Alright, let me just check my watch here. Oh look, it’s masochism time! We’re going to get a two-for-one deal of Schuylkill Expressway-related pain! What fun! Brace yourself for a double-dose of traffic purgatory on the 124 and 125.
The 124 and 125 get their own special bus stop on the north side of 13th and Market, and we’ve already got problems. Specifically, the sign is one of SEPTA’s older ones that doesn’t show the stop ID, but the destinations are also all wrong: “124 Chesterbrook & King of Prussia” and “125 King of Prussia via Expwy.” First of all, why does the 125 get a “via Expwy” while the 124 doesn’t? And what expressway? Why not just say “Express”? Also, the 125 goes beyond King of Prussia to Valley Forge – to follow in the format of the 124, it could say “Valley Forge & King of Prussia Express.” And then throw the “Express” on the 124 as well. Also, the 125 gets a wheelchair symbol while the 124 doesn’t. What, is the 125 accessible but the 124 isn’t?
And then there was the slight problem of the 124’s late departure. You see, several other people and I were specifically looking for the 124 (I was taking it to get to the 205), but one bus said “SEPTA” and the other was unmarked. The “SEPTA” bus turned out to be a 125, while the driver for the unmarked presumably-124 said she’d be back in a few minutes. Fifteen minutes later she returned, and we left ten minutes late. Not a good start to a route with chronic on-time performance issues.
We headed onto Arch Street, then in the shadow of the towering City Hall, we took a left onto Broad Street. That merged onto JFK Boulevard and we approached the main City Hall stop. A ton of people were waiting here, and since this was an evening rush trip, I figured we’d get packed. Or…like, three people would get on. I mean, that works too.
JFK Boulevard west of City Hall was office building central, but traffic on the three-lane, one-way road was actually flowing pretty well. We picked someone up at 19th Street, then in the next block the bus had to somehow maneuver across two lanes of traffic to make it into the left turn lane. Using 20th to get to Market, the traffic situation suddenly became a very different story.
Traffic on Market was at a near-standstill. We fought with cars and other buses for space as we inched down the road, eventually making it to the 22nd Street trolley station. It didn’t let up on the Schuylkill River bridge either, and we didn’t escape the traffic until we turned onto Schuylkill Ave to serve 30th Street Station. It had taken us fifteen minutes to do this Market Street portion, and we were now fifteen minutes late. Travelling on JFK Boulevard would surely get the bus across town faster – can a safe stop for 30th not be located there? It would speed buses up so much!
As Schuylkill Ave became an on-ramp to I-76, I was actually hoping we would encounter traffic. I specifically wanted to ride the 124 during the evening rush to experience maximum delays. But while it was pretty slow past the Art Museum and Boathouse Row, the road actually sped up quite a bit after Girard Ave! In fact, traffic the other way was quite a lot worse. It may have been that this was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, so people were heading down the Shore from points northwest?
We genuinely had a good clip going through the forests of Fairmount Park, so it came out of nowhere when the bus slowed down. Wait…but all the other lanes were still moving. Oh, I see, we had to do the Wissahickon Transportation Center deviation. And this exit was bogged down with traffic. Sigh…alright, so we slowly made our way from the off-ramp to the City Ave bridge to cross the Schuylkill.
We finally made it off the bridge, and now it was time to make our way down Ridge Ave to the transportation center. Having ridden the express portion of these routes several times before, I knew this deviation would be worth it – lots of people always get on at Wissahickon. We looped around the bus station, and…no one. No one got on. So we slowly trundled back to the highway. This deviation literally took ten minutes and it was a complete waste of time!
Once we got back on the highway, though, it was smooth sailing. We got some great views of Manayunk from the Schuylkill Expressway’s perch, and it was woods for a while from there. We rounded the Conshy Curve no problem, and despite a little traffic after that, we made it to our exit in decent time. Turning onto Trinity Lane, it was all woods and houses until we reached Gulph Mills Station, deviating inside and holding for a train (but alas, no one transferred).
We headed up onto Gulph Road, and at the intersection of Gulph and Henderson Roads, we reach the splitting point of the 124 and 125. We’ll continue this 124 journey, then follow the 125 back to this point. So, the 124 turns onto Henderson Road, and in doing so, we entered a horrible wasteland of warehouses and offices.
Passing the shopping plaza served directly by the 99, we joined that route by turning onto DeKalb Pike. It was just a lotttttt of suburban businesses, but after we crossed the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was time to deviate into the King of Prussia Mall. Lots of people got off here, leaving just six left for the route’s post-mall segment.
There were several turns that led us to Swedesford Road, which passed the “King of Prussia Town Center” before going by a ton of office buildings. Houses lined the side streets, though. We came up along Route 202, a highway, and passed a strip mall. And then we crossed the highway and passed a number of other strip malls.
