Everything SEPTA – Silverliners, Subways, Norristown and Underground Trams

NOTE: In this blog post, I refer to certain rail vehicles as trams. SEPTA call them trolleys, other American cities call them streetcars. Being from Melbourne Australia, they will always be trams to me.

After dumping my bags at my hotel, I walked back to Eastwick station.  The station is one of the smallest and most basic I had seen, consisting of  2 low level platforms, constructed from unfinished wood. Each platform has a bus shelter and pedestrians cross the tracks on a wooden walkway in the centre of the platforms. The station is on the SEPTA (South East Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) Regional Rail Airport line, and is served by Silverliner EMU sets. Due to the low level platform, when passengers want to board or alight at stations such as Eastwick, the Conductor opens the door (high level), then opens a trapdoor in the doorway to expose the steps leading down to the low level platform.

A Silverliner IV bound for Philadelphia Airport stands at Eastwick station

A Silverliner IV bound for Philadelphia Airport stands at Eastwick station

I boarded a 2 car Silverliner IV set and travelled into 30th St Station in down town Philadelphia. I left the impressive station, and headed out into Market St which has a rail tunnel running underneath it, containing the Market-Frankford subway line and several tram routes. I walked along Market St and entered the dirty, dank  and dusty 22nd St tram stop; a short alcove in the tunnel, with cracked, stained tiles on the floor and walls. The tunnel itself was wide; unlike San Francisco’s Market St tunnel where the Subway trains run on a different level to the Muni trams, Philadelphia’s Market St Tunnel has all services on one level. The tram lines are on the outside, with the subway lines on the inside, closed off by a metal fence. The trams have underground stops at 37th St, 36th St, 33rd St, 30th St, 22nd St, 19th St, 15th St and 13st. The shared tunnel runs from 30th St to 13th St, with subway stations at 30th St, 15th St and 13th St. At 13th St, the trams run around a loop under the subway lines and back along the other side of the shared tunnel.

22nd St tram stop in Philadelphia's Market St tunnel

22nd St tram stop in Philadelphia’s Market St tunnel

As I waited for my tram, I heard a subway train approaching in the distance. It grew louder, and louder, until the noise was deafening. It screamed through 22nd St stop at speed, blowing paper and dust with it. As the noise of the train faded, my tram approached; the little white tram a strange sight approaching out of the dark tunnel.

Trams operating on SEPTA’s Market street routes (10, 11,13, 34 & 36) are single ended, requiring a loop at each end of the line to turn around. They were built by Kawasaki, and entered service in the early 1980s. Power is collected by trolley pole, and track gauge is an unusual 5ft 2¼in (1581mm), which is slightly smaller than regular broad gauge of 5ft 3in (1600mm) The trams are white with a SEPTA logo on the front and blue stripe just below the roof line that fades into red at the rear of the car. As the trams are single ended, they only have doors on one side of the vehicle.

An outbound tram stands at the 22nd St top in the Market St tunnel

An outbound tram stands at the 22nd St top in the Market St tunnel

I took the tram to the 40th St Portal; where routes 11, 13, 34 & 36 exit the tunnel. I spent some time photographing, receiving very strange looks from the locals. After watching for a while, I caught a tram back through the tunnel to the 13th St loop and transferred to a westbound Market-Frankford subway train. The Market-Frankford subway line exits the tunnel between 40th St and 46th St stations, and runs along an elevated section of track. The scene outside the window was bleak; boarded up houses lined the streets. Several abandoned burnt out cars were visible and there was little life in this scene of urban decay. It may have been my imagination, but the travellers out here seemed a little more tense, on edge, as if it was a bad place to be. Block after block of abandoned houses, with a few groups of youths roaming through the streets passed my window, and I was glad of the relative safety of the subway train.

An outbound tram emerges from the Market St tunnel at the 40th St Portal

An outbound tram emerges from the Market St tunnel at the 40th St Portal

We reached the end of the line at the 69th St Transportation Center. This area was run down, but compared with the area I had just travelled through, it was vibrant. Low budget take away food shops and Asian grocery shops lined the streets. People bustled through the transportation hub with their groceries or on their way to work. The 69th St Transportation Centre is a major hub; as well as being the western terminus for the Market-Frankford subway line, there are 2 tram routes that operate from there (101 & 102), several bus routes and the Norristown High Speed line.

