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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 Subway, sometimes called the Orange Line, more usually "the Subway," the Broad Line, or 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. 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...
      • There is repeated talk of a Roosevelt Boulevard branch of the Subway, which would split north of Hunting Park station onto an elevated track on 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 the only inkling of any interest is improved bus service along Roosevelt, with SEPTA promising to "look into higher-capacity options" if the buses see high enough ridership.
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    • 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 (specifically all stations from 2nd to 40th Streets), 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.
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    • 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 '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 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 (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).

  • 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.

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, so they are 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, 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.


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