(Author's note: This was originally intended to be an apology for City Branch rail transit on Hidden City. Its length, as well as the excessively technical discussion the dialogue form led to, led to its replacement.)
Controversy embroils the City Branch, my friend. An advocacy group
has proposed converting it into a sunken park, which has met with
considerable public skepticism and resistance.
resistance? It's because, unlike the Reading Viaduct, the City Branch is
still a viable transportation asset. Viable transportation assets which
get converted into parks, tend not to get converted back again.
How do you mean, it's a "viable transportation asset"?
about the area between Vine St. and Spring Garden St., west of 8th St.
Crystallize it in your mind. Think about the giant elevated blob east of
Broad, an omnipresent blight in Callowhill. That's the Reading Viaduct.
It was built as part of the 9th St. Branch, the Reading Terminal's
station lead. A little over a mile remains, from Vine north to where the
Regional Rail tunnel cutoff rejoins this branch, just north of Spring
This structure has a kind of "Y" or "V" shape, with two
branches diverging where it crosses Callowhill (between 11th and 12th).
The right-hand leg runs northward--that's the 9th St. Branch proper.
The other leg curves west until it parallels Noble St., which it meets
between 12th and 13th. Both Noble St. and the line cross over 13th, but
Noble proceeds to elevate to the level of Broad St., which is an
overpass over the line.
It is here the cut proper begins.
Broad west to 22nd, the line extends as a sunken industrial lead along
the former course of Noble St.; at 22nd it curves north and enters the
Fairmount Tunnel, where it interchanged with what is today CSX's
Philadelphia Subdivision--but was originally the Baltimore and Ohio
Railroad (B&O). Less than a mile further north, the B&O ended at
a wye called Fairmount Junction, where it interchanged with two other
railroads, the Reading (RDG) and Pennsylvania (PRR)*. This wye still
exists, just west of Brewerytown.
Back in the days when the area between Vine and Spring Garden hummed with industry and activity, the City Branch was the freight
terminal lead. The Terminal Commerce Building, that giant beige-bricked
behemoth across the street from the Inquirer Building, was the
Reading's primary freight terminal as much as the Terminal was its
passenger terminal. Between four and six tracks wide and busy 24/7, the
City and the railroad collaborated to separate the traffic from the
streets late in the 19th century. A section was roofed over to produce
the Fairmount Tunnel and Pennsylvania Ave. above; the remaining dry cut
is the City Branch.
OK, history is cool and I get you're a nerd, but wouldn't this mean that the line isn't a "viable transportation asset" anymore? There are, after all, hardly any industries left!
yes, there aren't any industries left along this line. That's why it's
dormant. There are a lot of other industrial spurs in this city whose
industry either dried up or switched to trucks--the North Penn Branch
down American St., the Oxford Rd. Branch into the Near Northeast, the
old Fairhill and Frankford Branches, the 54th St. Branch in deep
Southwest Philly, and others--they all lie abandoned or dormant, their
customer base (usually one or two major ones, but occasionally a
plethora of minor ones) gone. They are relics of a time when factories
and mills were large multistory loft structures served by rail--nowadays
those factories are single-story suburban groundscrapers served by
What has happened to those old loft industrial structures?
They have been demolished for redevelopment, or
rehabilitated--frequently into apartments and condominiums. What was
once a place to work is now a place to live. People today live
alongside the City Branch Cut, where sixty years ago they worked. And
servicing communities is the basis of strong ridership.
So it sounds like you're not talking about like a railroad-y kind of rail?
Indeed I am not. I'm talking about urban rail. Light rail or heavy rail.
As opposed to...?
A park. A proposal has been making the rounds to convert both
the Reading Viaduct--the elevated structure, remember--and the City
Branch Cut--the sunken one--into a park. Remember what I said before?
It's okay to turn the Reading Viaduct into a park, or, more accurately,
it will be in a few years, as Callowhill starts to really fill in. It
would be a beautiful attraction and a jewel of the city.
But the City Branch Cut, it's not. Sunken parks don't work. We've tried them before. Remember what happened to Dilworth Plaza?
It filled up with homeless, didn't it? People avoided it, didn't they? It was pretty, but it sure wasn't safe.
And we're going about tearing it apart and rebuilding it to get rid of
that sunken plaza, turning it into a proper waiting room for the subway,
the El, and the trolleys. Elevated park areas may work, especially if
well looked after, but sunken ones, as a rule, fail. And that's what a
lot of people are worried about.
But what I heard about the sunken park, a bikeway would be routed through it.
the proposal. But it would duplicate a bikeway about to be installed on
Spring Garden St. That bikeway would be easy to find and to navigate
to, and consequently more heavily used than a sunken one well away from
So I take it you're not enamored with this park idea.
Talk to me a little more about urban rail, then.
poor transit access to the Art Museum area has been a recognized weak
link in our city's transportation network for a while now. I'm not
talking about the Museum proper, remember--I'm talking about the
neighborhoods around it. Phlash serves the Museum proper, but it doesn't
serve the neighborhoods--so whenever you hear the comment that Phlash
serves the needs at hand please realize it's fallacious.
several buses that serve the Art Museum area: the 7, 32, 33, 38, 43,
and 48 right off the top of my head. Without exception, these buses are
packed to the gills as they pass through the area, during any time of
the day. They head to or through Center City (except the 43, which links
Parkside and Fishtown along Spring Garden), and they all extend to
neighborhoods deeper into the city.
So the need is for a route which links the area with Center City, and which provides relief for the overburdened local buses.
Precisely! There are two ways to do this: light rail, or a metro.
What are the differences?
rail would lay tracks and trolley wire, and would use the trolley
tracks along 11th-12th and Girard to access Center City and points west
(the Zoo is popular, and there's a turnback loop at 40th Street),
respectively. A metro would lay tracks and a third rail, and connect
into the Ridge Avenue Spur and use its equipment.
Couldn't light rail use the trolley equipment we already have?
no. That equipment was built in the 1980s and is in violation of ADA
standards. We'd need to procure new equipment. It's because of this that
light rail and a metro begin to approach cost parity--as well as the
fact that the trolley tracks along 11th and 12th haven't been used in 20
years and would need to be rebuilt.
There aren't any public roads
with a railroad crossing along this line. CSX, the active freight
railroad, has one near the corner of 30th and Pennsylvania, I think, but
it's for a private access road. This is what industry professionals
would call a grade-separated right-of-way, and most of the
expense of a metro comes in creating this kind of right-of-way, usually
as tunnels under streets. That cost, here, was borne long ago. We just
have to connect what already exists.
So it's like the Second Avenue Subway, but in the hundreds of millions rather than nearly ten billion.
But initial ridership would be lighter along this route. Because of
this, we can use Broad-Ridge cars and shorter, wooden platforms and
upgrade as we go.
I don't know, though. You seem to have this
all thought out, but didn't SEPTA want to do something with this a
decade ago and decide not to?
Well, yes. How much do you know about that study?
know that it studied a light rail line from Broad St. using the City
Branch to Girard, where it connected to the trolley tracks. I can't
remember whether it used Girard to Lancaster or a new routing along
Parkside, but it would have connected to the Regional Rails at 52nd St.
Didn't it get axed when the Schuylkill Valley Metro got axed?
about what I remember too. As I recall, there were three major issues
with the study: a shoehorned connection to the Schuylkill Valley Metro
(so that it could be included along with the whole package), lack of a
proper Center City gateway despite two to choose from, and a broken
Can you explain?
Part of the Schuylkill Valley Metro--SVM for short--proposal was a
reuse of the Cynwyd Line across the Pencoyd Viaduct into Manayunk; this
line diverges from the Paoli/Thorndale Line at 52nd St., which was the
reason for termination there--rather than some more intuitive
destination, such as St. Joe's. The line's natural terminus, however, is
the turnback loop at 40th and Girard, if one doesn't want to extend up
Parkside. That's my first criticism. The second one is that the line was
expected to terminate at Broad St. with a long connection to the
subway, severing any Center City connection. The study thought about
connecting the line with the Ridge Spur, but decided not to in favor of
the shoehorned-in SVM connection; it also pointed out that the 11th-12th
Sts. lines would need to be rebuilt after a decade of disuse.
third problem is that the ridership projection of the era was broken.
Subsequent studies have shown that urban rail routes have exceeded
expectations 200% while suburban ones underperformed 50%. So the average
urban line had double expected ridership and the average suburban one
half it. It was later demonstrated that that particular model had an
implicit suburban bias, remedied with a relatively easy mathematical
"fix". I don't know if that fix has been incorporated into the
projection model, though.
So, as an urban rail system, the City Branch should have double the ridership projected in 2002?
Likely enough I would bet on it. Natural population increase since would also boost the numbers some more.
Like what kind of increase?
Well, let's look at the last Census**--those
numbers are still valid. Notice that the tracts around the City Branch
have grown considerably: Callowhill doubled in population, and Franklin
Town grew a good 20%. Notice that the tracts around the route all have
between 2,000 and 5,000 people--those north of Spring Garden, stably so.
Tally up the numbers and you'll notice that the population adjacent to
the route north of Vine is about 25,000, concentrated along a route two
linear miles long, and inhabiting an environment that disfavors driving.
In addition to this, you have the Community College of Philadelphia,
which can be exploited as a major ridership source, with its total
enrollment approaching 40,000.
But the CCP has a bunch of campuses. That's just Main Campus.
I don't have a campus-by-campus breakdown, but it's fairly safe to say
that about half the students go there. Between the student population
and the neighborhood population(s), I'd say we'd have a catchment area
of about 45,000. We can invoke privilege of destination for the Art
Museum, Logan Circle, the Rodin Museum, Barnes, and Lemon Hill, and, for
light rail, the Zoo, and assay that the combination of those increase
capturable ridership by 5,000, to get a nice round 50,000. It is,
however, important to note that while these places can augment
ridership, they can't create it--that's the downfall of the Phlash.
