A Plan B for regional rail?


Amid the many, many aspects of life that have been disrupted during this long pandemic-induced period of working and schooling from home, a noted loss for people in Chestnut Hill and nearby Montgomery county has been the long absence of the Chestnut Hill West Line.

Some readers suspected SEPTA might follow the course it took with the Route 23 trolley which was removed from its Germantown Avenue tracks in 1992. It was never officially decommissioned, but it’s clear to everyone that it’s not coming back.

SEPTA told our contributor David Hunt this week that it has no plans to shelve the Chestnut Hill West line. Instead, it is waiting for demand of rail service in the immediate area to increase and warrant the line’s return.

The line is of obvious import to West Chestnut Hill residents who use it to travel to and from Center City, but it is also a major part of the neighborhood’s history, serving as the lifeline that gave rise to the residential developments of Henry Houston and George Woodward, which are the bases of today’s Chestnut Hill.

The agency’s decision to keep Chestnut Hill West closed makes sense under its normal operating guidelines., particularly with service restored to normal on the nearby Chestnut Hill East, which seems capable with meeting current demand by riders.

Some transit advocates, however, suggest SEPTA is missing a real opportunity with its regional rail service. One group, a transit-oriented political action committee known as 5th Square, believes SEPTA should be getting a lot more out of its regional rails. In an online petition that as of this writing had 450 signatures, 5th Square is calling on SEPTA to take the following steps:

  1. Restore Service to the Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd Regional Rail lines.
  2. Lower Regional Rail Fare to match transit fare for travel within Philadelphia.
  3. Accept Weekly and Monthly TransPasses on Regional Rail for travel within Philadelphia.

The hope for 5th square is to make the lines more affordable and, therefore, more accessible to commuters who are presently overcrowding busses, including the Route 23 line that runs up and down Germantown Avenue.

At this point in the pandemic, it’s hard to know what the future holds, but there is a strong chance that daily commutes by the many lawyers, professors and other professionals who have traditionally used regional rail in Northwest Philadelphia may never return to the levels they were before.

SEPTA doesn’t need me or 5th Square to tell it that it may need a post-pandemic Plan B. It’s nice to know that the agency is not contemplating closing the line for good. Such a move would be seen widely as catastrophic by everyone from commuters to historians.

Regional rail lines are important to people who use them. Perhaps that user group can be expanded to the benefit of both those additional riders and SEPTA.

Pete Mazzaccaro



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