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Route to the Future

One daughter under her arm, another by her side, Yashika McKnight struggled to carry a collapsed pink stroller up the trolley's steep steps before its doors closed.

A trolley car undergoes maintenance at SEPTA's repair facility on Callowhill Street in West Philadelphia. Most American cities shifted from trolleys to buses decades ago, but Philadelphia has a century-old tunnel that lets several trolley lines bypass Center City traffic gridlock.
A trolley car undergoes maintenance at SEPTA's repair facility on Callowhill Street in West Philadelphia. Most American cities shifted from trolleys to buses decades ago, but Philadelphia has a century-old tunnel that lets several trolley lines bypass Center City traffic gridlock.Read moreCharles Mostoller/For The Inquirer

One daughter under her arm, another by her side, Yashika McKnight struggled to carry a collapsed pink stroller up the trolley's steep steps before its doors closed.

She put her daughters, Faatimah, 5, and Saajidah, 20 months, in seats and caught her breath as the Route 34 trolley - a white Kawasaki streetcar that dates to the Reagan presidency three decades ago - pulled away from the underground stop in Center City. They were heading on a recent day to the dentist from home in Philadelphia's Olney neighborhood.

"They need a newer trolley system," a frustrated McKnight said. "They need one badly."

SEPTA, operator of 159 trolley cars in the city and Delaware County, agrees. The regional transportation agency plans to spend about $700 million between now and 2027 to modernize the city's trolley network and buy about 100 new cars. The network serves 31.9 million passengers a year with routes in West Philadelphia, along Girard Avenue, and in Delaware County. Although much smaller than 30 years ago, Philadelphia's trolley network is still the largest in the United States, with 68 track miles.

The future, SEPTA officials said, could include fewer trolley stops, passenger shelters at many stops, and the fleet of new cars.

Bigger, faster, and more accessible, new trolley cars would carry up to 100 people comfortably, compared with today's 75-person capacity, officials said. And there would be no more steps and narrow doors that make boarding a trolley a chore for child-toting parents such as McKnight, and almost impossible for many with disabilities. SEPTA hopes to start using new trolley cars in five years, officials said.

This can be "transformational" for the 8 percent to 10 percent of SEPTA riders who use trolleys, said Rich Burnfield, the agency's deputy general manager.

The streetcar fleet is well past its street life. SEPTA bought the newest cars, the Kawasakis, in the early 1980s. In October of this year, there were 20 reported trolley car failures during 215,569 miles of travel, SEPTA reported. The most common recurring problem as the cars age involves the pneumatics, which keep windshield wipers, door openers, and brakes working. The oldest cars in the trolley fleet are 18 pill-shaped green streetcars, called Presidents' Conference Committee cars, that run on Girard Avenue. SEPTA bought them in 1948, but they were overhauled 10 years ago.

Most American cities shifted from trolleys to buses decades ago. A century-old tunnel, running from under 40th Street near Baltimore Avenue to City Hall, is the reason Philadelphia's trolleys endured.

Five of the region's eight trolley lines use the tunnel to speed under Center City traffic gridlock. The tunnel moves lots of people quickly. The turns are too sharp for buses so only trolleys can navigate them.

National trolley advocates say electric streetcars are sturdier than buses, can carry more people, and can last 50 years, instead of the 10 or 15 years a bus will run before needing significant repairs. About a dozen light rails, essentially the modern-day trolley lines, are being either expanded or created in the country right now, in response to choking congestion on the nation's highways and roads, said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif.

SEPTA, which is upgrading rather than building a new trolley network, is ahead of other cities.

"Your ability to modernize that system will cost a tiny fraction of what it would cost to build a new light-rail system," Diridon said. "It will still be much, much better than buses on the same road."

The new cars will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and will have no steps and floors close to the ground. That may require curb extensions into parking lanes at stops to allow trolley cars to pull alongside sidewalks. The sharp turns in Philadelphia's rails mean a standard car, which typically costs about $4 million, will need to be customized for the city, probably making each more expensive.

