Today has not been a happy one for Philadelphia commuters or for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as SEPTA’s City Division workers went out on strike after their contract expired at midnight. One hopes that for all involved this strike will be short-lived and capped by an amicable resolution.
On a happier note, I’m pleased to announce that my photographic history of the highs — and lows — of Philadelphia trolley operations since 1968 will be released under Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Modern America series in January. The book already has a sale page on Amazon.
An introductory essay on the development of streetcars in the city since 1859 kicks off an all-color collection of images illustrating the trolleys from their near nadir in the late 1960s through today, as SEPTA is in the early stages of choosing the next generation of streetcars to grace Philadelphia rails. There’s plenty to satisfy railfans, but I’ve also worked to curate a story that will appeal to those interested in local history and the evolution of Philly’s cityscape over nearly a half century, including the gritty and graffiti-laden 1970s.
The city’s loss of industry and shift of population toward automobiles and suburban lifestyles is part of the story, but so, too is the decades-long shadow of deliberate underinvestment by SEPTA’s predecessor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, during its final years under National City Lines ownership.
Bondo and the colorful new “Gulf Oil” paint scheme of 1973 (applied even as some cars were still being repainted in PTC’s green and cream livery) livened up the trolleys during a difficult decade, but SEPTA’s struggles to maintain a state of good repair amid years of insufficient funding took their toll, as the images show. The Woodland Depot fire of 1975 claimed 60 cars, and pushed SEPTA officials toward desperately needed action. Third-hand cars from Toronto were a stop-gap measure. The 1980s general overhaul (GOH) program for PCC cars was another successful step, though tarnished by how quickly many of the cars were retired as the North Philadelphia lines met their demise.
Perhaps the greatest success story of the era was the design and construction of SEPTA’s Kawasaki light rail cars for use on the subway-surface and suburban trolley lines. Those durable cars continue to serve reliably today (well, not literally this day), 35 years after they were first introduced, even as their successors have yet to be identified, let alone purchased or built.
Then there is the often bizarre story of the renewed Route 15, with its “PCC-II”cars — essentially LRVs beneath PCC shells. Trolleys certainly returned to Girard Avenue, but not without some hiccups, as the book relates.
This is not a comprehensive or definitive survey, but hopefully an informative look at a mode of transportation which survived in Philadelphia against what often appeared to be some long odds, and continues to serve the city well.