Last week, in a story by Local intern Angela Sanders, officials at SEPTA explained that the long-mothballed Route 23 trolley line could potentially get streetcars once again, but that the decision would not be made until a study, beginning in 2020, concludes in 2026.

I don’t mean to come off as pessimistic, but I think it’s safe to say that streetcars will never return to the Belgian-blocked corridor of Germantown Avenue.

First a little history: The Route 23 street cars were a major part of Germantown Avenue for generations. The streetcar line ran from Chestnut Hill through Center City all the way to Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia. Those trolley tracks in front of the entrance to the Reading Terminal Market? Those belong to Route 23. It was, when running, the longest streetcar line in the world.

When SEPTA replaced the streetcars in 1992 with buses, it did so, it said, on a temporary basis. The trolleys would return. Today, it looks as if the promise that the street cars will return is not going to be kept.

Few issues have garnered as much attention in the Local as the recent discussion of the potential return of streetcars to Route 23. Many have a reflexive appreciation for the streetcars and would love to see them return.

It’s easy to see why. Streetcars would have a number of obvious benefits for Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill and the rest of Northwest Philadelphia.

Streetcars would add a great deal of interest to the Avenue, reinforcing the Victorian village feel much of the neighborhood, particularly its business corridor, strives for. The streetcars themselves would be a destination – a point of interest for any visitors to the Northwest.

The second benefit would be increased ridership. Streetcars don’t hold any real advantage for riders. They don’t move faster than buses and can be impeded easily by any breaks in the route – from double parking to road work. Studies have shown, however, that replacing buses with streetcars increases ridership. Why? People just like streetcars.

There are also definite disadvantages to streetcars that would pose a significant challenge to Route 23.

First is the infrastructure of the route itself, from tracks to the electric wires above. The route is old, and it would take a great deal of resources to keep it in top shape.

Second, it’s hard not to believe that streetcars would make traffic patterns on Germantown Avenue even more problematic than they already are. Streetcars are often slower than buses. They cannot pull over to pick up riders, giving drivers the opportunity to pass them on the left. They would be an extra hassle on the road for drivers.

But any debate on the future of streetcars on Germantown Avenue is probably academic. Yes, technically the door is still open. SEPTA has not closed the line and it will study the route, even if the earliest possible decision to bring streetcars back to the Avenue will not be made for another 11 years – 34 years after the streetcars were first removed.

It’s clear that Route 23 streetcars will remain in bureaucratic limbo until sometime in the future when SEPTA simply dismantles the tracks and removes the overhead electric wires.


  • Xian

    Mr. Mazzaccaro,

    I found this op-ed to be problematic in a number of ways:

    – As to the infrastructure of the line: much of this infrastructure in Mount Airy and Germantown has already been replaced by PennDOT. It’s certainly not an impossible task to complete this infrastructure in Chestnut Hill and Nicetown as well. SEPTA is already replacing large expanses of light rail infrastructure around the city. There is a lot of resistance to trollies in South Philadelphia, but the line does not need to extend past Center City, especially as the 23 has been split up into two routes.

    – It’s incorrect to state that streetcars are slower than busses. Do you have any evidence for this, or are you speaking from the poor track record of the 1940s-built PCC vehicles? Modern light rail vehicles run just as fast as busses. Furthermore, there have been advances in technology since 1992 that can lead to a faster route — including sensors that change stoplights for oncoming vehicles and pre-boarding ticketing processes.

    – You’re very correct in pointing out that streetcars increase ridership due to the improved rider experience. That’s exactly why they will also improve traffic flow. Imagine arriving at a streetcar stop with departure times clearly displayed on a monitor, with a reliable arrival estimate at the Sedgwick Theater or Germantown Friends School. The 23 would become the neighborhood connector that would feel like a premium experience for everyone, rather than just a necessity for people without access to a car. This takes cars off the road and reduces congestion.

    – Finally, I don’t understand why you think that residents of the Northwest need to passively accept these SEPTA edicts. Rather than shrugging our shoulders and accepting “bureaucratic limbo,” we should be demanding more. The truth is that we have subpar public transportation on the avenue. We can have much better if we push for it.

    • PMazz

      Thanks for the comment Xian,

      The infrastructure that I see in the Northwest is not new. During some construction projects in recent years, the rail was replaced with a different type of rail, as well.

      As for speed, the main thing with rail cars I was trying to point out doesn’t have to do with how fast they can zip from stop to stop, but that they cannot move around poorly or double parked cars and can’t be rerouted for block closures. What would a street car do during the Mt. Airy Street Fare or the Hills Fall arts fest?

      I’m not prepared to say that more riders on an Avenue streetcar would reduce cars on the Avenue.That would presume that a significant number of people in cars on Germantown Avenue would live within easy walking distance to an Avenue stop. Some of those people are probably driving, but a lot of people in cars on the Avenue are also driving through the neighborhood or are headed to work off of the Avenue .

      Finally, I’m certainly not urging anyone to passively accept anything. But I think no one should fool themselves into thinking SEPTA has any intention to bring back streetcars. If people in the Northwest want them back, they’re going to have to fight to bring them back. And I’m not sure a majority wants streetcarsback to begin with.

