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SEPTA Trackless Trolley Lines

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SEPTA New Flyer E40LF trackless trolley no. 809 at City Line loop. Photo by Bob Wright, 2008.

Overview

Philadelphia has the longest continuous operation of trackless trolleys in the United States. (In Philadelphia, what are often called trolley coaches and trolleybuses elsewhere are trackless trolleys.) The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) started opertion of Route 80 on October 14, 1923, primarily along Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia. It connected a residential area with the Delaware River waterfront and a significant railroad/industrial area on its eastern end. Existing railroad lines on Oregon Avenue made construction of streetcar tracks difficult, and the line would have had a very low ridership density to justify the investment. The 80 was a crosstown route with few connections to north-south car lines especially east of Broad Street, where the trunk car routes ended 3-4 blocks north (Porter Street, Ritner Street and Wolf Street).

The 80 was PRT's only trackless line despite considerations for use of this mode elsewhere. PRT began operating buses in 1925 and had established a sizeable bus system with over 300 double-deckers and 100 single-deck coaches. PRT had no electric utility connections so the trackless offered no advantage as far as power availability.

Eleven "RailLess Coaches" were supplied by Brill for the new line. These coaches resembled streetcars of the time, looking much like the single-truck Birney car that was being mass-produced by several car builders. In 1935 the fleet was replaced by a more standard-looking fleet of eight Brill T-30 coaches.

The 80 would remain PRT's only trackless route. In 1941, PRT's successor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (which took over the bankrupt PRT in 1940), converted car route 61 to trackless. The 61 was a significant route which connected Center City to Manayunk in the northwestern part of the City, diagonally crossing the western portion of North Philadelphia on its journey along Ridge Avenue. It intersected 33 car lines and all three rapid transit routes (Market-Frankford El, Broad Street Subway, Ridge-Camden Spur). It passed through major industrial areas as well as large residential neighborhoods which contributed to its heavy ridership.

The 61 followed the car route from 8th & Locust Streets downtown to Main Street & Leverington Avenue in Manayunk. Fifty Brill 40SMT's were purchased to handle the line, and ten more were added in 1942. In 1944, a change in the one-way street pattern on several east-west roads in Center City moved the 61's southern terminus a half-block north, to Walnut Street.

PTC had ideas for similar trackless replacement of car lines but World War 2 forced them to be put on hold. Traffic was sufficiently heavy on the 61 that additional coaches were sought, and 6 Pullman 44-passenger vehicles (model 41-CS-100-44CX) were delivered to PTC in 1944. These were assigned to the 61, although one or two may have been used on the 80 for a period of time.

After the war, PTC dusted off its plans and began anew. In 1946, part of the Ridge Depot, a long-time storage barn for mothballed cars, was rebuilt, and the 61's base moved from Allegheny Depot to it. Car route 29, the Morris-Tasker crosstown line in South Philadelphia, was converted from trolley service in 1947. Later that year, the 61 added just over 1/4th mile of run onto Venice Island alongside the Schuylkill River in Manayunk, with a new loop at the end of Flat Rock Road, serving several industries on the Island.

In early 1948, the 29 added another six blocks' worth of coverage area west of the car line's turn back at 28th Street, ending at an off-street loop at 33rd & Dickinson Streets. The following spring, car route 75, the Wyoming Avenue crosstown route in North Philadelphia, went to trackless. Two changes in the 75 were effected - the trackless used Castor Avenue and Wyoming Avenue in place of side-of-the-road operation on paralleling Ramona Avenue, and new territory was added west of 5th Street. The trolley line turned south at 5th Street and followed this and Erie Avenue to a turnback at 17th Street. The trackless remained on Wyoming Avenue, with a short westbound jog on Roosevelt Boulevard, providing a new connection with the Broad Street Subway at its Wyoming station, to Belfield Avenue. At Belfield, the directions split again on parallel streets, winding the new routing's way to Wayne Junction at Wayne & Windrim Avenues.

The 75 was slightly different in its routing through the Frankford and Bridesburg neighborhoods. As a rail line it used Arrott Street and Margaret Street (Arrott Street's extension east of Frankford Avenue) eastbound and Orthodox Street westbound. When the trackless began operation the City reversed the street directions and the 75 followed suit.

A group of 65 ACF-Brill T-44's arrived on the property in 1947, with 40 coaches assigned to Southern Depot for 29 and 80 and 25 to Frankford Depot for 75. The Brill T-30's used on the 80 were retired. Frankford, a long-time car house, became a trackless facility as well with the conversion of the 75.

