City Branch Transit: the Transit Equity Express

Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.

Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.

But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.

The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:

Route 48 through Fairmount

Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.

Route 32 map section
Route 32 is only slightly better.

Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.

I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.

But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.

Join the Conversation


  1. Where is the City terminal for the City Branch? Broad & Callowhill? Atop Reading Terminal? Elsewhere? Excuse my ignorance, but I couldn’t find the exact answer.

    1. The cut/viaduct transition intersects the surface at about 13th and Noble, but there are a multitude of options for where to go from there, or even if you go there at all. (The trench is open between 16th and 20th.) DVRPC is (hopefully) looking at a lot of options there. As long as nothing completely crazy (like turning at 13th/Callowhill) happens, it shouldn’t be a problem. And even if whatever they pick turns out to be suboptimal, it can be changed.

      I am assuming a bus option really hard here, but let’s just say I would feel very comfortable wagering a lot of money on bus > LRT.

  2. Thanks for pushing back on the DVRPC insanity, Michael. Any idea as to why we are not really seeing any consideration for something along the lines of a Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in this space? Is it simply a money concern?

    1. It is the money, yes. (Looking to see if rollercoastering will save the cost of below-grade stations is what we call a “tell”.) The other side of it is that the existence of Friends of the Rail Park, however much I disagree with their goal, means that there’s pressure to do something now, and not just let the line lie fallow for another twenty years. So, uh, thanks, to them.

  3. Why can’t we connect the tunnel to the Broad-Ridge Spur, and use the Broad-Ridge Spur trains to make a new subway line from 31st and Girard to 8th and Market? Maybe there would need to be some tunneling involved for where the City Branch cut ends (at Broad and Noble? 13th and Noble?) but surely that’s substantially cheaper because most of the tunnel already exists. I guess I have three questions:

    1. Why light rail > subway rail?
    2. Are you proposing underground BRT as a stepping stone to an actual subway line? Or do you see BRT as the end goal?
    3. Obviously a subway is more expensive than buses. But due to the fact that most of the tunnel is already built (and the Broad-Ridge part is built, used, and maintained), aren’t some of the most expensive parts already paid for?

    1. So, it’s true that only 500 meters of tunneling would be necessary to link the City Branch to the Ridge Spur, but connection to the spur happens right underneath the Reading Viaduct, so it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. And then you have to figure out what to do about the existing Spur, which quite a few people along North Broad would miss if it went away; do you maintain that and run both lines into the single-track terminal at 8th/Market, splitting the available slots between the two lines? Oh, and 8th/Market to 31st/Girard is only about 4 km, which is awfully short. Do you force people coming from North of Girard to transfer, when many will have to transfer a second time at 8th/Market? Or are you committing to spending between $150 million and $500 million per km to extend the tunnel up 29th Street? And I’m being optimistic and saying we won’t hit the NYC price of $1.3 BILLION per km, although I wouldn’t put it past the Philadelphia building trades to at least try to get us there.

      Oh, and the part where this project entered the realm of “money we don’t have and can’t reasonably expect to get” happened back on those three blocks of Noble Street. The point of BRT > LRT > subway is that it’s actually [BRT in 5 years] > [LRT in 15-20 years (optimistically)] > [subway in 30-50 years]. At the point where we could get a large enough package of funding all at once for a Strawberry Mansion Subway, there are higher regional priorities that would pre-empt it, including NHSL to King of Prussia and subway to the Navy Yard, which put together would still be cheaper than the 4 km of tunneling under 29th Street alone.

      While mixed-traffic streetcars are Considered Harmful, the West Philadelphia model of having an exclusive right of way in the dense urban core, and then running in the street when the density slacks off in the neighborhoods, is proven to work much better than pure street-running. At the moment, we don’t have a good way of returning rails to 29th Street inexpensively, so LRT is still far over the horizon. (This applies even more so to the 32, or other potential routes in North Philadelphia, which have lower performance than the 48. A potential branch line to Parkside could at least share infrastructure with the 15.) That being said, I see that as the eventual endgame for the City Branch, or at least a mixed LRT/BRT tunnel like Seattle’s, for reasons of scaling.

