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Useful Notes / Philadelphia Subways

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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 Line, also called the "Broad Street Subway", or just "the Subway", and sometimes called the Orange Line (which would mark one as new to Philadelphia), the BSL or 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. Predictably, ridership spikes on game days. 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. Spur trains start at Fern Rock or Olney Station at the north end of the line and then run as expresses until Fairmount, when they turn onto the spur towards 8th & Market. 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 part of the line from Walnut-Locust station northward is unusual among rapid transit lines in being quadruple-tracked. The interior tracks are for express services that run roughly from the start of morning rush hour to the end of evening rush hour on weekdays, as well as special sports services for game days the Spur from Fern Rock to Girard at all times it is running (as the sports specials and Spur run express before continuing on to the South Philly double track section/the actual Ridge Avenue spur, respectively). The exterior tracks carry local trains. This arrangement is rare among rapid transit systems worldwide—the only other systems in North America to use it is the New York City Subway (which uses it extensively) and the Chicago L (which uses it on the North Side Main Line, i.e. the tracks carrying the Red Line (and part of the Brown Line) local and the Purple Line express).
      • There is repeated talk of a Roosevelt Boulevard branch of the Subway, which would split north of Hunting Park station onto a line along Roosevelt Boulevard up through Northeast Philadelphia. This route was actually about to be built in the 1970s, but local opposition from (predominantly white working- and middle-class) Northeast Philadelphia kiboshed the plan, essentially because they associated public transportation with "criminals" (by which they meant "poor black people"), and the money was spent building the Regional Rail commuter tunnel in Center City instead. Since then, the plan has languished for lack of funds, even as people in Northeast Philadelphia have come around to the idea again. To this day, it remains the highest-potential-ridership transit proposal in the United States outside New York City, but pushes to actually do it have all gone nowhere. A renewed effort to get the project started began in late 2022; while nothing concrete is decided, it does seem to stand a better chance due to support from local state legislators in the Northeast.
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    • The Market-Frankford Line, or "the El". It's sometimes referred to as the Blue Line (which also would mark you as not actually from Philly), or abbreviated to "MFL" for short. It is a line largely running as an elevated over then subway under most of Market Street (specifically all stations from 40th Street to 2nd Street) before surfacing as an elevated to the Frankford neighborhood. Market Street is 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 BSL 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.
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    • The PATCO High-Speedline, or simply PATCO (the Speedline by those in the know), 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 is the former Hudson and Manhattan, which was owned briefly by the Pennsy, 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, which is currently being renovated and will reopen sometime in 2024. It also hadn't seen an upgrade in its rolling stock in years; the trains were mostly built in The '60s, 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 most cars were refurbished by year end 2018). 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 BSL via a pedestrian tunnel that connects the BSL Walnut-Locust Station to 15th/16th and 12/13th Stations, but since the payment systems are totally separate there is no free transfer (there is talk of free or reduced-fare transfer after SEPTA fully implements the new "SEPTA Key" contactless fare system, but as of now it's just talk—although it is more or less certain that the SEPTA Key will work to pay fares on PATCO). The line took its current form in the 60s, having previously been the Bridge Line of the Philly subway when it was run by SEPTA predecessor the Philadelphia Transit Company. The shift to a new interstate operator (and extension into Jersey via the former commuter rail tracks) resulted in the Bridge Line tracks being severed from the rest of the subway, whereas before trains on the Broad-Ridge Spur shared the 8th Street and Locust Street tunnels.

  • 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 13th Street and then diverging at 36th Street to various points in West and Southwest Philadelphia. The Green Lines have free transfer from both the BSL and MFL at City Hall/15th Street and also have free transfer from the MFL at 13th Street and 30th Street. While they do not have rapid-transit capacity, they generally do run at rapid-transit (or at least near-rapid-transit) frequency; on any given route, you'll rarely have to wait more than 20 minutes for a trolley absent delays, and wait times are usually more like the 10-15 minute range (less during rush hour). If your journey is strictly within the area of shared track (from Center City to UPenn), you're probably not going to wait more than 10 minutes even if you're seriously off-peak and there are delays.

