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The History of Philadelphia's Trackless Trolleys

By John Calnan
Manager, City & Service Planning, SEPTA

In the early 1920's, rubber-tired technology improved where trolley car manufacturers offered a flexible vehicle that could avoid motorists or obstacles, as well as providing transit properties a new, electric, mode that while transporting fewer passengers than a streetcar, offering frequent service without the capital outlay for trackage and equipment. Baltimore and Toronto established electric rail-less operations as experiments on two routes with the goal to spur enough development to eventually convert to streetcar operations.

On October 14, 1923, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) purchased 10 "Rail-Less" vehicles to test their effectiveness on newly created Route 80 which operated along Oregon Avenue from 22nd Street & Passyunk Avenue to Oregon & Delaware. The first generation of Rail-Less vehicles, also known as Trolley Coaches, or Trackless Trolleys resembled a trolley car than an electric bus. Initially, these vehicles operated from Jackson Depot, located on 16th Street, between Jackson and Wolf Streets, but the operation was relocated to Southern Depot in 1925. Southern Depot located on Johnston Street, between 19th and 20th Street , housed trolleys that served several crosstown and north-south lines and the facility had the space to store and maintain trackless vehicles.

Ridership gradually grew as Route 80 connected South Philadelphia neighborhoods on either side of Broad Street and several north-south trolley routes to Center City and points north and west. These primitive vehicles were eventually retired and more modern, comfortable vehicles were acquired in November 1935. Trackless service on Route 80 operated unchanged for 25 years until the coaches were replaced by diesel buses on May 15, 1960.

In 1937, PRT's trustees attempted to reduce operating expenses and capital costs by proposing the conversion of Route 61 from a double-ended streetcar to trolley coach. Route 61 carried more riders than Route 80 and this line provided a more adequate test to determine the effectiveness of these vehicles. PRT had filed for bankruptcy three years earlier; however, the bankruptcy court rejected the conversion proposal. The concept did not die as in 1940 after PRT emerged from bankruptcy as the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). PTC now had the ability to implement the 1937 proposal.

In 1937, PRT's trustees attempted to reduce operating expenses and capital costs by proposing the conversion of Route 61 from a double-ended streetcar to trolley coach. Route 61 carried more riders than Route 80 and this line provided a more adequate test to determine the effectiveness of these vehicles. PRT had filed for bankruptcy three years earlier; however, the bankruptcy court rejected the conversion proposal. The concept did not die as in 1940 after PRT emerged from bankruptcy as the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). PTC now had the ability to implement the 1937 proposal. PTC established its second trackless trolley route through the conversion of trolley Route 61 on October 5, 1941. Route 61 operated on Ridge Avenue and Main Street connecting Manayunk (Main Street & Leverington Avenue), North Philadelphia and Center City (9th & Walnut). Fifty coaches were purchased from the Brill Company for this 11-mile line, and ten additional coaches were subsequently ordered in 1942, plus an additional five more in 1944 as transit traffic greatly increased as a result of World War II. Route 61 was originally based from Allegheny Depot (Allegheny Avenue & 26th Street), but operations were transferred to Ridge Depot in November 1946.

Ridge Depot was eyed as a trackless trolley facility as post-war plans envisioned by PTC called for the conversion of several streetcar lines to trackless operations. Ridge Depot was located at the intersections of Ridge Avenue, 31st and York Streets.

Route 61 was extended from Main & Leverington to the Container Corporation on February 16, 1947. Weekend service utilized diesel buses effective August 16, 1959 from Allegheny Depot in an attempt to reduce expenses and wear and tear of the aging trolley coaches. Route 61 was the sole route operating from Ridge Depot as the facility also doubled to store trolleys and other vehicles removed from active service awaiting the scrapper's torch. The trackless line became a diesel bus route on March 13, 1961, PTC sold Ridge Depot to the School District of Philadelphia where the ancient facility dating back to 1872 was demolished and is now the present site of Strawberry Mansion High School.

PTC sold Ridge Depot to the School District of Philadelphia where the ancient facility dating back to 1872 was demolished and is now the present site of Strawberry Mansion High School.

PTC and the City of Philadelphia collaborated on a post-war rehabilitation program to modernize three trolley lines that operated conventional equipment dating back to 1923. Route 29, a cross-town trolley line operating along Tasker and Morris Streets was converted on December 14, 1947. The trolley linked Front Street with 28th Street, but the trackless route was extended westward to 33rd and Dickinson Streets.

Concurrent with the Route 29 changeover from trolley to trolley coach operation, modifications were occurring with the installation of new overhead wire on Route 75. As a trolley, Route 75 connected the neighborhoods of Bridesburg, Frankford, Feltonville and Tioga, but on Sundays, service was extended via Route 53 to Wayne Avenue and Carpenter Lane. As a trolley coach operation the streetcar routing remained virtually unchanged from Richmond and Orthodox Street to Wyoming Avenue and 5th Street. However, a revised route pushed the service in a westward direction crossing Roosevelt Boulevard, instead of south then west, to offer direct public transit in underserved neighborhoods. New transfer opportunities allowed for transfers at the Broad Street Subway's Wyoming Station and at the Wayne Junction Station terminus with other PTC bus and trolley routes, along with Reading Railroad service. Service commenced on April 19, 1948. Brochures distributed to passengers announced the mode change regarding the trackless service and other bus route changes occurring in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.

