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 cafĂ© 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.