The Route 23 trolley in Chestnut Hill.

The Route 23 trolley in Chestnut Hill.

by Angela Sanders

Recent news that SEPTA planned to purchase new trolley cars prompted some to wonder whether the new cars might revive the Route 23 trolley, which runs along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill to South Philadelphia.

A recent interview with a SEPTA spokesperson revealed that anyone waiting for trolley cars along Germantown Avenue will be waiting for quite a while.

SEPTA plans to launch a study in 2020 to assess the current status of Routes 23 and 56 and projects that it will last until 2026. The study, “budgeted at $2 million,” will reveal the future of the 23 trolley.

“Route 23 – the 90s route – has been on hiatus, if you will, and we want to take a look at that to talk about potentially restoring them,” said Manny Smith, public information manager for SEPTA’S media relations team.

Route 23 was once the longest streetcar route in the world (and quite possibly the most nostalgic), cruising from South Philadelphia through center city, traveling north on Germantown Avenue through North Philadelphia, and finally arriving home in Chestnut Hill, before SEPTA “temporarily” suspended the service in 1992 and replaced the electric trolleys with diesel buses.

Changes to Route 23 affect an average daily ridership of 23,000 riders, counted as they get on the buses at any point along the entirety of the route.

“SEPTA [originally] deemed the replacement temporary and then claimed the service would be restored as soon as new cars could be ordered, with a target date of 1997,” according to a July 2011 story by WHYY’s Newsworks.

Eighteen years later, we’re still more than a decade away from even the possibility that trolley cars will return.

Route 23, soon to be split into Routes 23 and 45, will remain a bus route until the end of the study when “there could be a shift in consideration about rail at that time,” said Smith. Until then, answers remain elusive for the impatient and scant for the curious.

Meanwhile, questions loom. In a modern environment can rail vehicles operate in an efficient manner? What kind of infrastructure is needed for rail restoration? What type of vehicle will be best? What best suits the riders’ needs? How much would it cost?

“Once the study starts, it will answer all of these questions,” Smith said.

In the interlude, SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future Program, which aims to provide safe, reliable service, while enhancing the travel experience for current and future customers, is currently pursuing track reconstruction and improvements on other trolley routes in the city: routes 10, 11, 13, 15, 34, 36, 101 and 102 in order to bring the trolley program up to speed.

SEPTA is currently exploring if and how they can integrate newer vehicles into the already-existent, older trolley system. The modern streetcars are longer and what SEPTA calls “articulated,” or having sections connected by flexible, accordion-like joints so that more people can ride on one vehicle.

“If we did that, we will probably need to look at making some street and infrastructure improvements again,” Smith said. “We would potentially need to build sidewalk cut-outs, and restrict parking in a little bit more places than it is already.”

  • bob

    study a project to death.
    and make sure the current streetcar lines remain inaccessible for as long as possible.

    • Poisson Volant

      They are masters at “paralysis by analysis”. Systems in other cities can go from planning to construction to revenue service in the time it takes to write a proposal here. The NHSL/P&W extension through Upper Merion’s been on the books since the 1980s but has spent 30 years in planning and re-planning. Even though it’s finally underway expectations are that rails won’t start being put down before 2020 – IF we’re lucky.

      • Shackamaxon

        Ever bother to ask why?

        It’s largely because Philly cannot expand. When San Diego or Phoenix need more tax money, they just annex local unincorporated areas within their giant counties. Philly did that in 1854. Can you imagine the blowback if Philly tried to annex Lower Merion and absorb its tax base? It’d be an all-out war.

        Planning is something that gets done a lot, yes. But from the day a planned project gets approval and funding, it’s about 6-10 years from being completed. 2-3 for engineering, 2-3 for impact studies, and 2-3 for construction.

        Armchair analysis is nice, but don’t talk about this process like it’s a matter of “push button, receive train” and expect people to take you seriously. It’s true that there’s a real politically-motivated underfunding of rail options in this region, but that’s a whole separate issue from planning studies, which are vital if projects like the NHSL expansion are ever to take off. The plans made it the 1980s are obsolete and need to be re-done every time someone builds or demolishes something in the impacted area. Don’t blame the planners, blame the funding sources.

        • Hammond Ecks

          Actually I’ve been involved with the process as both a private citizen and a member of one of the major transit advocacy groups in the region so I’m hardly sitting in an armchair. In fact I’ve been one of the loudest voices calling for coordination of the NHSL extension with ongoing land development so that the “start, stop, restart” scenario you accurately describe doesn’t happen yet again.

          Yes, funding problems and political inaction are the major cause of delays but SEPTA’s processes have been flawed as well. Remember the SVM? SEPTA insisted on an untried hybrid technology that would have cost three times as much as known alternatives such as DMU’s. In addition the route would have been at least a mile away from most of the major communities it was supposed to serve, thus requiring shuttle buses everywhere. The SVM was so impractical that the FTA rejected it as unworkable. The P&W extension has had its own set of problems; an earlier iteration had the line destroying a long-established residential area and arguments over that choice set the project back by years.

          Goofs like these made it seem like SEPTA couldn’t get its act together which made things even worse when dealing with an already-hostile state legislature. Bottom line, there are plenty of villains.

  • Carl

    The Trolleys that the management of SEPTA said were junk and not worth rebuilding, were purchased and have been running now for almost 20 Years on The F Market St. line in San Francisco. SEPTA could take lessons from MUNI.

  • Robert DeFreitas

    Those 18 PCC-2 TROLLEYS that operate on Girard Ave can be rebuilt again for another 20 years!! SEPTA management does not know when they have in operation the best transit vehicle in the world today the PCC-2 Trolleys!!

  • Davey Joseph

    SEPTA’s loss has clearly been the gain of more forward-thinking municipalities, such as Kenosha, Wisconsin. I found this photo on Pinterest of unknown provenance. It is of fully-restored, resplendent SEPTA PCC Number 2185, gliding past lovers on a park bench, in a brand new district of Kenosha. Like every single neighborhood in Philly originally was – this neighborhood in Kenosha is designed around electric streetcar logistics: the most sensible, rational, economic, comfortable and fun way to get around any city, large or small, anywhere! Streetcars speak to neighborhood, community and connection like no other mode of conveyance. Congratulations, Kenosha, and thanks for giving car number 2185 a brand new life. SEPTA Car 2185: made in America in 1948 and keeping the carbon footprint of the people of Philly and Kenosha minimal ever since!!!!