Philadelphia Transit Notes

Rail approach to 30th St. Station in Philadelphia

Rail approach to 30th St. Station in Philadelphia

I was in Philadelphia this weekend. It’s a great city whose downtown is booming. And I got to ride transit there for the first time in my various visits.

The picture above is one of the rail corridors approaching 30th St. Station, the station used by Amtrak. Because there’s a rail yard next to the station, this is a pretty wide example, but it shows that it isn’t just interstate highways that create barriers between neighborhoods in cities. Major rail corridors do the same thing.

People might argue that there’s a difference in that many rail lines were built prior to development, whereas the highways were plowed through existing neighborhoods in a highly destructive process of demolition and construction. No argument there. But now that they are built, they both operate as barriers nevertheless. I might also point out that many urban freeways, such as those in Chicago, were built closely parallel to existing rail lines that were already dividing walls.

I also rode the Market-Frankford Line subway, which is one of two rapid transit lines in Philly. The cars were modern and clean, though appear to be fairly low capacity (54 according to one web site compared to ~200 in NYC depending on the car in question). The platforms felt 30 degrees cooler than NYC’s saunas.  They still use tokens.

I also unexpectedly needed to take a train out to the suburb of Paoli. It just so happens that’s also an Amtrak stop, so I generally take a one seat ride there on the Keystone train from Penn Station. This time I did some museuming in Philly first and decided to just train out instead of having my Paoli friend come join me in the city.

I’m glad I did this because I made the remarkable discovery that Philadelphia has amazingly good weekend train frequencies by US standards. The Paoli/Thorndale line (the Pennsylvania Railroad “Main Line”) runs half-hourly on Saturdays. It has 32 outbound trains on Saturdays, departing as late as 1:45am from Suburban Station.

The other lines seem to have hourly departures. There are 17 outbound trains on the Landsdale/Doylestown Line.  The Manyunk/Norristown Line has 19 outbound trains.

This level of service crushes Boston, where the Providence Line has 9 trains, with as much as three hours between trains midday. The Framingham/Worcester Line also has 9 trains.

Chicago’s Metra Electric has good frequencies (it operates with separate service segments and multiple branches like say the Metro North New Haven Line so I can’t really describe it adequately as I’ve never ridden it enough to get a feel). But the rest of them have lower weekend frequenices than Philly. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line has 14 trains on Saturday, with two hour frequencies morning and evening.  There are 13 on the UP-North Line.

Philadelphia is having some commuter rail problems. It had to take its entire fleet of new Silverliner V out of service this summer because of a structural defect in their trucks. But given that it has an entirely electrified system (much better acceleration than Boston and Chicago’s diesel fleets), a through-running system (albeit no longer marketed as such) and a good base of frequencies already, it would seem like the sky is the limit in terms of what they can do with it.


from Aaron M. Renn


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