What are a "catchment area" and "capturable ridership"?
are technical terms for how many people would have opportunity to
regularly use the service. The "catchment area" refers to the population
living and working close to the line; "capturable ridership" refers to
people that can use the line if there's an incentive to, such as
convenient access to a destination. Destinations are great for lots of
things, but they aren't the main ridership draws. Realized
ridership--how many people actually do--is usually a percentage of this
amount. Transit planners working on new lines usually attempt to broaden
their catchment areas as much as possible, through use of devices such
as transit-oriented development, and capturable ridership with
park-and-rides, because the more people can use a service and find it
convenient, the more they do. Realized ridership, however, can vary--on
the high end, about 20%, on the low end, about 5%, of the catchment
area. Most traditional models model for about 10%.
Those numbers seem strangely familiar...
Yep, and wouldn't you know it, the less somebody drives, the more likely they are to use transit!
I see your point. But all this technical stuff is really starting to
bore me. Let's get back to the controversy you were talking about. You
said you had safety concerns about the park. Is there anything else
you're concerned about?
Yes, actually. I think a park will cost more than transit.
Can you elaborate?
course. As it turns out, building parks on old railroads is trickier
than it first appears. There are lots of parks around that incorporate
parts of old railroads, yes, but they get away with it by maintaining
relatively simple landscaping without needing to destroy the roadbed--a
sort of compacted dirt-and-gravel subsurface all roads share.
the kind of park proposed for the City Branch Cut would lie entirely
over the roadbed. That means, if you want anything more fancy than a
grass lawn or a woodlot, like lights or grove trees, you're going to
have to dig it up. In addition to this, the line was an industrial line,
which means there are probably carcinogens buried in the roadbed. To
make it safe, you'll not only have to dig it up but clean it out.
has been an ongoing problem with the Reading Viaduct, in fact. Known
PCP pollution--railroads of the time used it in their ties--makes
renovation of the Viaduct surprisingly costly, as the existing roadbed
has to be dug up and clean soil put in. New York's High Line had to deal
with this problem, too, and part of what made it possible was the
fundraising acumen of the Friends of the High Line. Even so, even with
all the pollution, demolition of the Viaduct is even more
expensive, because of the solidly-built trestles and city wall-strong
embankments. By contrast, reactivating the City Branch Cut for rail use
would bypass the PCP problem partly by grandfathering it in--the same
way it's dealt with throughout the Regional Rail system and along active
railroads nationwide--and by the platforms acting as caps, or being
elevated away from it.
The cost of removing the carcinogens puts any park conversion of the City Branch Cut in the $350,000+ range. Ouch. And that's before
actually building a park. A reasonable expectation of rail restart, by
contrast, is $200,000, ranged down with strong value engineering and up
with government contract bloat.
But don't the park proponents already have money?
they have is a preliminary planning grant. In essence, they're getting
paid to produce some fancy renderings and draw up a budget. What they don't
have is money to actually clean up the City Branch (or the Viaduct, for
that matter)--this money is hard to find. The Friends of the High Line
had to raise it privately, through funders and massive donation drives.
In other words, they had to make the park a shared community vision, and
then spend a decade gathering the money to make it real. They were able
to do that for a variety of reasons--the High Line is on the
park-starved West Side, and the right-of-way had limited potential
connections with the existing subway network. And remember, even after
the community shared their vision, it took many years of blood, sweat,
and tears to make it real.
There is no such consensus here. The
Reading Viaduct is the closest to such a consensus, and it is plagued by
politicking between park-starved Callowhill loft-dwellers and a
Chinatown looking for cheap land. Even though all parties agree that a
linear park along (at least a part of) the Viaduct is a good idea, they
differ--strongly--on how to go about it.
If anything, the City
Branch Cut is even further from a consensus. Pressing safety and
concerns, relatively abundant parkland west of the
Community College, a hunger for increased rail access, duplication with
the Spring Garden Greenway project, and ongoing funding concerns all
work against any park proposal.
So they don't really have money, is what you're saying.
Then do YOU have money?
no. Rail advocacy for the City Branch has existed consistently for
several years, but has been much more nebulous, mostly consisting of
conversational agreements. ViaductGREENE has only existed for about a
year, and mostly in conversation with other Reading Viaduct proponents.
Rail advocates, even those in on the Viaduct conversation***, thought
that their City Branch Cut proposal was more silly than serious, a way
of differentiating themselves from other Viaduct advocacy groups. It's
only in the past few weeks that the City Branch Cut greenway has been
advanced as a serious proposal, and moving far faster than they
In other words, rail advocates have to organize themselves, and fast.
Join the conversation on Philadelphia Speaks here.
If you want to make your voice heard, we are looking for help, and
would value any sort of skill you bring to the table. Let's get enough
voices together, and we can start working on a serious proposal of our
* Yes, all three of these railroads make an appearance on the Monopoly board.
When you click on this link, you'll get a map showing all the Census
changes in the country. To find more specific information, zoom in or
search for "Philadelphia" or, even better, a zip code around Center
City, like 19130.
*** I.e. me.