Surveys & Opinions


Philadelphia Street Car System

by John Smatlak - RPR Consulting

Philadelphia's transit services (the nation's sixth largest) are operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority or "SEPTA" and include electrified regional and high-speed rail, subway, light rail, streetcar, bus and trolley bus services. Philadelphia is among the small group of North American cities that never completely eliminated streetcar service. Although the system shrank dramatically in size after World War II, a portion was retained and in the early 1980s, new vehicles were acquired to re-equip many of the remaining routes. Five routes operate from West Philadelphia into downtown through a 2.5 mile streetcar subway that was opened in 1907 and is shared with the heavy rail subway under Market Street. These five "subway-surface" lines operate as the "Green Line" and together carry more than 55,000 daily riders.
Concurrent with SEPTA's acquisition of 112 new broad-gauge streetcar vehicles in 1981-82, a like number of 1940's-era PCC cars were put through an extensive overhaul program. The overhaul program lasted through 1988 and the rebuilt PCCs continued to operate on the three surface-only streetcar routes until retirement in 1992. Still in reasonably good condition, most of the PCCs were then auctioned off, and a large number were purchased for resale or for use on vintage trolley operations around the country, most notably in San Francisco. Philadelphia initially retained approximately 50 cars.

Coincident with the retirement of the PCC fleet in 1992, SEPTA substituted buses for streetcars on the last three surface-only streetcar routes, although the tracks and overhead wire were left in place. Strong local pressure was applied to return the streetcars and in late 1997 plans were announced to reactivate Route 15-Girard Ave. Originally, service was to be provided by a fleet of new vehicles but budget concerns ultimately led to the decision to rebuild a fleet of PCC-type cars instead. Girard Ave. is an 8.4 mile long line that crosses the city north of downtown, serving a wide range of Philadelphia neighborhoods, including many which were badly in need of reinvestment. Residents and their elected representatives saw the streetcar as a catalyst for positive urban change and lobbied hard to bring it back.

In November 2001, SEPTA's board authorized a $23 million contract with Brookville Equipment Corp. of Brookville, PA for rebuilding 18 PCC cars at a per unit cost of $1.2 million. The Authority also obtained an option to rebuild a further eight cars at the same price. Brookville completely rebuilt the car bodies, equipped them with new trucks, added wheelchair lifts at the center doors, installed a more modern control system, and added air conditioning. Work on the cars was completed in 2004. Like the new Vintage Trolley replica cars being built for New Orleans, the remanufactured SEPTA "PCC II's" are essentially a new vehicle in a "classic" package.

Service on the re-equipped line did not begin until September of 2005 due to local political situation involving parking spots (see updates below). In addition to the Girard Ave. line, SEPTA also operated a small group of PCC cars on a seasonal "Holiday Trolley" operation, but that operation was discontinued in 2004. Here's a map of the six in-city trolley lines in operation today:

Today streetcar service continues on the five subway-surface routes plus Girard Ave. Given that the "new" Kawasaki streetcars are now 30 years old and not ADA-accessible, it seems certain that the current decade holds additional changes for the city's streetcar system. The system's aging infrastructure will present planners with some real challenges, including some of the sharpest curves of any of the world's streetcar systems at 35 feet (10.7 meters).

Mission Statement



City of





SEPTA Subway-Surface Trolley Routes

Route 15-Girard Ave.

Began Operation: 1907

Miles of Line: 40

Stations: frequent on-street stops

Org: transit agency

Schedule: daily

12/20/10- SEPTA is preparing to reroute the east end of the Route 15-Girard Ave. streetcar for a period of up to two years while PennDOT rebuilds the I-95 Girard Ave expressway inter-change. In late December the APTA Streetcar Subcommittee visited the con-struction site for the new trackage along Frankford Ave., including the terminus loop in front of the new Sugarhouse Casino project.



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