After my visit to New York City, where I visited Times Square and the new High Line Park (amongst other things), I moved on to Philadelphia, where one of my aims was to try out the South East Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) system. SEPTA is rather unique as it operates six different transit modes in the Metro Philadelphia area: diesel bus, trolley bus, streetcar, subway (and elevated), regional rail, and an unique interurban “high-speed” line. SEPTA runs a true legacy system – there’s very little new transit infrastructure at all in this city (apart from a downtown regional rail tunnel and a line to the airport, more on that below the fold), but a collection of different services melded into one. The only transit services in Philadelphia not operated by SEPTA are the commuter-subway PATCO Speedline to New Jersey as well as NJ Transit buses serving the communities on the other side of the Delaware River.
Most of the streetcars (called trolleys there) run in a partial subway downtown, much like the MBTA Green Line in Boston or the MUNI Metro in San Francisco, but two routes (the 101 and 102) are legacies of a suburban trolley system, and one, the 15-Girard, runs using restored PCC equipment.
Despite being purchased by National City Lines, the abandonment of Philly’s expansive trolley network was never completed. In the 1960s the state-formed SEPTA took over the NCL-owned Philadelphia Transportation Company. At the same time, it took over the responsibility for the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads’ commuter services and the various suburban services. In the 1970s, Philadelphia still had 6 surface trolley routes and 5 subway-surface routes, as well as two suburban trolleys; but by 1992, all surface routes were busituted, partly due to the deterioration of the PCC fleet.
In 2005, service resumed on the 15 Girard Route. The infrastructure was rebuilt (though all wire and tracks from the 1992 abandonment are all in place) and 18 PCCs were completely rebuilt, with modern interiors, wheelchair lifts, air conditioning (and sealed windows), and the historic PTC colour scheme. The streetcars service the near north end and Delaware River shore, a transitional area between the poorer North Philly and downtown, and an area of gentrification. Two other routes, the 56 Erie and 23 Germantown (perhaps the longest streetcar route in the United States), are pending reconstruction. Surface streetcars were not the only mode of transport in Philly to be abandoned and resurrected. Trolley buses (known there as “trackless trolleys”) replaced some streetcars in the 1940s and 1950s, but were scrapped in 2003. Last year, new trolley buses were returned to 3 of the 5 routes (the other two, served by a separate depot, were ignored). I, personally, would like to see trolley buses returned to Toronto, and Philadelphia at least provides some modern precedent to the restoration of this clean, efficient mode of transit.
SEPTA also operates an interesting regional rail system, of which most routes run on weekends and off-peak weekdays. All lines are electric, due to work done much by both the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads. A project completed in 1985 consolidated the two systems and saw a four track railway tunnel completed through the downtown core. With the trunking of regional lines together, there is a bit of a S-Bahn or RER style of operation, though schedules are quite inferior. A spur to the airport was constructed as well, allowing for an inexpensive, half-hourly, 20-minute direct ride from each airport terminal to the central city. Imagine GO Transit operating such an inexpensive, direct service off a short spur from an existing rail line. Wouldn’t that be lunacy?
Finally, the other thing to note is that in their downtown headquarters, SEPTA operates a small museum and a gift shop selling SEPTA-branded merchandise as well as books and general model railroading stuff and toys. An unrefurbished (but repainted) PCC car, historical maps and interpretive displays are on display. While the TTC may not be interested in running a full museum (the Halton County Railway Museum fills that role), a small museum like SEPTA’s or the MTA Museum Annex in Grand Central Station would be a great idea to include in the Union Station renovations to cater to tourists and local transit enthusiasts.
Below, a few more random pictures: