Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Photopost: Cynwyd Trail

The Cynwyd Trail is seriously overdesigned. Don't believe me? Check out these pictures I snapped last week.
The former Cynwyd Train Station. Now vacant, plans are to restore it.

The beginning of the trail at Cynwyd station. Notice (a) track on left and (b) paved trail does not (yet?) meet the former outbound platform.

Trail grading just north of Cynwyd. To the right: crushed-gravel "local" trail, on top of tarp, on top of scraped-down roadbed; on left, roadbed-and-soil base for asphalt "express" trail. Both trails are 12 feet wide.

Here the layer of dirt has yet to be added, and the roadbed on the express trail side is raw.

A run, seen from the trail.

All that's left of the final utilized incarnation of Barmouth station, a semicircular amphitheatrical seating area.

Trail plan. Notice how paved trail seems to be (mostly) following trackbed, while gravel trail meanders more.

Zooming into Barmouth...

Here, the gravel trail splits off to follow Veil Creek, while the paved trail remains in the roadbed.

The paved trail, too, runs away from the roadbed.

The gravel trail connects to this ancient bridge to Westminster Cemetery.

Dirt and plantings occupy part of the roadbed here.

Gravel and paved trails right next to each other. Remember, this completely fills a formerly double-tracked line!

Landscaping features along gravel trail by entrance to Pencoyd Viaduct.

Across the river: Manayunk.

The trail diverges here: to the left, the Switchback path descends back down to Belmont Avenue by Belmont Hills and (what's left of) West Manayunk; to the right, the trail will connect to an extension across the Pencoyd Viaduct.

The switchback path, heading down the hill behind Westminster Cemetery.

Looking at Pencoyd's approach span from the switchback path.

The switchback path runs down a gentle grade and connects to Belmont Avenue by the entrance to the village of Belmont Hills.
The key observation is: it's too wide. A much smarter plan would have been to set aside one track for future reactivation--despite the fact that SEPTA has never had an expansionary corporate culture--and to run either the gravel or the tarmac path down it. The other, reserved, track space could then be reactivated at any time in the future.

This is what I had feared would happen back in 2009 when I first spoke about a service restart to (at least) the Schuylkill Expressway being more important on this route than just a trail. Granted, there's still space for a trail, but since SEPTA proffered no request for reserved railroad right-of-way in the general easement, overzealous landscape designers did not factor that eventuality in. Had SEPTA (or possibly PennDOT*) been more prudent, a reserved ROW might have been worked into a park design, instead of the park needing to be redesigned when (if) SEPTA decides to actually start expanding its system. Renovating Pencoyd might be a tad expensive, but there's certainly no harm in extending to Barmouth (barely any operating expenses increase), especially now that the former station (once again)  has public access, and there is a small jobs center right where Belmont Avenue crosses the rail line.

Furthermore, Lower Merion has decided to turn everything where the rail line passes the Schuylkill Expressway into a park; this makes any further infrastructure investment in the area that much more difficult (and expensive).

Frankly, the overelaborately-landscaped Cynwyd Trail is more a boondoggle now, because of the lack of planning for rail restoration, than it would have been were rail restoration seriously considered. It is a boondoggle since it cost a lot to build now, and since it'll cost a lot to unbuild when the need to extend the rail line makes itself apparent.

The only consolation seems to be that it looks like the paved trail will be retaining enough of the old roadbed that it won't have to be rebuilt from scratch. The macadam may--just may--be a sealed railbank. But that is a fragile hope in the face of depressing built organizational incompetence.
* Maryland's DOT apparently has control over several abandoned RR ROWs in the eventuality MARC decides to expand its commuter service.


  1. Steven, has SEPTA/PennDOT ceded all right to future use? I think the design is great assuming there'll be no rail use. But I don't think SEPTA would be less likely to use it just because there's a trail here.

  2. I don't believe SEPTA has ceded all rights to the line...but that's my point: it's a beautiful park if there were no need to even consider rail reactivation. Since there is a need to, it's overbuilt--leaving a patch of cheap-to-install cheap-to-remove planters or something along one trackbed would have made restoring rail service much easier. As it stands, in the context of the eventuality of rail service restoration, the park is a will be worthwhile only if there is no rail service restoration, although such restoration is frankly needed to bring Cynwyd Line ridership up.

  3. Correct me if I'm wrong but there is no way in Lower Merion with it's kids-based raison d'etre you are going to have a bike trail operating alongside a working rail line. Which confuses me, as they plan to extend the trail to city Ave. I assume that means the cynwyd stop will be eliminated, showing a trend towards contraction, not expansion, which goes a long way to explaining the trail developers strategy. Anyway, what you're talking about takes foresight, and that's rarely possible in todays political climate.