A fifth route, car line 59, was changed to trackless in 1950. The 59 had an interesting history, as the City, not PRT, built the line and opened it in 1922 in conjunction with the commencement of Frankford El service. 59's territory in Northeast Philadelphia was sparsely settled, although older established residential communities in Fox Chase and Bustleton were served by it. The equipment for the 59, a fleet of 28 Marmon-Herrington TC-46's. was purchased by the City and operated by PTC. As a trackless, the 59 was truncated in a new off-street loop at the end of Castor Avenue in the Bells Corner neighborhood. A new bus route, designated 59b, was created to operate on Bustleton Avenue and pick up the former car line north of Bells Corner. The 59 was based at Frankford with the 75, and the two lines shared the fleet of Brills and Marmons there despite the City ownership of the latter.

In the early 1950's, PTC was considering more trackless conversions especially in the context of its aging car fleet. Existing crosstown car lines in South Philadelphia, particularly the 63, 64, 79 and 81, were part of the plan. Some lines in West Philadelphia were also under consideration, including the 46 and 70 crosstown El feeders, and this would have marked the first use of trackless west of the Schuylkill River. Nothing ever materialized from these plans.

In 1955, car line 66 was converted. The 66 was a long a busy feeder to the Frankford El from the Bridge Street terminal, extending from there along Frankford Avenue to the City-Bucks County boundary. The line ended in an off-street terminal at City Line, as it was (and still is) called, but strangely it was a double-end car line as no loop had been provided. 66 had been considered for PCC operation but track conditions were poor and a loop would have had to be built at City Line. A tunrback at Gregg Street, about 3/4th mile south of City Line, had a track loop and PCC's had been operated on the line for special purposes. The 66 shared the facilities at Frankford Depot with 59 and 75.

Marmon-Herrington was tapped to supply a fleet of 43 TC-49's for the opening of 66. The coaches were not exclusively for the 66 and were shared among the three Frankford Depot routes. The City assisted with the purchase of these coaches as it did with the 400-series Marmons. This was the last purchase of new tracklesses in the United States until the 1970's.

In that same year PTC came under NCL control. The ambitious plans for trackless expansion came to an end. No more lines would be converted. Not surprisingly, the tide began to turn against trackless operation as NCL converted the system to primarily bus over the course of three years. Some of the 200-series ACF-Brills were made surplus by reduced service in 1958 and were moved from Frankford and Southern to displace some of their older cousins, the 100-series, at Ridge. In 1959, the 61 began being served by buses on weekends and holidays. The 80 was temporarily bussed in 1960 because of sewer work. In early 1961, the 61 was formally converted to bus. The pre-war Brills were scrapped. The Pullmans, out of service since the mid-1950's, went as well. The ACF-Brills were moved back to Frankford and Southern. Things were looking glum. The only hope was that the post-war fleet, being relatively young and in good shape, would hang on until it could be fully depreciated.

Then the unthinkable happened. With 61 converted and 80 off temporarily, PTC had surplus coaches. It decided to convert bus route 79 temporarily to use the coaches until 80 came back. This would be easy enough since the 79 had been converted from rail to bus in 1956. While the other routes that were changed from trolley to trackless had a short interim period of bus operation during the conversion, the 79 was the only Philadelphia route to be created from a bus route. Most line poles and facilities were still in place from its trolley days, so the changeover was quick. Line poles got a new green paint job (as opposed to the usual black color). The pull-in/pull-out wires on 22nd Street and 23rd Street to and from Southern Depot, which served the 29, would have a few switches added at Snyder Avenue to be able to be used by coaches accessing and leaving the 79.

When all was said and done, as things turned out, the 80 did not return as a trackless. In 1962, it went bus. Two years later, it became a part of expanded bus route 7.

On the other side of town, however, things were a little different. Significant residential development in Northeast Philadelphia made 66 a very popular line. A third set of wires was added on Frankford Avenue from Cheltenham Avenue to Wellington Street (just south of Cottman Avenue) in 1962 to allow peak-hour peak-direction express service. This allowed express coaches to pass locals.

In October 1968 PTC was purchased by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). There were no immediate changes in the trackless operation although there was talk of replacement vehicles. SEPTA adopted a new gold paint scheme for vehicles but it would not be applied to the over-1000 GM "old look" buses or the trackless fleet, each of which would retain the PTC green scheme. Despite this, a few of the 300-series Marmons got a variation of the gold/maroon paint job.

The coaches began to go through a rehab in the early 1970's. A new two-tone green with white roof scheme emerged which looked handsome on the fleet, in contrast to the tired green and cream. The realization that the tracklesses had to be replaced was evident, as they began to show their age. As time went on, the handful of Brills at Frankford continually shrank as some were moved to Southern to replace coaches which could not be repaired. At least one Marmon, 324, was moved to Southern in 1977 and tested on 29 and 79, but did not run in revenue service.

While a new fleet was being planned, 325 was completely rebuilt in 1978 with new chopper controls as a pilot for the revamping of the entire 300 series. 325 was decked out in the new SEPTA red/white/blue scheme, the only trackless to get this paint job. Soon after it was completed, SEPTA decided to replace the fleet with a group from AM General. It would receive 110 new coaches in a joint order with Seattle Metro, which was getting 109 of its own.

The first AMG arrived in spring 1979 and tested on all five routes extensively. The remainder of the order followed and plans were made to phase out the old green Brills and Marmons. The plans did not go very far, as problems began to develop with the AMG's. In mid-1980 the fleet of AMG's was pulled from service and the old coaches returned for just over six months, when the bugs had been worked out and the new vehicles returned.

The first ten of the AMG order (800-09) had wheelchair lifts at the front door, the first SEPTA vehicles to have lifts. Originally it was planned to have four of these based at Southern and six at Frankford, allowing up to two on each line. When the AMG's finally took over all service in 1981, these all went to Southern. The rest of the fleet was assigned with 810-44 at Southern and 845-909 at Frankford. Over time, several coaches were shuffled between depots. The Brills and Marmons were quietly withdrawn from service in 1981 and stored at various locations around Philadelphia prior to their sale. Several went to museums but the remainder were scrapped. SEPTA did not retain any for historical purposes.

Extra coaches were included in the order for a planned extension of the 66 from Frankford Avenue & Knights Road, just south of the City Line loop, to Liberty Bell Race Track at Woodhaven Road. Funding was in place for this but community opposition stopped it. Unfortunately, the Track was sold in the late 1980's and became Franklin Mills, a successful shopping complex which is served today by a number of SEPTA bus routes but not by an extended 66.

A city-sponsored traffic signal program on Frankford Avenue called "Transig" extended the express wires on 66 to Rhawn Street, 3/4th mile north of Cottman Avenue, and added a new turnback at Welsh Road to enhance service. "Transig" placed contacts on the wires to give the trackless extended green signals to allow them to operate more efficiently. It similarly added a fourth set of wires in the territory where three sets had existed to allow full-time express service if needed in both directions. The four-wire area was expanded north of Cottman Avenue to just south of Rhawn Street to allow expanded express operation as well.

Some other expansions were considered at this time, mainly to utilize the surplus coaches where possible. In the early 1980's trolley service was curtailed because of equipment shortages and infrastructure issues. Four streetcar routes - 6, 50, 53 and 56 - were being considered for conversion to bus. A fifth, route 60, was to be completely rebuilt as a surface light rail line in a separated right-of-way where possible. The 6, distant from either operating base, would have required a lengthy pull-in/pull-out move from Frankford Depot as well as significant non-revenue wire along Old York Road. The 56 had potential for a light rail rebirth like 60 and was reconsidered for that.

Both the 50 and 53 lines were serious contenders. The 50 would tie the Southern and Frankford operations together, and would bring trackless service back to Center City (the 61 was the only trackless route that served downtown). The connection between the two operating districts would be welcome. The lack of this link resulted in the divisions operating as if they were a thousand miles apart in many respects. Coaches that are moved between depots must be towed or transported. Similarly, Southern's coaches requiring heavy maintenance at the Courtland (now Berridge) Shop must be towed there. A short stretch of wire from route 75 at 3rd Street & Wyoming Avenue connects the Frankford operation to the Shop directly.

The 53 could be reworked to become an extension of the 75 (ironically, in the late 1930's, the 53 and 75 were through-operated on Sundays and holidays until the end of rail service on 75). Not much more was done along these lines, however, and the trackless system remained as a 5-route operation.

The late 1980's and 1990's saw the AMG's get a couple of new paint schemes. The first was a change from the red/blue scheme below the windows to a red/blue belt with black window treatment. Later, the black window treatment was changed back to white. In 1997 the current scheme of all white with a red/blue stripe above the windows began to be applied to the fleet. Also during this time the surplus coaches, not needed because the 66 extension was not realized, began to find new homes, with some turning up at the new Midvale bus garage and the adjacent Roberts Yard Regional Rail facility and others at the Frontier Depot in suburban Montgomery County. Several of these in storage were inoperable and would eventually be sold or scrapped.

One of the most notable failures in the coaches was the air conditioning, which was a welcome addition when the new fleet began to enter service. Fortunately the fleet had windows that opened, unlike SEPTA's buses. In later years, the lack of AC prompted the divisions to substitute buses for the tracklesses on hot days. This resulted in a hodge-podge of service with two types of vehicles on the street on a line.

