for higher wages, a strike on May 29th turned violent, with people putting dynamite on tracks, and uprooting catenary poles, leaving the system in ruins. After another strike in 1910, and the president of the company dying of a heart attack at his clubhouse, Thomas Mitten17 took over the company.
He immediately started modernizing the system, ordering new cars, known as “Nearside Cars”, which were custom-designed and built by Brill, lasting until around 1955. Their name apparently came from the fact that these cars, unlike previous cars, would stop at the near side of the intersection instead of the far side. 1500 cars, numbered 6000-7499, were ordered between 1911 and 1913, an insane amount. They were designed with only front doors,18 but 1160 of the cars had a center door added from 1919 to 1921, using a Peter-Witt style fare collection system rather than a conventional one. They were also used in Buffalo and Chicago, on lines also owned by Mitten.
The first trackless trolleys in the city ran on Oregon Ave in 1923, and in 1926, Mitten apparently purchased the cab company in the city as well.
Things went well until the 1929, when some questionable things going on in the business led to the City of Philadelphia filing a lawsuit to investigate the finances of the company. It didn’t help that Mitten drowned in a lake in upstate Pennsylvania soon after. After numerous and lengthy court proceedings, the company declared bankruptcy in 1934.
In 1930, work had started on extending the subway-surface and MFL tunnel from 23rd Street, under the river, to 30th Street and beyond, with a new Market Street Bridge to be constructed in tandem, now that the elevated structure could be removed. Market Street was raised about 12 feet to allow the PRR’s tracks at 30th Street to pass under, but, due to a lack in funding, Philly never got around to burying the elevated. This resulted in an awkward time where streetcar tracks were installed on the Market Street Bridge but streetcars never operated, because of the elevated just overhead not giving enough clearance.
Not much happened to streetcars during this time, with rapid transit extensions the main thing going on. The Broad Street Line was completed from Olney Transportation Center to City Hall in 1928, and was then extended down to Snyder in stages, from 1930 to 1938. In 1936, the PRT started operating today’s PATCO route across the Ben Franklin Bridge over to Camden.
Just before its demise, in 1938, the PRT brought in PCCs, which would rule the system until the 1980s. On January 1st, 1940, the PRT was merged into the Philadelphia Transportation Company, along with a few other small urban trolley companies.
The PTC continued ordering new PCCs, and while again not exactly doing a whole lot with its streetcar routes, was consistently expanding its much-needed rapid transit network, here with the BSL south to what is today NRG Station, until 1955… when the National City Lines19 came in…
So, the National City Lines was this gigantic holding company buying up transit agencies all across the company, which would be great, because nationalization is needed in the US, except for the tiny fact that the NCL was owned by General Motors20 and a variety of oil and rubber companies. Of course, the NCL immediately began cutting streetcar routes, and replacing them with buses. 24 lines were abandoned between 1955 and 1957, and over 1000 new buses were ordered in that timeframe. As was the case across the country, the Subway-Surface lines survived because of their downtown tunnel, though Philly was lucky enough to retain some other surface streetcars, apparently because of the structure of the PTC board allowing for local representation.21
The 31, 37, and 38 were bustituted in 1955-1956, which were the final routes to run into the subway-surface tunnel other than the routes that survive today.
After construction was restarted in 1946, in 1955, the subway-surface tunnel (and the MFL) was finally extended from 19th Street under the Schuylkill River to 40th Street and 36th Street Portals.
In the 1960s, SEPACT, or the SouthEastern PennslyvAnia transportation CompacT22 was formed, the first truly regional public authority in the area. Its goal was initially just to coordinate public transportation in the area, This became SEPTA, or the SouthEastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in 1964, which took control over the PTC in 1968, as public transportation became unprofitable and private companies turned into public ones.
One of the first things SEPTA did was… convert another line to buses, this time the 47, initially due to construction, but eventually it became a permanent change as… well, it was still the era of cars.23
Next, the 60 was rather abruptly bustituted without much advance notice in 1977. Bustitutions continued throughout the 1980’s often against the will of the public, which is surprising given that it was the 80’s at this point and I would think that public transit had regained some focus by then.
New Kawasaki cars were finally ordered in 1981-1982, to finally replace the PCCs that had been running for ~40 years at this point. However, apparently SEPTA only ordered them for the subway-surface lines, which didn’t bode well for the other surviving streetcar lines, which continued to rely on PCCs. Why? As the answer to anything in Philadelphia is, because SEPTA being incompetent.
The 15, 23, and 56 were “suspended” in 1992, and, of course, were pretty much abandoned. Supposedly they were suspended because buses could go around obstacles, unlike streetcars,24 in addition to the aging PCCs being rather outdated. It was less of the fact that they were not functioning, as SEPTA had enough spares to keep them running, but they were just ancient at this point. SEPTA set a date of 1997 for when new trolleys would restore trolley service to these routes.
In 1997, the City Council of Philadelphia held a hearing with SEPTA and advocates to discuss the future of these lines. The plan changed to first restoring only the 15, using Kawasaki cars after ordering some new articulated cars to supplement the subway-surface fleet. It was then decided that new LRVs would be too expensive, so SEPTA decided to restore PCCs to operate on the line instead. In 2001, Brookville overhauled 18 1947/1948 PCCs, adding wheelchair lifts.
