Useful Notes: Philadelphia Subways

Philadelphia has a subway system with two lines. does and it doesn't. It's complicated.

On one hand, you could say that it has two systems with one line each. On the other hand, these lines, plus a whole bunch of other rail-type lines, plus a bus system, are run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), plus another strange entity not run by SEPTA. This can get messy, so we'll just show you what we mean:

  • True rapid transit
    • The Broad Street Subway, sometimes called the Orange Line, called the BSS for short, is a subway line running almost entirely under Broad Street, Philadelphia's main north-south thoroughfare, from Fern Rock Transportation Center in North Philadelphia to the sports complex in South Philadelphia. This line was originally built and owned by the City of Philadelphia, and the track and trains are still owned by the city; SEPTA operates the line under lease from the city.
      • The Broad-Ridge Spur is a short spur of the line running from Fairmount to 8th & Market via Chinatown. It features one of only two "ghost stations" on the Philadelphia rapid transit network (at Spring Garden), and the only one on the SEPTA system. It's definitely seen better days...
    • The Market-Frankford Line, or "the El". It's sometimes referred to as the Blue Line, or abbreviated to "MFL" for short. It is a line largely running as an elevated train along Frankford Avenue and as a subway under most of Market Street, Philadelphia's main east-west thoroughfare. The MFL runs from 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby to Frankford Transportation Center in the Frankford neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. This train's history is rather odd, and has a number of quirks (e.g.: it's built to Pennsylvania Trolley Gauge, a broad gauge invented in the 19th century to keep railroads from competing with streetcars). It meets the BSS at 15th Street/City Hall (Broad and Market never truly meet, just turn into Penn Square, a giant traffic circle around City Hall; also, Broad is 14th Street), and there's free transfer between them there.
    • The PATCO High-Speedline, or simply the PATCO, is not run by SEPTA, but rather by the Delaware River Port Authority; PATCO stands for "Port Authority Transit Corporation." This line is akin to the Port Authority Trans Hudson in that it is basically a rapid transit system but it also operates a bit like a commuter rail system (indeed, both run on old Pennsylvania Railroad track: the PATH on the former Hudson and Manhattan, and the PATCO on the former Camden and Atlantic City), stopping at various towns in Philadelphia's South Jersey suburbs—including Camden—much as the PATH goes to New York's North Jersey ones (including Newark). It features the other "ghost station" in Philly, at Franklin Square. (There's been some talk of restoring it; a plan was floated in 2012, dropped, and then suddenly taken up again in late 2014, but no action has of yet been taken.) It also hasn't seen an upgrade in its rolling stock in years; the trains were mostly built in The Sixties, and you can tell from everything from the exterior styling to the interior decor (if that's the right word),note  although they've begun complete refurbishment and modernization of the interiors (refurbished cars entered service in spring 2015 and all trains are set to be refurbished by year end 2016). In the city, it goes under Vine Street from the Ben Franklin Bridge and then under 8th Street before turning west at Locust Street and terminating at 16th Street. It meets the MFL and Broad-Ridge Spur at 8th & Market and the BSS via a pedestrian tunnel that connects the BSS Walnut-Locust Station to 15th/16th and 12/13th Stations, but since the payment systems are totally separate there is no free transfer.

  • Underground but not rapid transit: The Subway-Surface Trolley Lines, sometimes called the Green Line(s), are single-car tram lines running underground parallel to the MFL under Market Street starting at Juniper Street immediately east of Broad (Juniper is sort of 13 1/2 Street) and then diverging at 36th Street to various points in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

As of a change in October 2014, SEPTA's rapid transit trains run from about 5:30 AM until about 12:30 AM during the week and 24 hours on the weekend (i.e the trains run continuously from 5:30AM opening on Friday until 12:30AM closing on Sunday night/Monday morning). The PATCO remains, like the PATH, open 24/7, albeit with very infrequent trains after about 2:30 AM.

As to the experience of riding: SEPTA stations are oddly variable. Some stations (e.g. 13th Street on the MFL) are quite decent (although nowhere near as antiseptic as the Washington Metro), while others (e.g. 8th Street and 2nd Street on the MFL) are mediocre, and still others (e.g. 15th Street on the MFL and many stations on the Broad Street Line) give New York a run for its money on the "vaguely squalid" front. The underground PATCO stations in the city and in Camden vary from "moderately dirty" to "hobo piss," while the elevated stations further east in the South Jersey Suburbia are in "quite clean, but a bit old and worn-down" territory.note 

There's also SEPTA's Regional Rail system. These are too numerous to describe in one go, but suffice it to say that several parts of the City of Philadelphia are served only by the regional rail, particularly the Northwest (which is, to be fair, essentially suburban anyway), and the Northeast (which is less so). Three Regional Rail lines (Chestnut Hill East, Chestnut Hill West, and Fox Chase) run entirely within the city, leading several to wonder why they should continue to be treated as regional rail. (There are good technical reasons, but the only barrier to those is a little bit of money.)

All snarking aside, these routes really are probably the best way to get around Philly if you're in an area served by them. The system is relatively safe (major crime on the trains is rare, minor crime is frequent but merely annoying, and you will be harassed by homeless wherever you go—but that's true of anywhere in Philly anyway), it's actually pretty efficient, and driving in Philadelphia can be a nightmare (to wit, Philadelphia has: one-way streets, narrow streets, even a few cobblestone streets—in the Old City—plus Philadelphia drivers—who are scary—and New Jersey drivers—who are terrifying). And of course, if you do drive in Philly, you face something much worse than driving: parking—the Philadelphia Parking Authority are so dogged in their insistence on enforcing the parking laws they put Inspector Javert to shame. Basically (Philly people joke) it's illegal to drive in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia transit in media

  • As one might expect, SEPTA trains and buses appear all over the place in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and one episode is based around the Gang trying to catch a SEPTA trolley.
  • The Broad Street Line is sometimes called in to double for the New York City Subway, to which its stations bear a passing resemblance, but which is easier to film in both bureaucratically (SEPTA's Film Office is less overwhelmed than the MTA's) and logistically (BSL stations are a bit roomier than the ones in NYC). Films that have done this include SAFE and Limitless (which, Philadelphians are likely to note, stars Philly native Bradley Cooper).
  • SEPTA trains appear in Trading Places.