PTC's attention turned towards the conversion of Route 59, a double-ended trolley route linking Frankford (Oxford & Frankford Avenues) and Bustleton (Bustleton Avenue & Lott Street). The City of Philadelphia financed and constructed the line, and PRT, later PTC, operated and maintained the line. Service commenced service on November 5, 1922, concurrent with the opening of elevated high-speed service to Frankford from center city.

The third route, Route 59 resembled a country trolley service in its early years where in many locations a single-track operation was utilized along portions of Castor Avenue and Bustleton Pike. Passing sidings were strategically placed to allow for safe and fast operations. The line grew in popularity as neighborhoods developed in places where farms and grassy fields were the norm. On April 19, 1948, the trolley service was cutback from Lott Street to Cottman Avenue and a new bus Route (59b) temporarily replaced trolley service north of Cottman Avenue. PTC and the City of Philadelphia partnered in the transformation of Castor Avenue north of Cottman Avenue from trolley to trackless service and once this segment was completed the second set of overhead wires were installed. The last remnants of rail service were discontinued as trackless service commenced on June 25, 1950. The route was revised to utilize the Arrott Street Terminal, adjacent to the Margaret-Orthodox Elevated Station then follow Oxford Avenue and Castor Avenue terminating at the Bells Corner loop located near Castor and Bustleton Avenues.

For the expansion of the trackless network 65 coaches were built by the Brill company in 1947 and 28 additional coaches were bought from Marmon-Harrington in 1949. Route 29 shared facilities with Route 80 at Southern Depot. Portions of Frankford Depot were converted from rail operations to allow for storage and maintenance of the trackless fleet for Routes 59 and 75.

Additional plans to further expand the trackless network were developed by PTC, but a new team of stockholders controlling PTC in the early 1950's shifted gears and began the process of phasing out most of the streetcar network and converting to bus operations. One exception was the City of Philadelphia's desire to convert Route 66, operating conventional double-ended trolleys along Frankford Avenue, into a trackless route. The collaborative efforts by PTC and the City in converting Route 59 came together for the initiative to transform Route 66 to trolley coach operation. 42 coaches were purchased and placed into service on September 11, 1955. Efforts to improve travel time were implemented on June 19, 1961 as Express service was implemented. Frankford Avenue is an extremely wide thoroughfare between Comly Street and Rhawn Street and additional set of overhead wires were installed to offer non-stop express service between the Bridge-Pratt Elevated Station and Cottman Avenue.

The last route to switch to a trackless trolley operation was Route 79. This route operated as a double-ended streetcar line until October 27, 1956 when buses replaced trolleys. Sometime during 1960, PTC decided to convert the route to an electric mode as surplus trackless vehicles were available through the discontinuation of Routes 61 and 80. Trackless service commenced on June 13, 1961. Route 79 operates a crosstown route along Snyder Avenue from Vare to Delaware Avenue.

For the next fifty years, the trackless network of five routes remained virtually unchanged, except for a small segment of Route 75 that was discontinued east of Frankford Avenue in April 1966 due to the construction of I-95 through the Bridesburg neighborhood near Richmond Street. The Brill and Marmon-Harrington coaches that were purchased between 1947 and 1955 were retired and replaced by 110 modern vehicles built by AM General beginning in 1980. Ten vehicles were equipped with wheelchair lifts. These vehicles operated nearly a quarter-century. On June 9, 2002, the Northeast Philadelphia trackless Routes 59, 66 and 75 became temporary bus routes as the reconstruction of the Frankford Elevated overhead structure necessitated the temporary cessation of trolley coach service. Buses began to temporarily replace the aging South Philadelphia trackless coaches on Route 29 concurrent with a detour as a City initiated project razed and rebuilt the Tasker Homes located near the western end of the route.

Route 79 was also converted to a bus route effective September 7, 2003. This left Routes 59, 66 and 75 as Trackless Trolley routes operating from Frankford District. The permanent status of Routes 29 and 79 in South Philadelphia remains undecided.

In 2007 a demonstrator trolley coach was delivered by New Flyer Industries to replace the 1979 vehicles. In 2008, SEPTA purchased 38 low-floor vehicles which seat 39 passengers, are ADA complaint and provide off-wire capability for short distances utilizing a diesel engine. These vehicles replaced diesel bus operations on Routes 59, 66 and 75. These vehicles are housed at Frankford District.

Click the image below to view the Historical Trackless Trolley Network.

Learn more about our 50th Anniversary and read other stories here.