Aside from the age of existing cars, SEPTA officials are pursuing the modernization to respond to population growth along trolley routes, boost economic development, and increase access to public transportation. The population along the rails has increased 10 percent in the last five years, officials said.

"We all know that investing in infrastructure generates economic development and investment," Burnfield said.

Beneficiaries could include hospitals and their patients. Trolleys stop near University City medical centers such as Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and ADA compliance could "significantly impact the patients' lives and make the hospital and the clinics more available to them," said Adrian Popescu, assistant professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at Penn Medicine.

The downside of trolleys, though, is apparent after an hour riding on one of those old cars on Route 15 on Girard Avenue. On a recent December afternoon, an immobilized streetcar's horn blared. An unattended white pickup truck parked far from the curb near 26th Street blocked the trolley's path. On the standing-room-only trolley, midday travelers used cellphones to alert friends or colleagues that they would be late. Finally, a man came running to move the truck. Too late. The police had arrived. The trolley waited even longer for the officer to write a ticket before the truck finally moved.

"A car is better," said passenger Tony Lewis, 72, when the trolley began moving again after the 10-minute delay. "You don't have to wait for nobody."

Unlike trolleys using the 40th Street Portal, Route 15 is entirely at street level, sharing the road with automobiles, pedestrians, and buses. Without a dedicated lane, it doesn't take much to slow a trolley. City trolleys generally operate with an 80 percent on-time rate, even those that use the underground tunnel. Trolleys in Delaware County, with dedicated rights of way, have an on-time rate better than 90 percent.

Along with delays caused by poorly parked vehicles, SEPTA regularly repairs catenaries, elevated wires that provide trolleys' power, that are snagged by passing trucks. One of the worst sites for damaged catenaries, Richmond Street near I-95, is being improved through the state Department of Transportation's interstate expansion, but other wires also may have to be raised.

Marc Scribner, research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based free-market think tank, described trolleys as inflexible, similar to an elevator that runs horizontally.

He has publicly criticized one of the most troubled streetcar projects on the East Coast, a light rail built on H Street in Washington. Despite costing $200 million over the last decade, according to a recent Washington Post report, it has yet to begin carrying passengers.

Blocked tracks on the Route 15 trolley in Philadelphia are good arguments for buses, which can steer around parked cars, Scribner said. He admitted, though, that the 40th Street Portal in Philadelphia offered benefits that justified some trolleys.

"I think they should look route by route and see what they could possibly replace with bus routes," he said.

SEPTA says its legacy network makes it more like Toronto, where streetcars have been in the culture since the 19th century. The city has 259 streetcars, according to the Toronto Transit Commission, servicing 65 million riders annually. The city is in the midst of spending about $1 billion for 204 new streetcars. Staying with trolleys was an easy choice, said Steve Munro, a Toronto transportation activist.

"The number of buses you needed to replace the streetcars, it would have been wall-to-wall buses," Munro said.

Philadelphia, like Toronto, has a trolley culture.

Here in Philadelphia, we have strong trolley ridership, SEPTA's Burnfield said. "I think our situation makes investing" in our trolley network a "very strong case to continue to do that."

The transit agency has begun a feasibility study for the ambitious trolley project. It will be two to three years before SEPTA begins buying new streetcars, officials said.

On the Route 34 trolley that McKnight, 43, and her daughters were riding to the dentist, the streetcars were packed mostly with commuters. An average of 16,200 people ride this trolley on a weekday.

Shawn Richardson, 54, a program director for a nonprofit that finds work for people with disabilities, rode with earbuds firmly in place, listening to an Annie Lennox anthology. He's been riding trolleys for more than two years and prefers it to the long drive to Coatesville he used to make for another job.

"I read or just listen to music, trying to zone until I get where I'm going," he said. "It's the most civil ride in the morning."