Greater PRT

What might have been. Rapid Transit in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s Subway Surface Lines

Greater PRT started looking into the history of Philadelphia’s Subway Surface Subway lines, in part because the name itself will make your brain melt. From the city that gave you Street Road, of course there is a Subway Surface Tunnel that doesn’t carry subways, but trolleys. Are you following? Really? Because have you seen the maps? Below is the current trolley map which primarily shows the Subway Surface lines.

2018 SEPTA Subway Surface Map
SEPTA’s current trolley line map including Subway Surface routes and the Route 15 Trolley on Girard Avenue

The map is bad. It’s busy, doesn’t convey any idea of where the trolleys run in the physical world, and if you wanted to connect to anything but the Market-Frankford Line, well good luck.

Official SEPTA System Map

But short shrifting the trolley lines isn’t just a fault of the route line map. On the official SEPTA system map, subway-surface trolleys only rate a couple of arrows and some cramped text, representing five lines. Hardly appropriate for a system with more than 71,000 riders per weekday.

This isn’t exactly a new problem. SEPTA’s 1982 map wasn’t much better, though it did at least acknowledge that the trolleys did indeed run down streets.

1982 SEPTA Subway-Surface (Green Lines) car map
1982 SEPTA Subway-Surface In-Car Map

For one shining moment, the subway surface lines did get their due. Check out this 1978 diagram that deftly shows routes, intersecting bus routes and the avenues the trolleys traverse. And yes, it’s in purple, the formerly preferred color for SEPTA’s trolley lines.

1978 SEPTA Subway-Surface Lines
1978 SEPTA Subway-Surface Lines (via Free Library of Philadelphia)

This 1978 diagram is the earliest Subway-Surface map Greater PRT has been able to find. Surprising, since the lines that use the tunnel pre-date the 1907 opening of the Market Street subway. But prior to SEPTA, and the conversion of so many of Philadelphia’s trolley lines to bus, the subway-surface lines that used the tunnel from West Philadelphia to 13th and Filbert, weren’t differentiated from other trolley lines in the city. Thus, they are only seen on standard system maps like this 1944 PTC Map.

1944 PTC Map - Center City and West Philadelphia
1944 PTC Map – phillytrolley.org

But then and now, the trolley lines that use the subway-surface trolley, deserve more attention. Check out Greater PRT’s Subway-Surface Tunnel Timeline.

Trolley Subway Tunnel Timeline

  • 1905
    • Route 31 Trolley from Overbrook Park is the first line routed through the Subway-Surface tunnel at 24th and Market Streets to City Hall on December 15, 1905. Two years before the Market Street subway began operation.
    • As many as nine routes run through the tunnel.
    • The original opening of the tunnel was near 24th Street. Trolleys ran across the Schuylkill River at street level on Market Street.
  • 1907
    • Market Street Subway opens, using the same Subway-Surface tunnel that the trolleys used.
  • 1930
    • Construction on Schuylkill River tunnel begins.
  • 1933
    • Schuylkill River tube is completed. Interference from the Great Depression would create a 32-year delay until the underwater crossing was opened to subway and trolley traffic.
  • 1936
    • Market Street Subway is rerouted directly under City Hall. Trolley cars are rerouted to the former train loop, freeing the trolley loop to be repurposed as a piece of Philadelphia’s extensive subterranean concourse network, which it remains till today.
  • 1946
    • 37 Trolley (Chester Short Line) stops using the tunnel after a fire destroys Crum Creek Bridge in Delaware County.
  • 1947
    • Plans to connect West Philadelphia to the trolley tunnel initially have a single portal at 36th and Ludlow. 11, 34 and 37 trolleys would have then traveled southbound along an widened 36th Street to Woodland Avenue.
Market Street Highspeed and Surface-Car Subway Extensions - 1955 Philadelphia Inquirer
Final trolley alignment – September 7, 1955 Philadelphia Inquirer
  • 1955
    • The subway tunnel under the Schuylkill River into West Philadelphia opens.
    • Four lines utilize the new tunnel, the 10, 11, 34 and 37.
    • Trolleys often took more than 30 minutes to go from 40th and Woodland to 15th and Market Streets, the underground trip shaves the 2.2 mile distance down to less than ten minutes.
    • New underground trolley stops open along Market Street at 22nd Street and 30th Street.
    • The trolley tunnel extends southwest along the former Woodland Avenue with underground stations at 33rd Street (between Market and Ludlow), 36th Street (at Sansom Street) and 37th Street (at Spruce Street).
    • The Route 10 Trolley gets its own portal at 36th and Ludlow.
    • The subway extension causes the closure of the 24th Street Station on Market, right before the trolley tunnel used to rise to surface.
    • Several lines including the 37 and 38 are converted to bus service.
  • 1975
    • October 22nd fire at Woodland Avenue Depot destroys 59 trolleys, nearly half were cars used by the Subway-Surface lines. The Route 11 is temporarily replaced by bus.
    • By the end of the year, trolleys are taken from the Route 56 line to replenish the 21 trolley cars that previously serviced the 11. The 56 trolley, which ran on Erie and Torresdale Avenues is converted to bus service.
  • 1980
    • Free interchange among Subway-Surface lines and both the Broad Street Subway and Market-Frankford El is implemented. Yes, it took till 1980 to get a free interchange between trolley and subway.
  • 1981
    • First of 112 Kawasaki Series 100 LRV vehicles begin service, replacing aging PCC fleet.
  • 1997
    • SEPTA lands new trolley tunnel signaling system in exchange for dropping lawsuit against Market-Frankford El car manufacturer, Adtranz for late delivery of those cars.
  • 2005
    • Trolley-control system negotiated as part of Market-Frankford cars coming in late is finally put in service.
  • 2015
    • SEPTA announces trolley modernization plan that would include new cars, fewer stops, station shelters, handicapped and accessibility.
2017 SEPTA Trolley Ridership
2017 Daily weekday ridership of SEPTA’s Trolley lines (via Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • 2017
    • 5 of the 10 most used SEPTA lines are trolleys.
  • 2018
    • 40th Street Trolley Portal Gardens opens at 40th and Woodland Avenue with green space, landscaping and café building.
  • 2020
    • Funds have been identified to hash out light rail vehicle specifications, to design preliminary trolley station concepts and to investigate potential funding sources.
  • 2021
    • Kawasaki trolleys will turn 40. No timeline for construction of replacement vehicles has been proposed.
SEPTA LRV Concept 2017 DVRPC
2017 SEPTA LRV Concept (via DVRPC)

