Hopes Rise Once Again for Abandoned Philadelphia Rail Line

Philly City Branch rail line

A section of Philadelphia’s defunct “City Branch” rail line

For 92 years, freight trains rumbled beneath Philadelphia’s main north-south artery, Broad Street, via a 52-foot-wide tunnel. Traversing a full 15 city blocks, the “City Branch,” as it was known, accommodated six tracks worth of Philadelphia & Reading Railroad trains that once, incredibly, ran down city streets and past tightly packed rowhouses to service factories in the heart of the city.

Today, those roiling factories, trains and even the very rails they rode upon are long gone. However, the rotting cavern persists, just a stone’s throw from downtown office towers, the city zoo, several multi-billion-dollar art collections and a growing residential neighborhood, all underserved by transit.

The seemingly endless potential of the defunct rail line has inspired years of talk — but little action. Now, a new federal planning study is raising hopes for the tunnel once again and could hold lessons for other cities coping with the difficult question posed by abandoned infrastructure.

The City Branch’s last train ran in 1992 and it was purchased a few years later by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). The agency saw opportunity in the tunnel’s intersection with the Broad Street Subway, but besides talk of putting a new light rail line into the tunnel around the year 2000, cash-strapped SEPTA made no serious moves toward reactivating line. Later, the City Branch was incorporated into an ambitious $2 billion state plan to reintroduce commuter rail service between Philadelphia and Reading, Pa. — which ultimately died when the Federal Transit Administration rejected the proposal in 2006.

More recently, in 2010, the successful reuse of New York City’s High Line brought dreams of an ambitious and controversial underground park, spearheaded by local landscape architect Paul vanMeter. That plan, with a price tag somewhere between $30 million and $80 million, hasn’t gone anywhere, short of attracting a small planning grant and igniting the imagination of parks activists. A non-profit, the Friends of the Rail Park, is still lobbying for a recreational use despite vanMeter’s recent passing and outrage from transit advocates.

Last year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) entered the fray, initiating a new study that aimed to, hopefully, provide a clear vision for tunnel. As one of several metropolitan planning agencies that present recommendations for the direction of federal transit dollars, the DVRPC’s studies are an important first step for financing major transportation or public works projects.

“We’re calling it the ‘City Branch Transit Feasibility Assessment,’” says Betsy Mastaglio, a DVRPC planner leading the study, which was initiated at the request of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities and SEPTA. “We’re looking at how much it would take to put anything into the tunnel, and present that in a way that says ‘Here’s some of the benefits and costs of putting transit in the tunnel.’”

Mastaglio says that while the still-ongoing study hasn’t yet reached any definite conclusions, her team was currently weighing the benefits of three possible “aspects” of reuse: a tourist line to tie nearby museums and the zoo into the city’s subway system, an express commuter line that could speed existing bus routes from North Philadelphia to the downtown, and the possibility of accommodating both a transit line and vanMeter’s idea of a subterranean park. All would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) options, at SEPTA and the city’s request — reflecting the hesitancy of modern transit agencies to commit to cash-intensive rail projects — but each would be manifested in different ways.

“A tourist would want very frequent service directly in front of the institutions, with quick, easy and direct access,” Mastaglio says. “A commuter trying to get from North Philadelphia to Center City wouldn’t want to stop a lot for passengers and intersections.”

Mastaglio admits DVRPC is still figuring out “how to even place a stop” given the lack of existing access to the 25-foot-deep City Branch. Part of the study will determine if it’s feasible to use a series of ramps to carry buses up to street level from the tunnel to pick up passengers from above ground stops in the “tourist” proposal.

It may seem like an elaborate solution, but the whole point of exploring BRT lines is to avoid the expenses associated with full-blown subway-style service — like submerged platforms. The “commuter” line would eschew platforms altogether, and essentially act as a submerged, bus-only highway that existing lines could enter to zip past surface traffic.

“The major issue with [platforms] would be expense,” says. “If developers or the [Philadelphia Museum of Art] wanted to pay in, that would be different.”

Combining transit and recreation would also be tricky. Mastaglio says it’s still not clear if it would even be possible or desirable to have some sort of a pedestrian trail or bike route next to a roaring underground busway. But Friends of the Rail Park, which is currently moving forward with plans for a separate park on an abandoned elevated line that connects to the eastern end of the City Branch, still regards the transformation of the subterranean tunnel as their “phase two.”

“Certainly the tunnel is a little more challenging for some people to envision as public space,” says Sarah McEneaney, of Friends of the Rail Park, who says her group provided input to DVRPC planners last year. “But the entire [City Branch] is part of our vision.”

While McEneaney says she is keeping an open mind about the study, she reiterates that her group’s ideal goal is nevertheless a transit-free park. This infuriated transit enthusiasts when vanMeter initially floated the idea — critics assailed it as waste of valuable infrastructure. The park concept was ripped apart by Internet commentators; an op-ed by a transit advocate described the project as “nebulous” and worthwhile only for “novelty value.”

But as fanciful as her own group’s vision may be, McEneaney nevertheless crystallizes many of the very real problems with adapting the old freight line for public transit — like the fact that there isn’t actually any real connection between the City Branch and the subway.

“It’s only something like a mile long…It’s not a very long run for a rapid transit bus and it has the issue of how [a bus] is going to get out of the ground once it’s in there,” she explains.

Ultimately, every proposal grapples with the fact that, despite its enduring allure, the City Branch simply wasn’t made to be a subway, a busway or a park. The continual fascination with this immense ruin, and others like it, seems to stem less from a sense of practicality and more from the popular belief that modern American cities have lost the ability to create new bespoke infrastructure — not an irrational feeling given the perpetual scarcity of public dollars and debacles like Manhattan’s pricey and much-delayed 2nd Avenue Subway.

It’s possible that the results of the DVRPC’s study will point the way towards finally tapping the City Branch’s hidden promise. But it’s also possible that realizing that tantalizing potential could be more costly than simply starting fresh somewhere else.

Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan is a regular contributor to Next City, the Philadelphia City Paper, Hidden City and more.

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Tags: philadelphiatransit agencieslight railbus rapid transitsubways