SEPTA: The Trolleys


SEPTA PCC trolley car

The unique trolley system of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, SEPTA for those in the know.

There are three types of trolleys in Philadelphia:  The single-ended Kawasaki SE light rail vehicles on the subway-surface lines, the double-ended Kawasaki DE light rail vehicles on the Media-Sharon Hill lines, and the St. Louis Car PCCs rebuilt by Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania for the streetcar along Girard Avenue.

Back in the days, especially up to the 1950s and 1960s, the Philadelphia transit system was operated by the Philly Transportation Company, or PTC for short.  Its system comprised mainly of streetcars, with buses slowly replacing streetcars in the 1960s, that traveled along nearly every major street in the city.  We see that today, most of SEPTA’s system is local buses with a few trolley lines, quite the opposite from the PTC days.  Here’s an interesting fact:  PTC’s trolley lines were numbered routes (such as the #23 via Germantown Avenue and #61 via Ridge Avenue) and motorbus routes were lettered routes (such as the R via Hunting Park Avenue and the old C via Broad Street).  Most of the trolley lines were converted to buses, with the exception of routes 10, 11, 13, 15, 34, 36, 101, and 102.  Most of today’s numbered bus routes were former trolley routes, and many of today’s lettered bus routes never changed to numbers.

The 10, 11, 13, 34, and 36 were rerouted in the 1900s from the streets of Center City (Downtown Philadelphia to Philadelphians) to a subway tunnel beneath Market Street, mainly to take advantage of electric traction power.  All of the other lines remained on the surface.  The current lines use the Kawasaki SE cars (9000s and 9100s) built in the early 1980s.  Prior to the Kawasaki cars, these lines (along with other former subway-surface lines, some of which are bus routes now) operated the PCC type car, similar to what is found on the #15 line.  Some of the mechanical characteristics of the PCC were carried over to the Kawasakis such as the wheel profile, the high-floor design, and the traction power underneath.  All five lines operate in a tunnel from 13th and Market to 30th Street Station, where the #10 splits off and goes to 63rd and Malvern.  The other 4 lines operate from 30th Street Station to the 40th Street Portal at 40th and Woodland.  Once there, the #34 continues on the surface at nearby Baltimore Avenue, the #36 continues down Woodland Avenue to Elmwood and Eastwick, the #11 and #13 continue to Darby Transportation Center.  When the tunnel is closed, there is what’s called the “Diversion Route” which takes all five routes off their main route and over to the 40th Street Station on the Market-Frankford El line for continuing service into Center City.

Over in Darby, at the 69th Street Terminal on the Market-Frankford Line, we have two light rail lines, nicknamed the MESH lines, for MEdia and Sharon Hill, Routes 101 and 102.  The 101 and 102 use the Kawasaki DE cars (the 100 series) built in the early 1980s.  These two routes as well as two current bus routes made up the former “Red Arrow” system operated by the Philadelphia and West Chester Railroad system.  Route 103 is a bus route that runs along the Ardmore busway, which was formerly a trolley right-of-way, and Route 104 is the West Chester Pike bus, converted from trolleys in the mid-1950s due to street widening projects.  The 101 and 102 remain rail-based due to its right of way being exclusive to a point where trying to substitute it with bus service would have required an expensive busway or a winding service pattern.  Route 101 goes to Media via Springfield Mall, and Route 102 goes to Sharon Hill via Clifton-Aldan.

Route 15 is a City of Philadelphia project, revitalizing neighborhoods in North Philadelphia along Girard Avenue.  It was an original PTC trolley line until SEPTA converted it to buses.  After years and years of Philadelphia trying to revitalize the neighborhoods along Girard and SEPTA trying to minimize their operating costs by homogenizing their mainly bus system, the #15 was restored and 18 PCCs were salvaged and rebuilt with modern amenities like air conditioning and electronic destination signs.  Most #15 trolleys terminate near the Sugar House casino, while others continue to Westmoreland Loop.  The line runs in the median of Girard Avenue throughout its entire length, past Girard College and terminates at 63rd and Girard, with a transfer point at Lancaster and Girard for connections to Route 10.

What I like about the subway-surface lines is the fact that closer to Center City you have a subway-like feel akin to the Market-Frankford line, while away from Center City you enter suburb-like neighborhoods.  Even though some parts of these lines might be less than desirable to walk through, you do have good stretches of a few lines worth seeing such as the #11 towards Mount Moriah and the #36 past Elmwood.  The 40th Street Portal is a web of rails that can take a trolley down to Center City, out to the suburbs, or to the Diversion route.  Woodland Avenue is a rather pleasant street with residences, woods, and college institutions, with a small-town feel.  What I am not too fond of is the condition of the cars looking dated save for the rollsigns changed out to LED destination signs.  There was talk about an upgrade to the fleet, one that would increase the capacity of the system but with cars that can negotiate the many tight turns in the subway.  Aside from the numerous delays with the signal system upgrade in the tunnel, not much has been said about a new car fleet.  Some stations need work as well, with leaks, dinginess, broken platform tiles, and other cosmetic issues, commonplace in older subway systems.  13th Street/Juniper just got some upgrades recently; what about some of the other major stations?

I personally love the fact that after Drexel Hill Junction, both the 101 and 102 have their own right-of-way, cutting through backyards, woods, parks, and other unused space.  Trains cross streets at grade and at perpendicular or near-perpendicular crossings, with some parts of the line having a single-track operation much like NJ Transit’s RiverLINE.  This is also one of my pet peeves with the MESH lines, but since the 101 and 102 are relatively light compared to the combined sections, the single track doesn’t affect operations as much as it would on the RiverLINE.  The condition of the DE’s isn’t nearly as bad as the SE fleet, though work needed to be done as the cars are just about 30 years old.

As for Route 15, the PCC nostalgia, though lost in a way due to its modern amenities, is still fresh for those who love PCCs.  It still is a PCC, but with air conditioning, a wheelchair lift, LED destination signs, and other upgrades to the original St. Louis Car bodies from the 1940s.  There are new developments popping up along Girard Avenue, together with street pavings, City pressure on SEPTA to cooperate, and the Sugar House Casino drawing ridership and driving up property values.  Not many issues with the route, other than the constant construction going on past Frankford Avenue and having commonplace accidents that cause the line to be substituted by buses, like the line was for many years almost permanently.  Other than that, no real complaints.

Philadelphia doesn’t have the most modern trolley system, or the most extensive system, but it has its diversity fleet-wise, operations-wise, and scenery-wise.  There is no shortage of entertainment on this system, whether it’s people, scenery, or track schematics.

Let’s keep going with this…

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