Subway-Surface Expansion Plans

Westward expansion of the subway-surface tunnel has not been seriously floated, from the original planning to today, the trolley lines emerge past West Philadelphia’s most congested streets. Eastward expansion on the other hand has been pitched with varying degrees of seriousness since the early 20th Century. Most often as a second “surface car tunnel” along Chestnut Street.

Market Street expansion has been more of 21st Century consideration.

  • 2007
    • As part of a proposal to extend PATCO service, the Delaware River Port Authority included extending SEPTA’s subway-surface line underground along Market Street to Front Street. From there, the trolley line would cross I-95 and continue southbound in the median of Delaware Avenue (Columbus Boulevard). The tracks would extend south to Pier 70 near Mifflin Street. The cost would have been one billion dollars in 2007 and the line could be extended to the stadium complex and Navy Yard.
  • 2008
    • In 2008 that DRPA plan added another alternative to its 2007 plan, extending the trolley tunnel north from Filbert Street to Arch Street. From there the underground trolley lines would turn east and head to Franklin Square and then towards Delaware Avenue. From there, the line would stretch north to Penn Treaty Park and the then SugarHouse Casino. Like the 2007 plan, the trolley would loop around the Pier 70 shopping complex in South Philadelphia. Further extensions to the stadiums and Navy Yard were also included.

SEPTA Introduces Transit Map Tuesday

SEPTA is redesigning its transit maps and way-finding systems. As part of the effort, the transit authority is sharing some SEPTA maps done in the style of other transit systems from around the world in a feature they’re calling Transit Map Tuesday.

The work is evidently being done by SEPTA’s Strategic Planning intern and they have done a fine job through two weeks. For week one, the inspiration was the iconic Transport for London’s Tube map. That’s been followed up with Boston’s MBTA map, and includes frequent bus lines in addition to the rapid transit lines.

Each map includes the rapid transit line of the Broad Street Subway, Market Frankford Line, PATCO, Trolley Lines, Norristown High Speed Line, Suburban Trolleys and Regional Rail. The MBTA map is more city focused, including higher frequency bus lines and including arrows toward suburban regional rail destinations.

The density of the London inspired map feels light, but that may say more about just how much public transit London offers over Philadelphia than anything else. The Boston map feels workable, with the exception of the Norristown High Speed Line and suburban trolleys being rendered in blue. But that is more an homage to Boston, that a practical choice for Philadelphia.

It’s exciting to see how these experiments continue and what it all means for Philadelphia. It’s promising that at least the intern is getting a firm grasp on the state of transit maps across the world.

Free Transfers A Dream We All Dream of

Abolishing paid transfers has become a rallying cry of progressive transit advocates in Philadelphia, #freetransfers is the rallying cry. “The transfer is regressive” spout transportation pundits. They point out that the transfer hurts poorer people most because the cost hits the pocket harder and low income sections of the city require more transfers to reach job centers, taxing the poor even more.