A Tram rounds the terminating loop at 69th St Transportation Center

A Tram rounds the terminating loop at 69th St Transportation Center

The Norristown High Speed line is what I had come to see. An oddity that appears if it belongs in another era, it is a light railway, operating from 69th St Transportation Center, north to Norristown Transportation Center. It is a unique little railway, which has evolved from an old interurban trolley line. The ABB N-5 cars used on the line mostly operate as a single car, but I did see some operating in multi unit. They have a very retro look, constructed of stainless steel, with a partially streamlined nose. They operate on standard gauge – 4ft 8½in (1435mm) and power comes from a 600v DC 3rd rail.

An ABB N-5 railcar departs the 69th St transportation Center

An ABB N-5 railcar departs the 69th St transportation Center

The line is 13.4mi long (12.6km), and the entire journey takes about 35 minutes for an all stations train. Express services are also run, and the colour on the LED destination board indicates where the train will stop:

  • White – Local (All stations)
  • Blue – Norristown Limited (least stops)
  • Red – Norristown Express (I also saw a red destination indicator on a NOT IN SERVICE train)
  • Green – Hughes Park Express
A 2 car Norristown Hight Speed Line train near Ardmore Junction. The red destination indicator shows it is an express service.

A 2 car Norristown Hight Speed Line train near Ardmore Junction. The red destination indicator shows it is an express service.

I boarded a local Bryn Mawr service, and travelled to Ardmore Junction station. The line runs along a green belt, and the scenery was semi-rural as we zipped along the reserved double track. I left the train, and looked for a good vantage point for photographs. The line is completely grade separated, and I couldn’t find any decent spots, so I walked parallel with the line, through a heavily forested area. I was only about 20 metres from the line, but couldn’t see it though the trees. After walking through the woods for a while I came across a stream that I had difficulty crossing, when I disturbed a deer that had been drinking at a stream, I decided that I was on the wrong path, and made my way to the road paralleling the other side of the tracks.

An all stations service bound for 69th St near Ardmore Junction

An all stations service bound for 69th St near Ardmore Junction

The area was quite well-to-do, with large houses on decent sized lots. The gardens were well tended and houses in good repair. This was a massive contrast from what I had seen from the subway train, not to far from here. I walked along Haverford Rd, occasionally catching glimpses of the railway line, but nowhere decent to photograph. After walking all of the way to Bryn Mawr without finding a decent spot, I decided to photograph from station platforms.

An express service departs Bryn Mawr for 69th St

An express service departs Bryn Mawr for 69th St

I station hopped for a while observing the frequent trains, which were a mix of express and stopping services. At the smaller stations, the trains don’t stop unless requested by an intending passenger pressing a button on the wall of the shelter. This illuminates a white light prior to the station, indicating to the Driver that they are required to stop. The passage of the train resets the light.

A train passes over the single track bridge approaching Norristown

A train passes over the single track bridge approaching Norristown

After I’d had my fill of these curious little trains, I caught a northbound service to Norristown. Norristown Transportation Center is smaller than 69th St. Norristown High Speed line services approaching Norristown enter a single line section after departing Bridgeport, and cross a long bridge over the Schuylkill River and the SEPTA Regional Rail line. They arrive on the upper level, with a bus interchange underneath the station. Adjacent to the bus terminal is the SEPTA Regional Rail station, and across the road is a large, multi level commuter car park. I exited the Norristown High Speed line station, and walked over to the Regional Rail station.

A Silverliner V set stands at Norristown. The station's multi-level car park in visible in the background

A Silverliner V set stands at Norristown. The station’s multi-level car park in visible in the background

I caught a Regional Rail service back to Philadelphia, the track running mostly through leafy suburbs along the Schuylkill River. I arrived at Temple University station and photographed Regional Rail trains during the afternoon peak, as they headed off to Norristown, Chestnut Hill East, Doyleston, West Trenton, Warminster and Fox Chase. As darkness fell, I left the station in search of food and found Chinatown close by.