SEPTA had also looked to move the pull-in/pull-out wires beneath the Frankford El on Frankford Avenue for the 59 and 75 to facilitate work on the El as well as to simplify movements to and from the 59. The wires were mounted to boards on the underside of the El structure and were fairly low so they were often struck by trucks. The option was to string a new set of wires on Bridge Street from Frankford Depot to Oxford Avenue, roughly 3/4th mile. Local residents objected, so the plan was dropped.

There were other big plans to completely reconstruct the busy Frankford Terminal and these would affect the adjacent Frankford Depot. While 66's loading area at the original terminal building would not be changed, the rest of the Terminal would be drastically revised, including the El itself which would be routed off Frankford Avenue into the terminal proper. Changes at the Depot would render the trackless yard inaccessible for a period of time as the Depot building would be reconfigured. In early 2002 work began on the project and the 59, 66 and 75 went bus, with the AMG's moved to storage lots around the SEPTA system. As things turned out, they would never return.

At Southern, nothing as drastic was happening, but the rebuilding of the Tasker Homes public housing complex at the west end of the 29 caused it to be converted to bus in summer 2002. A slight jog in the eastbound routing through the complex would be straightened out with a new Morris Street alignment when the effort was completed. This left 79 as the only trackless operating in Philadelphia, and this remained sporadically until July 2003 when the 79 went to bus. At that point, the remaining AMG's were moved to storage for sale.

SEPTA publicly stated that the trackless system was "temporarily" bussed and would return. However, in 2003, the 29 was extended to a shopping center on its east end, and this proved to be very popular. Any return to trackless would involve the erection of over a mile of new overhead and poles, some on the private property of the shopping center which would no doubt involve legal agreements and issues. It began to become apparent that the trackless network had a very tenuous future.

As part of an order for New Flyer low-floor buses in 2002, SEPTA received 12 hybrid buses which were assigned to Southern Depot. Another 20 hybrids came the following year. SEPTA began to explain that the hybrids would allow all the clean air benefits of the tracklesses and, accordingly, no new trackless coaches would be purchased. At the same time, the reconstruction of Frankford Terminal included placement of new trackless wires for the 66 as well as the storage yard and depot. The Federal Transit Administration stepped in and advised that the replacement of this infrastructure, which it was funding, would be for naught if SEPTA did not intend to procure replacement tracklesses.

After some thought, SEPTA revised its plans and re-committed to the Frankford trackless operation, placing an order with New Flyer for 38 dual-mode coaches. An option for 22 was to be included in the order, which would be sufficient for the Southern routes. The 38 coaches would barely fill the needs of the 59, 66 and 75 (in the Brill/Marmon days, there were double this amount, and 65 AMG's had been assigned to Frankford), but, in reality, the 75 in particular had seen its fortunes drop as the neighborhoods it served declined radically.

When the order was placed, SEPTA decided not to exercise the option, effectively keeping the 29 and 79 as bus routes for the foreseeable future. This decision has been criticized at many levels.

The first New Flyer, 800, arrived in fall 2007 and was tested extensively before being returned to the factory for adjustments. In early 2008, others began to show up at Frankford and were placed into service starting with runs on the 66 and expanding to the other two routes slowly. The June schedules called for a mix of buses and tracklesses on 59 and 75, with all trackless on 66. By August, all but 800 were on the property and in service.

The dual-mode tracklesses allowed a good deal of flexibility with their off-wire capability, to the extent that cutback loops on the 59 at Hellerman Street and on the 66 at Welsh Road have been de-wired. The former was admittedly little-used. There have been reports that pull-in/pull-out coaches to and from Arrott Terminal have been using the diesel power rather than the troublesome wires beneath the El as well.

Roster


Builder/Model Fleet #s Year
Brill Rail-less coaches 51-59 and 61 1923
Brill Commercial 60 1923
Brill T-30 (replaced Rail-less coaches) 71-78 1935
Brill 40-SMT 101-50 1940
Brill 40-SMT 151-60 1942
Pullman 41-CS100-44CX 191-96 1944
ACF-Brill TC-44 (replaced T-30's) 201-65 1947
Marmon-Herrington TC-46 471-98 1949
Marmon-Herrington TC-49 301-43 1955
AM General 10240-E (replaced ACF-Brills and Marmons) 800-909 1979-80
New Flyer E40LF (replaced AMG's) 800-37 2007-08

Photo Gallery


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More Images: 1-50 51-78

Page Credits

By Bob Wright.

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