The last true stop for trolleys

Posted: April 08, 2012

Jake Blumgart?is a freelance reporter-researcher in Philadelphia

One hundred years ago, the United States was a trolley nation. In 1903, more than 30,000 miles of street railway wended their way through America's cities and towns. In the peak year of 1917, America had 72,911 electric streetcars, and total national ridership topped out in 1929 at 15.7 billion trips.

But the nation's affections were soon transferred to automobiles, which received extensive subsidies and lavish taxpayer outlays for roads. Railway and trolley companies remained heavily taxed and were forced to maintain artificially low fare rates. Many trolley companies sank into bankruptcy, and for a variety of reasons most streetcar lines were torn up and replaced with buses. Today, trolleys are unknown in most American cities.

In Philadelphia, however, a network of trolley cars still operates regularly over an extensive area as part of an integrated transit system. In West Philadelphia, publicly owned trolleys still link the neighborhoods west of the Schuylkill to Center City, traversing the river from downtown via tunnel before popping out at 36th and 40th Streets to spider out across the city's western neighborhoods. (A few other cities, including Boston and New Orleans, have maintained more limited lines.)

But how did West Philadelphia maintain comprehensive electric streetcar service when almost every other city and township in the nation hasn't heard the clang of a trolley in more than two generations?

In 1955 National City Lines (NCL), long funded by General Motors, Firestone tires, and other companies interested in promoting non-rail transportation, bought the local transit company and immediately began pulling out trolley lines and replacing them with GM buses. In an era of artificially cheap gasoline, buses were cheaper and their infrastructure costs lower, too. Philly's local trolley companies had begun cutting the least profitable routes in the 1920s, but NCL was far more ruthless, slashing the number of trolley routes from 50 to 14. Only the busiest lines survived, which is more than can be said for most American cities.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) took over the system in 1968, and by the early 1970s seven surface lines survived, along with the five Subway-Surface Lines that still serve West Philadelphia. While microscopic by early century standards, the City of Brotherly Love, with a fleet 300 strong, sported the second largest trolley system on the continent, after Toronto.

"In the 1970s people came from all over the world to see Philadelphia's surviving trolley routes," says John Hepp, associate professor of history at Wilkes University. "They were all throughout the city. Route 23 was the longest trolley route in the world, which started in South Philly, went through Center City, all the way to Chestnut Hill." We were unique."

But in October 1975, disaster struck. A third of the trolley fleet was destroyed in a terrible fire at the SEPTA vehicle barn on Woodland Avenue. The cash-strapped city did not have the money to replace the lost streetcars. Eventually, in the 1980s, a bit of revenue was scraped up to buy the 100 Kawasaki LRV trolleys that operate today, just a third of the previously existing fleet, and they were all consigned to the West Philly subway-surface lines. The remaining older cars succumbed to atrophy and budget woes, and their routes were transferred to buses.

The West Philly lines survived because of their neighborhoods' unique position across the river from the rest of the city and the tunnel that connected the two areas. Safe underground, the West Philly trolleys could travel far faster than a bus on the street, at least for the half of their routes that included downtown and the universities. This ability to spirit riders from the congested streets of Center City to the residential neighborhoods beyond the universities was a powerful point in the Subway-Surface Lines' favor. (Only one surface line remains, the 15, which goes by the zoo.)

Today, cities across the country are investing in public rail transit again, spurred by rising fuel costs, pollution concerns, and the ease of emission suppression. (It's cheaper and easier to put pollution controls on one power plant than on hundreds of buses.) Beyond that, people clearly prefer rail transit to buses: The routes are clearly delineated, allowing ease of planning and creating a sense of permanence, which incentivizes development. There is probably also a certain class bias - many middle-class riders seem to associate buses with poverty and disdain them as a result.

But Philadelphia is not joining the rail renaissance. There were plans to convert Route 23 back to a trolley line, but the perilous state of the city's finances precludes even that.

"It is something the city wants, so it could happen down the line, eventually," says Gregory Krykewycz, senior transportation planner, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "But it's not going to happen in the near future."

The next major project will probably be replacing the aging Kawasaki fleet, vehicles that were purchased before the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted. The new cars will have to comply with the act, a difficult feat for trolleys, which cannot pull up to the curb like a bus.

Despite these potentially expensive challenges, Krykewycz claims the city will not abandon the remaining trolley lines. "We are trying to keep the existing routes in operation and picking the low-hanging fruit - changes to improve efficiency, cost savings - to keep everything going."

E-mail Jake Blumgart at jake.blumgart5@gmail.com.

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