A Silverliner IV bound for Elwyn stands at Temple University station

A Silverliner IV bound for Elwyn stands at Temple University station

After dinner, I walked back to 30th St station, passing beautiful buildings, including a Masonic Lodge with ornate masonry. Walking across the Market St bridge over Schuylkill River bridge, I had an evening view of the 30th St station, Illuminated from the outside, grand and majestic. What a rail station should look line! I took a regional Rail service back to Eastwick and walked back to my hotel.

Philadelphia's 30th St station, viewed over the Schuylkill River

Philadelphia’s 30th St station, viewed over the Schuylkill River

After breakfast the next morning, I caught a Regional Rail service back into 30th St, then another out to Elwyn; a western suburb of Philadelphia. After leaving the train at Elwyn, I decided to take a walk. I had noticed on the map that Rose Valley station was only about 4km away as the crow flies (the rail line took a circuitous route). Immediately after leaving the surrounds of Elwyn station, the area became semi-rural, with large properties on small country roads. Tall trees lined the road and the warm sun was filtered by the high canopy. The area was very hilly, and I found myself constantly climbing or descending long grades. The walk was hard going, but the scenery was worth it!

A Silverliner IV stands at Elwyn station

A Silverliner IV stands at Elwyn station

I had been walking for almost an hour, and hadn’t found Rose Valley station. I consulted my map, and found that I had taken a wrong turn at an unmarked crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The good news was that I wasn’t too far from Wallington station (the next station inbound from Rose Valley). I didn’t mind the extra walk on the warm autumn day, and finally arrived at Wallington station.

A Silverliner IV departs Media station, as another stands in a siding

A Silverliner IV departs Media station, as another stands in a siding

I caught the train to the oddly named suburb of Media, and walked from the station up to the main shopping strip on State St. State St is lined with boutique shops and cafes with a tram line running down the middle, and reminded me of some parts of Melbourne. The only odd thing was that the tram line was a single track, with trams in both directions using the same line for the 0.7mi (1100m) from Providence Rd to the terminus at Orange St.

A tram bound for Media, runs along the single track section in State St

A tram bound for Media, runs along the single track section in State St

After having lunch in one of the cafes, I walked along State street to Providence Rd, where the trams left the single track section in State street and entered a reserved double track section. The trams operating here were similar to the trams operating through the Market St tunnel, except that they are double ended with doors on both sides, so they do not require a loop at the end of the line. Power on these trams is delivered by a pantograph, rather than the trolley pole on the Market St lines.

A tram bound for Media runs along the reserved track near Providence St.

A tram bound for Media runs along the reserved track near Providence St.

I caught a tram to the 69th St Transportation Centre, running through green woodlands before passing into a residential area, and eventually entering the commercial district around 69th St. The tram terminated at the 69th St Transportation Center, and after taking another ride on the Norristown High Speed Line, I went to catch the Market-Frankford subway back to Philadelphia.

A route 102 tram departs the 69th St  Transportation Centre for Shannon Hill.

A route 102 tram departs the 69th St Transportation Centre for Shannon Hill.

I noticed something I hadn’t the previous day; the Market-Frankford westbound trains terminate one one platform, then run around a loop to form an eastbound train on the opposite platform.I was taking photos of this operation, when I had my first request to stop taking photos in the time I had been in the USA. A station cleaner approached me and told me it was illegal to take photos of trains here. I told him that there were no signs saying so, and he told me that it was a well known fact that it was illegal to take photos of any train in the USA (“because of the terrorists, you know”). I knew that not to be the case, as the Amtrak website states that photography is allowed on their trains and stations. I figured I was not going to change his mind, and would only look like a Smart Alec if I tried. I used the principle that if I’m asked to stop, I walk away, so I caught the next train back to 30th St station, then back to my hotel. It was time to rest, as I had a big day planned the next day.

A Market-Frankford subway train exits the reversing loop at 69th St Transportation Center. 2 trams are visible in the background.

A Market-Frankford subway train exits the reversing loop at 69th St Transportation Center. 2 trams are visible in the background.

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