Way Off Track

Why we need to save SEPTA from itself & preserve local railroad history.  

This spring, SEPTA announced that the Market-Frankford Line was getting $317 million in federal infrastructure funds to buy 200 new rail cars. While certainly this is money well-spent, it’s clear SEPTA needs another $240 million by July, when the last COVID money dries up. If we don’t find more funding soon, the resulting service cuts would be so severe that Senator John Fetterman has said they will be “the collapse of SEPTA.” 😬😬😬

Talk about poor timing. In the next two years, Philly’s hosting Wrestlemania 40, NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, six FIFA World Cup Soccer Games, MLB’s All Star Game, and of course our country’s 250th anniversary in 2026. The city’s counting on all this tourism to bring a huge economic boom, despite obvious logistical challenges that do not bode well for the anticipated windfall.

Many regional rail lines lumber along with sluggish service, limited schedules, inconvenient routes, and even station closures – no wonder why ridership is still down 43% from pre-pandemic levels (while buses & subways are at 95%). If Mayor Parker wants to see more workers enlivening the city, her administration should really prioritize public transit for the nearly 120,000 Philly job holders who live in the surrounding townships.

Like me! I started riding in for a new job soon after that report came out about cracks in 95% of SEPTA’s train fleet. 😬 That was back in 2016, when SEPTA had to ground 100+ cars, and the rest of the summer was a hot mess of crowds and delays. Maddening, but still better than sitting in traffic!

Although our suburbs were created with automobiles in mind, the easiest way to get into the City is still the old Reading Railroad, now part of SEPTA’s commuter lines, moving almost 16 million workers yearly. Which is just one facet of the railroad industry’s incredible history here, and its great contributions to our city’s legacy.

It’s hard to think of an institution as “Philly” as the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company, the city’s main artery for travel and commerce for more than a century.

Terminal + Depot opened January 29, 1893

Chartered in 1833, it quickly grew by acquiring small regional railroads, and soon established the famous “Alphabet Route” connecting Chicago, New York, and New England, and all main points in-between.

But by the time Reading Railroad celebrated its 100th anniversary, the industry was in steep decline. Revenue plunged more than 50% during the Great Depression (1928 – 33), causing many railroads to merge in a desperate act of self-protection. Reading Railroad joined with Pennsylvania Railroad on a line to the Jersey shore, but it wasn’t enough to save either company. Planes and motor vehicles eventually put the final nail in the coffin on the Golden Age of railroads.

For the great Reading Railroad, the end would come in 1971 after a series of losses led to bankruptcy. Five years later, Conrail acquired its assets to compete with Amtrack on freight contracts, while SEPTA continued to operate its commuter routes – the same ones in use today. You can still find traces of Reading Railroad’s famous black diamond logo along these heritage routes.

Reading’s historic train shed – a National Historic Landmark – was purchased by the Redevelopment Authority in the mid-1990’s, and incorporated into the design for a new Pennsylvania Convention Center at Market Street East. The shed is now a Grand Hall and Ballroom, while its exterior has been restored as a free-standing “building within a building” to evoke a sense of the historic structure’s spacious energy.

There are other railroad-y touches to discover, if you look for them: iron trusses, repurposed parts and glass-and-copper fixtures. Ten pairs of stainless steel rails in the marble floor here represent the thirteen tracks that had once been here. The pedestrian bridge at Arch street is exactly located where the old tracks used to come in.

I was just a little kid when my dad took me to Reading Terminal for a ride out of the historic Reading Railroad shed on one of the last trains to make the trip. I think about that every day I go to work, when I look down at the black diamonds carved into the old benches at Jenkintown Station.

It’s been eight years since SEPTA’s last significant service interruption for regional rail. Here’s hoping we’ll sail through this summer without another one. For now, I’ll see you on the “R5”!

Thoughts? Questions? My friends, I love your feedback! Please reach out in the comments below.

About Michael Thomas Leibrandt 13 Articles
Michael Thomas Leibrandt is a Historical Writer Living in Abington Township, Pennsylvania.

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