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.