      • Xian


        The construction projects in 2008-2010 did replace tracks, catenary structures and wire in the areas where the roadway and track were worst degraded in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill and Germantown. So what would that be other than new trolley infrastructure? From what I understand it is the proper gauge (“Pennsylvania Trolley Gauge” of 5 ft 2 1⁄2 in (1,588 mm)) though it has not yet been tested with a pilot car.

        It’s illegal to double park. These things can be enforced. There are plenty of busy one-way streets in Center City where one double parked truck would completely shut down traffic, but that rarely happens because it’s just not considered acceptable — and there are curbside loading zones designed to fix the problem.

        As for street fairs and Fall for the Arts, SEPTA would substitute LRVs with busses on those rare occasions as they do on every other streetcar line.

        Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy and Germantown were built around Germantown Avenue. Their greatest residential density is right up against the street. And yet it’s rare to find anyone who can afford to drive taking the 23 to pick up prescriptions at CVS or going to a play at the Sedgwick or breakfast at the Trolley Car or going to school at GFS. This is due to the overall inferior customer experience on the 23. It’s just not a nice ride.

        I think you’re right that a majority of people in Chestnut Hill don’t support streetcars. But I think it’s due to the memory of the pre-1991 system. I think articles like yours encourage that view and don’t shed much light on what a modern system could do for our area.

        West Philadelphia and Girard Ave are going to get new LRVs. I think that as soon as that happens, people will see the benefits and the political will produce demand on the 23. Here’s what it looked like when Toronto did it on their mixed-traffic routes:

        • Tom Shoener

          Xian, if the majority of the people in Chestnut Hill and the rest of the northern 23 route don’t care enough, why would government care? Better to spend money where there is greater “bang for the [voter?] buck.” There are many, many people up here that never take a bus, and whose only real experience is with Regional Rail. That is typically an excellent experience. The new cars are splendid.

          The symbiosis, as I see it, is having destinations along the 23 route that sufficiently encourage people to take the transit. From Chestnut Hill, the great strip along the Avenue from Allens to Mount Pleasant. The “destination to the destination” is a trolley. And so forth. Fine, the poles and wires have been repaired. The rails, too. If the city never tends to bring back that service via streetcar, why waste money to placate some “trolley-spotters” with useless and costly upkeep? Why fix something you know will never be used for its intended purpose? A sin, a waste, and a lie. But, the city will not begin a study about retuning the service for several years. That’s just a study. It will be a lucrative one to consulting firms, over time, that will inform me long after I am dead, and maybe you, your children, and grandchildren are also dead, why the trolley’s not such a great idea. But what is the argument against using a different kind of bus on a route that already much of the special infrastructure to service it already? And it’s a form of transit that is now being used in the city. What is the valid argument against insisting upon the possible, versus hoping for the pipe dream.

          The trackless trolleys can maneuver to the curb, can avoid street obstacles, have better traction on inclines than trolley or bus, produce less pollution, on the whole. The trackless trolley can be the SEPTA’s ugly brother of the diesels found on the 23, or as Art Deco or futuristic as you can imagine. Street blockages and festivals? Generally, festivals are on the weekends. There is plenty of excess capacity to use busses during those times. Road blockages–now that is a separate issue. That could disrupt service (as well as vehicular traffic). That could be a game changer in the eyes of planners. However, newer generation trackless trolleys have an auxiliary diesel motor to power the vehicle around these issues. The trolley poles come down, the operator drives, and gets back to the wires as soon as possible. Pin down the officials who say “we never could do….” The trolley bus’ advantages speak for themselves. But, to the public official who wants to dodge the trolley, the question is simple:”Why did you waste all that money on the infrastructure rehab, when you never had any sincere intention of ever using it?”

  • Thomas Dulisse

    Streetcar service on Route 23? Never ran on time from 7AM to 7PM. The only way that electric streetcar service would work is if Germantown Av was a dedicated rail route, i.e. no commercial vehicles parking at the curb (UPS and FEDX) and intense monitoring of the route by SEPTA supervision and Philadelphia police. If you’ve ever taken a ride on Route 23 when it was rail service you know how awful the service was. Now try to imagine boarding ADA passengers 10 feet from the curb. It’s simply not practicable. I am what is called a trolley jolly, a real rail enthusiast and I would love to see rail service return to Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy but it just ain’t gonna happen. Cry all you like, it won’t change anything

    • Xian

      Thomas — I don’t think it’s fair to think that a modern LRV system would be in any way comparable to trollies from the 40s running on infrastructure from the 20s. The solution for ADA is to extend the curb out to the tracks wherever there’s a stop… and to have fewer stops a’la express busses. I’ll say again that signal preference would greatly increase on-time performance and speed.

      Also it’s very possible to have dedicated loading zones for trucks during certain hours (you know, the way ALL of Center City works).

      And I can certainly think of towing companies and city agencies who would love the expanded revenue of enforcing double parking rules (the avenue is already too narrow for double parking, which snares traffic regardless of whether it’s running on wheels or rails). For the most part, if you want to pass a bus or a DP’ed FedEx truck, you have to illegally cross the double lines into a very busy lane of opposing traffic.

      We live in a first world country. It’s all totally possible.

  • Thomas Dulisse

    If anyone must ride a trolley car, ride to Girard Ave and take the 15 or to center city and ride one of the subway surface routes. There also light rail routes from 69th St. Terminal to Media and Sharon Hill.