What would you say if I told you there was a city employee who was devoted to eliminating transfer penalties and ensuring “the advantages of rapid transit will be extended as equally as practicable to every front door in Philadelphia. ” And what would you say if I told you that proposal dated back to November of 1914?

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Walking Under Market Street Has Been a Thing for More Than a Century

Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg successfully navigated the path from the just opened Fashion District all the way to the glistening Comcast Technology Center. There were some missteps along the way but in the end she made it.

It’s a trek I’ve made numerous times in my youth and wanted to do myself since the Gallery reopened (lets face it, it’ll always be the Gallery). So I’m a bit jealous Winberg beat me to it. But if I cannot be first to document the journey, I’m happy to share some history of the path.

The underground passageways date back to the opening of the Market Street Subway in 1903. Back in those early days (and even much later), Market Street stores utilized the concourses with display windows and entrances to their shops. Into the 1960s, Gimbels promoted Tuesday sales in its “Gimbels Subway Store.”

As a hoarder of Philadelphia transit maps and photographs I have some items to share from a 1908 book on the Market Frankford Line. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been great about documenting where I found these images. So if anyone knows where the source material was, I’d appreciate the insight.

This 1908 photograph shows live plants, patriotic bunting and window displays in the subway concourse.

Further along the concourse, John Wanamaker’s approach to concourse was just as welcoming.

The view to the concourse from inside the basement of John Wanamaker’s

Winberg also mentions the three metal tunnels with the low headroom at 11th Street. I’ve always wondered about that configuration. Unfortunately, this photo from 1908 doesn’t really explain the peculiar configuration.

Triple staircase before it was wrapped in stainless steel

Though the term bargain basement began at the base of department stores, postcards of the time prove it wasn’t solely a place for bargain shoppers.

1910 postcard of window display for department store in Philadelphia

The concourses may feel like an undocumented space but maps do exist. The most recent versions designed by the Center City District but others date back to at least 1936.

As the above maps show, at one time you could make your way north, all the way to Race Street, but those passageways, once accessible via Suburban Station have been closed off.

I’ll be on the lookout for a comprehensive map that illustrates just how one could walk from 8th and Chestnut to the Four Seasons atop the Comcast Technology Center without crossing a single intersection. From underground to above the clouds. Sounds like a good walk.

SEPTA Updates Frequency Map

Back in February SEPTA updated its bus map, attempting to show regional rail, subway, elevated rail, trolleys and buses all on the same map. Additionally the map showed frequency of bus transit via color and thickness of lines. SEPTA then asked for comment on the new maps to flavor the next round of maps.

Today, the transit agency released maps that took into account that feedback and some significant changes have been made.

The rail lines now more closely resemble the existing map and the Center City insert now includes the subway stops but still not the actual lines.

Personally I’d prefer the lines be represented on the inset but I do understand the attempt to streamline the amount of information shown.

SEPTA gets bold with new transit map [WHYY]
SEPTA Frequency Map v2 [png]

SEPTA Unveils Frequency Map

Just a little more than three years after a private citizen produced a frequent service map for SEPTA, the agency has a frequency map of its own. Coming on the heels of updating its frequent bus routes from 10 to 19 (buses with a headway of less than 15 minutes) the map is the agency’s first attempt at a newly styled bus map in decades.

It’s actually two maps that have been released. The first is a new system map showing the 80+ bus routes that connect with the city of Philadelphia. The most frequent routes are shown in red, the routes that run every thirty minutes or less are in teal and those that run every 60 minutes or less are denoted in gray.

The maps are posted to SEPTA’s website and a survey is provided for feedback. This is the latest step in SEPTA’s reworking of its bus network.

15-15-5 Networks [SEPTA]
Frequency Map [png]

Better Line Maps for SEPTA

The overall SEPTA system map has long been maligned as a “blobby mess.” Transit Maps gave the 2011 edition of the map a stinging one-and-a-half star rating.

SEPTA should feel lucky that no one has rated their line maps for the Broad Street line or Market-Frankford line. These are abominations in their own right. No consistency with the overall system map, confusing letters, colors and variable thickness in lines all gather to lessen the usability of the system.

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Why Isn’t There a Stop Between 15th and 30th Street on the Market Frankford Line?

broad street station chinese wall

One of the more puzzling things about the Market Frankford Line is the lack of a station between 15th and 30th Street stations. Especially when you consider that today, all of the city’s tallest office buildings are clustered between 17th and 20th Streets, along Market. After all there are 5 stops east of 15th along Market. Then none west of 15th until the the subway crosses under the Schuylkill River to 30th Street.

To understand how this happened, you have to understand the topography of Philadelphia when the El was constructed. The might Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station brought passengers from across the region to Philadelphia via a viaduct that ran adjacent to Market Street. The two-story tall viaduct was known as the “Chinese Wall” to locals and with its noisy, smoking trains and dark underpasses, left the area west of Broad as an undesirable address.

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