As I hung up the phone, colleague Bill O’Boyle didn’t miss a beat.
“You trolley guys are nuts,” he said flatly.
I much prefer “passionate” or “dedicated,” but OK.
On one level, I can understand O’Boyle’s reaction. He had just listened to me making plans for spending today stalking trolley cars on the streets of Philadelphia.
As I told a friend, “If I have to ride for five, six hours, I’m going to be on that last car.”
And that is my plan, as a piece of Pennsylvania history could be bowing out this weekend when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority pulls its remaining 1940s trolley cars out of service.
The move was prompted by upcoming PennDOT construction in the neighborhood, but SEPTA says the move also provides an opportunity to do much-needed renovation work on the vehicles, which were most recently rebuilt between 2002 and 2004.
New SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards insisted in media interviews this week that the trolleys will return to service, with buses filling in for them through 2021.
History, though, has those of us interested in these machines a touch leery about their eventual return, so we’re getting in our rides and photos now, just in case.
“When asked to name things that come to mind that are emblematic of Philadelphia, the trolley cars are always at the top of my list,” said Marc Glucksman, a New Yorker who has traveled the country photographing rail transportation modern and vintage.
“From a young age, whenever I visited the city with my family, hopping on and off the trolley was a simple and interesting way to get around town,” Glucksman added.
Like me, Glucksman is among those who have had a lifelong interest in rail vehicles, the way others dote on cars or trucks or planes. It also means we are more aware of what has gone before, and what we stand to lose.
Unbeknownst to many outside Philadelphia, it is home to the largest of the nation’s traditional electric streetcar systems — one of only a handful that survived abandonment during the postwar auto boom — with nearly 70 miles of track serving the city and suburbs. Only the much more modern light rail transit networks in Dallas and Los Angeles operate over more track.
Why do San Francisco’s Victorian cable cars and the 1920s St. Charles streetcars in New Orleans get all the attention?
SEPTA’s trolley system serves workaday riders in West Philadelphia and the Delaware County suburbs — far from the usual tourist haunts in Old City — and enter Center City through a tunnel that loops under City Hall, so many visitors have no idea the trolleys exist.
That, and the system mostly relies on boxy white trolley cars from the early 1980s that are solid and reliable but which aren’t going to draw any casual tourists away from the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall.
There is an exception.
Running across the city on Girard Avenue from Fishtown to West Philadelphia, SEPTA Route 15 operates streamlined trolleys clad in the green, cream and silver paint scheme that they wore when first delivered in 1947. That line carries more than 8,200 passengers per day.
Readers may recall how I have reported for the Times Leader on efforts to restore Wilkes-Barre’s last trolley car, which was built in 1924. By the late 1920s, North America’s trolley companies realized that they were losing ground to the automobile, and fast. Conventional trolleys, like those in Wilkes-Barre and all over the country, were already seen as heavy, slow and outdated technology.
The result of a corporate collaboration between the biggest systems was a streamlined model known as the Presidents Conference Committee car, which truly was fast, efficient and comfortable, and comparable with the rapidly improving autos of the day.
Such vehicles never came to Northeastern Pennsylvania, and with a few exceptions (Johnstown being one) were purchased by only large cities.
Philadelphia would come to have the fourth-largest PCC fleet in North America, 560 cars, behind only Toronto, Chicago and Pittsburgh, with the first ones delivered to the City of Brotherly Love in 1938.
While the PCC car did enable some U.S. trolley systems to survive longer than they might have, many still succumbed to rubber-tired replacements as Americans embraced the automobile with gusto after World War II. Philadelphia’s trolley system soldiered on, despite cuts and years of deferred maintenance, until more modern cars finally joined the fleet in 1980.
What remained of the PCC fleet was extensively remodeled around the same time. But in a move that stunned many, the last three routes using those rebuilt cars — 15, 23 and 56 in North Philadelphia — were “temporarily” converted to buses in 1992.
Of them, only Route 15 was eventually returned to service using 18 rebuilt PCC cars. That wasn’t until 2005, and came about largely through pressure from community advocates and Mayor (later Gov.) Ed Rendell.
It is for this reason that those of us who remember those events have our concerns about whether the PCC-II cars, as they are known, will return to Girard Avenue.
There was no social media in 1992. In 2020, however, word of the cars’ withdrawal quickly spread to railfans, such as myself, and began making the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere. Trolley buffs from around the country, including myself, began descending on Girard Avenue and posting about SEPTA’s plans, which had not been formally announced.
Earlier this week, Philly-area media began reporting on the change, with SEPTA acknowledging that it was coming — and no, they had not announced it publicly — and that the agency does plan to refurbish the cars until the system’s entire fleet can be replaced by low-floor modern trolleys sometime over the next decade. Exactly when will depend on funding and other issues.
Trolleys rely on overhead wires for electric power and must follow tracks embedded in the streets, which critics say makes them less flexible than buses. Advocates point out that they create less pollution at street level and are more efficient as they can carry more people than buses. That is why many cities across the country have brought back rail transit over the past 30 years.
With that in mind, rail advocates hope SEPTA’s promise to fix the trolleys will hold true.
“Given the resurgence of rail transit I can’t believe any city would abandon a streetcar line in this day and age,” said Harry Donahue, a Philly native who became enamored of the cars when he first rode them as a child in West Philadelphia in the 1940s.
“I hope she’s right,” Donahue said of Richards’ pledge that the PCC-II cars will come back.
Donahue volunteers at museums where trolleys operate, as well as being a founding member of Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys — a group I also belong to — which has raised more than $200,000 since 2005 to support preservation of Philly cars in museums.
He sees renewed interest in rail transit in younger visitors.
“When I talk with people in their 20s and 30s about trolley cars, they ask a lot of good questions about the old vehicles and what we have today and how it improves the quality of life in our cities,” Donahue said.