A short fight with the residents of 59th Street later,25 trolley service was restored to Girard Ave on September 4, 2005.
Despite spending millions to restore track and wire along the routes of all 3 routes, only the 15 returned, and a good amount of 23 and 56 trackage has now been paved over, so despite their “temporarily suspended” status, they are pretty much gone forever.
One big piece of the future is buying modern LRVs that, you know, are actually accessible.26 Recently, SEPTA released a rebranding proposal, called SEPTA Metro, which would rename the trolley routes separately from the bus routes they were once so similar to, instead giving them a “T” prefix and then numbering them sequentially, so the T1, T2, and so on, from north to south. The 15 is special, so it apparently get its own prefix, becoming the G1, the only line to start with G.27
Other than that rebranding, there is the lofty and long awaited Trolley Modernization, a general plan to buy new, modern, low-floor, articulated vehicles, implement some stop consolidation, an updated fare collection system, improve stops, and possibly get some transit priority. I really have not seen any progress whatsoever on this, other than SEPTA using it as an excuse to do trolley “blitzes” where they shut down entire lines for weeks of construction.
How does this massive yet despite decidedly shrunken network hold up?
Frequency: Headways are pretty good, considering how far out some of the trolleys go, with only the 20 minute Sunday headways really feeling pretty bad. The branches are not coordinated at all, leading to extremely inconsistent headways on the trunk, though there’s not much SEPTA can do about that given how different each of the branches are. Frequencies on the 15 are also pretty good, considering its long route and limited rolling stock, and it’s great that it offers more consistent headways on weekends compared to the more suburban subway-surface lines.
Intermodality: There are plenty of bus connections, given how these lines run in the city, free transfers to the MFL at 30th and 13th Streets, in addition to a free transfer to the BSL at 15th Street. There’s also an underground concourse connecting to the PATCO Speedline a few blocks away at Locust, and to the Regional Rail lines at Suburban and Jefferson. There is a bit of overlap with Regional Rail lines, most notably at 49th Street and Angora on the Media/Elwyn line, but it is definitely less prominent than some other cases in Philly.
The 15 connects to the 10 at the intersection of Lancaster and Girard, in addition to crossing a ton of north-south bus routes and the BSL at Girard, and the MFL at… Girard.28
Character: This is a fairly standard low floor streetcar subway, only really being weird in it not being accessible at all. Once you exit the tunnel though, the lines are almost entirely street running, which is surprising, given the American dislike of street running. At nearly all stops on these lines, the trolley stops in the middle of the street, and you have to walk out to it to board. Coming from Boston, it’s surprising to see such a substantial street running network still remaining in Philly. The only exceptions are roughly a third of the 15 having islands at intersections, and the short median-running section of the 36 at the end of its route.
All of the streets that the trolleys run on are a mix of residential and commercial, and, other than the 15, all of them are pretty narrow, with most a parking lane and a shared trolley/travel lane in each direction, with some streets having incredibly dangerous bike lanes as well. From Lancaster Ave to I-95, other than that short section by Girard College, Girard Ave has a shared trolley/travel lane and another travel lane.
Also, since we are in Philly, stop spacing is again extremely questionable outside of the tunnel, with each line consistently stopping no less than every block. I hoped that the extra infrastructure for island platforms could increase the 15’s stop spacing a bit, but no, the 15 is just as bad as all of the others.
These trolleys are… not very reliable. Given the narrow streets these trolleys run on, service can often be dramatically impacted by accidents, construction, or simply double parking. Stopping every single block doesn’t help with their reliability either, when they are running.
The extensive street running and the rather terrible amenities in the subway give this system Streetcar with
hole-in-the-ground Streetcar Subway. The ridiculous terrible-ness of this system has been haunting me since starting to research this post, from the lack of shelters or benches anywhere at surface level besides terminals, to the endless construction diversions, to the constant delays from cars blocking the tracks, to the few undergound stations with fare control or real-time departure information. At least a glimmer of hope remains with Trolleymod.29
The images have been credited to their respective owners in the caption of each image
Due to the unprofessional nature of this blog, sources will be cited in a simple manner, with no formats yet. Sources used are:
- SEPTA’s website
- SEPTA’s “Real-time” website
- Google Maps
- Internet Archive
- ISEPTAPHILLY on How to Ride a Trolley
- Philly Trolley Tracks
- Philadelphia Encyclopedia
- Darby History
- SNAC Cooperative
- Miles in Transit
- Cable Car Guy on Cable Cars in Pennsylvania
- USHistory.org on Railroad Transportation in Philadelphia
- Summer 2021 Queen Village Quarterly Crier
- Electric City Trolley Museum on Nearside Cars
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- UPenn History on Electric Streetcars and the PRT
- Philly Magazine update on Route 15
- Hidden Philly on Cable Cars
- PhillyHistory.org Digital Collections
- SF Market Street Railway collection
- Transportation Research Board on Restoration of 15
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