  • Neither underground nor (really) rapid transit
    • Route 15 trolley, also called the "Girard Street Line" is a surface trolley line that runs on Girard Ave, an east-west road that runs north of and parallel to Market Street. Although it doesn't use the subway tunnel like the Subway-Surface Lines, it does intersect with the Route 10 trolley from those lines and is grouped with them by SEPTA as the "city trolley lines". It also uses unique streetcars that have entirely modern mechanicals, but reuse body shells from historic PCC class streetcars. The line is subject to frequent bus substitution because of the combination of unique cars and extensive roadwork on its eastern end.
    • The Norristown High-Speed Line, also called the "Purple Line" (again, only non-Philadelphians use the map colors as names) or the Route 100 (it's old route designation), runs from The 69th Street Transit Center just over the city line in Upper Darby to the suburb of Norristown using a somewhat curving path that actually crosses into Philly briefly. A weird line that doesn't quite fit any into a specific mode of rail. It was originally intended as the beginning of the Philadelphia & Western (P&W, a name still used by some old timers), an intercity line all the way to Chicago, but never went further than suburban Strafford. The current line consists of the main line to Villanova and a branch to Norristown, the portion to Strafford having been abandoned in the 1950s. For years it was run like an interurban trolley (and is still called "the Interurban" by some old timers), but the NHSL is completely grade separated, and uses third rail, not overhead wire. However, the vehicles are only one car, and are too small to be true rapid transit. It's considered "light metro" by some.
    • The Suburban Trolley Lines, also called Routes 101 and 102, and sometimes called the "Red Arrow Lines" after their former private operator, are two trolley lines that serve the southwestern suburbs. The lines start at 69th Street Transit Center, and run together to Drexel Hill Junction before splitting, with the 101 running to Media, and the 102 going to Sharon Hill. Although they do use trolley vehicles (albeit larger ones than the city trolley routes), the lines are largely in their own right of way with little street running and are akin to more modern light rail lines (which is the main reason they survived into the modern era). They used to have a distinct brown color on maps, but SEPTA switched to the same green in 2009 as the city trolley routes to emphasize the commonality of modes, despite them being an entirely separate with no track connections.

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. Broad Street Line stations also have floors that get alarmingly slick and dirty from the legions of muddy feet when the weather gets wet or snowy. 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 it's true that with a bit of funding—and by "a bit" we mean "probably more than the city is willing to pay for the limited benefit it would provide"—they could be converted to branch lines of the BSL or perhaps extensions of PATCO).

More generally, there is occasional talk in Philadelphia's transit community of increasing the frequency and operating hours of regional rail trains such that they effectively become a second rapid-transit system for the city (on the model of a German S-Bahn). These modifications would require significant infrastructure upgrades—most importantly converting all stations with low-level platforms to high-levels (which would allow trains to run with about four times fewer conductors and therefore run three or four times more frequently).Technical aside  This plan is therefore unlikely in the immediate future (SEPTA and Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation received massive infusions of cash in the mid-2010s, but these funds were devoted to repairing crumbling infrastructure, like rebuilding about-to-collapse bridges and renovating decrepit train stations, rather than building much in the way of new capacity). That being said, Philadelphia's network already has the primary feature of a German S-Bahn—a rail tunnel through the city center—in place, and the regional rail system is fully electrified, so unlike some other American cities, the project is at least conceivably on the list of workable projects if the country ever gets serious about transit.

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. Some Philadelphians even allege a local conspiracy theory- the Philadelphia Parking Conspiracy- which unites the Parking Authority and traffic courts, unscrupulous towing magnate Lew Blum (aka "Public Enemy Number One") and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino of the Philadelphia Mob in a revenue-generating parking/ticketing/towing racket. 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,note  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 and buses appear in Trading Places.
  • University City Regional Rail station appears in Unbreakable, where Samuel L. Jackson falls down the stairs. The station was, however, incorrectly portrayed as having subway-style turnstiles (actually not installed for another 17 years after the film’s release).
  • SHAZAM! (2019) is set in Philadelphia but filmed in Toronto; in it the Market-Frankford Line (played by the TTC) was diverted to the Rock of Eternity.
  • Maniac Magee: Two Mills being explicitly placed on the Schuylkill (and being an Expy of Norristown), a SEPTA appearance isn't surprising; in this case, the initiating event (Maniac's parents' death) is caused by a drunk SEPTA trolley driver derailing his vehicle.