      1. Sorry for the late response, but here’s why I’m more optimistic about the prospects of heavy rail:
        Peak Spur service is 7 minute headways for a very narrow window, and certainly warrants no more than that, so it’s within the realm of possibility to add trains. (I’d even argue that a City Branch, owing to the ceaseless development along the alignment, should take the majority of tunnel capacity). As for the tunneling, it’s already going to involve sinking the grade from Broad and demoing/rebuilding the bridge over 13th, so it’s still probably possible to cut-and-cover around the Viaduct through Noble.
        In the mythical future when we have NYC levels of funding and excess political ambition to build a subway in the first place, it’d be easy by extension to bundle in the necessary upgrades that make tying in the City Branch to existing transit feasible: expanding the Spur terminus, or routing City Branch trains towards the PATCO (City-owned) tunnel, where its 30 minute headways make interlining more amenable and actually utilizes a BMT-spec tunnel as it should. In addition, building an underground connection from Broad/Noble to BSL Spring Garden would enable better transfers for north-of-Girard riders. It’d be foolish to proceed to build within a budget that doesn’t take all these effects into account.
        And yes, the initial operating segment would be short, akin to MTA’s S shuttles, but like any form of incremental light rail we’ve seen in mid-sized cities, it would built sustained political support to continue expanding once the initial benefits are realized, making the north-south segment somewhat politically easier than the initial hurdle. Additionally, I’d opt for an easier 33rd St elevated instead of a 29th St subway, or at least using part of the NEC, since rapid transit doesn’t have to replace bus service outright. If you’re putting all or some of the 48 in the City Branch you’re going to decrease the inherent service overlay that benefits Fairmount, which is why the 48 doesn’t use Pennsylvania in the first place.

        1. Question to you (and to myself from 8 months ago): if elevated is on the table, why not just go up 29th Street? Potential ridership is much higher because half your walkshed isn’t Fairmount Park, and the Fairmount Park Conservancy doesn’t try to mount your head on a pike. It’s fine to start on 33rd, but you want to pop over to 29th no farther north than the NEC.

          Point well taken that current service on the Ridge Spur isn’t great and can probably be interlined a second time with no problem, but I still get twitchy about hard-coding constraints in like you propose to do for the terminal capacity. I should probably just get over myself on that score. (Locust Street is a no-go because PATCO needs the slots for New Jersey service; the current long headways are a function of reconstruction on the Ben Franklin Bridge and are temporary.)

          1. Points taken. It seems that crosstown subways in general are a no-go until through-running past 15-16/Locust is realized. Or if the final leg up 16th or 19th was built a la Chicago Loop for the two lines. In that case I’d be fine with interim BRT as a new service, because it shouldnt come at the expense of extensive rerouting and bypassed stops. The even easier way to get express 48/32/7, maintain Fairmount stops, and not have to dig out multiple portals is to add dedicated bus lanes on Pennsylvania.

    2. Light rail would be great as conceivable it could connect to the Rt15 trackage coming out along the development at 31st and Girard. Zoo traffic alone would make it great. Moreover, there’s buried tunnel on Arch/13th that could theoretically connect to the subway surface tunnel.

  4. This is what happens when you get politics involved. This will take decades to decide and will never be done in my lifetime. No matter what they decide to do at 50 years old this will never be decided in my lifetime since nobody will be happy with what they decide.

  5. Realizing that its not what you think is practical, but in a more perfect world what would a light rail/trolley system that were to use the city branch tunnel look like, what parts of the city could it best serve, how many lines would there be, and where would you see these lines running at the CC end of the tunnel?
    Is the tunnel large enough to have both LRT and buses both use it?
    By the way, NYC prices are for deep, new, solid rock tunnels and the 2nd Ave. tunnel, which is where I think you are basing your pricing on, includes a huge basically new station and inter-connection at GCS. All of which add big time to the cost.

    1. With an infinite budget, I’d have LRT branches running from the City Branch to Parkside via Girard, up 29th St. to Allegheny as the 48, up 22nd as a replacement/supplement to the 33, and maybe one or two more. (I think LRT on 33rd St. can only be justified with an infinite budget, but so it goes.

      The tunnel is plenty big enough for BRT and LRT to share space, because there’s no reason not to run them in the same lanes. Use a double-wire system, and you can even power them off the same catenary.

      The price of everything in New York is about twice what it costs in London, four times that of Paris, and seven times that of Tokyo. Beyond their predilection for expensive construction methods, the inability to recognize that they’re massively overpaying for everyone is a serious obstacle to building good transit there.

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