A couple of passengers from Center City got off the bus at a Residence Inn, which is a pretty impressive commute for people who may very well be tourists. It was basically all offices from there, and we sped past them at what felt like 50 miles an hour. The last bit was a deviation to Chesterbrook: right on Chesterbrook Road, left on Duportail Road, and right onto Morris Drive to reach the end of the route. We had managed to come in “only” 15 minutes late.
Okay, time to shift to a Sunday in early December at Valley Forge National Park. The 125 has a very different terminus from the 124, ending at the gateway to some absolutely beautiful scenery in the Revolutionary War site. I came out here with my friend; we just hopped on the bus at the King of Prussia Mall, walked around the amazing (and free) Visitor Center during the layover, and came straight back on the bus bound for Philly.
The moment we crossed Route 422 on the bus, we were in suburban sprawl. We were running on Valley Forge Road, and while Valley Forge weekend trips don’t get to do the BNY Mellon (an office park) deviation, we did perform the one across the street to the giant Valley Forge Towers complex. Of course, both would be wholly unnecessary if the area had sidewalks, but why would they ever build those?
Still, while the bus had been empty before, a few people got on at the Valley Forge stop (which had a super old bus sign). We came back onto Valley Forge Road, which was now a bunch of offices as it crossed Trout Creek. But because the 125’s independent section up here is super twisty, we took a left onto 1st Ave soon, now heading back toward Valley Forge past more office parks.
Outside of the Valley Forge Casino, we turned onto Gulph Road, which curved east again, passing a few more office buildings. Turning onto Goddard Boulevard, we ended up at the King of Prussia Mall, where the bus got slammed. I mean, for a suburban route, full-seated load plus standees is a lot!
Luckily, the 125’s routing to Gulph Mills is more direct than the 124’s. We headed straight onto Gulph Road, which was a weird mix of houses, offices, and a beautifully landscaped cemetery. There were a few apartment developments that got us more riders later on, and from there, it was a straight shot to Gulph Mills Station, where we would be heading onto I-76 back to Philly.
And…okay, at the risk of making this post too long, I’m also gonna throw in a review of the King of Prussia Transit Center, just because these are the main routes that serve it. Signage from the mall is pretty bad (just an icon of a bus over the appropriate exit, which is a narrow hallway), but once you’re there, the transit center is pretty nice. It has an indoor portion with plenty of seating, a vending machine, two Key machines, and (outdated) information, while there are a few shelters outside as well. Aesthetics aren’t the best, but as far as suburban mall transit centers go, I’d give it a solid 7/10.
Routes: 124/125 (Chesterbrook/Valley Forge and King of Prussia to 13-Market)
Ridership: The routes get similar ridership, but the 125 wins out with 1,845 weekday riders compared to the 124’s 1,535. This comes down to the 125 having slightly more trips as well as the 125’s post-mall section serving a bit more than the 124’s. Despite getting good ridership for suburban routes, though, their farebox recovery ratios are atrocious thanks to the fact that most people are staying on for the long express section. It also means that buses get crowded for a longer period of time, and I almost wonder if weekend buses get busier than weekday ones. Still, the routes get lots of people at rush hour as well, mostly in the reverse-peak direction (I saw some packed 124s and 125s going the other way on my quieter peak-direction 124 trip).
Pros: Okay, an express bus from Philly to King of Prussia makes sense, and it lends itself to good ridership.
Cons: It’s just a shame that these routes are so bad. Where to even begin? Okay, the Schuylkill Expressway section is just the worst thing ever. I was lucky with traffic, and even then it was still a little miserable. And apparently their on-time rates are as high as 64% for the 124 and 60% for the 125? Those numbers are awful, but I wouldn’t be shocked if more often than not, more than 4 out of 10 buses are delayed!
And then the schedules are a mess, too. I’ll start with variants, because good lord, these routes have an unnecessary amount of those. I count nine possible places these routes can terminate, and those are on both ends, so there are a bunch of terminal combinations within that. Plus there are a few random super-express trips on the 125 that skip Wissahickon that are scattered around the schedule. What determines which trips get expressed? Why does it only happen in the outbound direction? Why does the 124 have one of these trips but the schedule doesn’t say “Express”, it just dots out the time at Wissahickon? And why does the headsign not tell you that it’s skipping Wissahickon, leading me to accidentally get on an express trip when I was trying to get to Wissahickon??? Yes, that actually happened. It was on, like, my second-ever bus trip in Philly.
But now we get to the frequencies. Oh, these are a lot of fun. It’s impossible to discern any kind of consistent headway out of these because they’re so all over the place. Gaps can be as short as five minutes (the 125 outbound on weekday mornings) and as long as 140 minutes (the 124 inbound on Sunday nights), and everywhere in between. And look, SEPTA does provide a great service for mall employees, running buses relatively frequently during commute times, even on weekends. But when midday gaps are as long as hourly on each route with very little attempt at coordination, you end up with buses full of shoppers! These schedules are just pure insanity.
Ugh, and then the routings, too. The 124’s post-mall segment only serves office parks and small strip malls. The 125’s is super loopy and it takes forever to get to the Valley Forge Towers, which is where most off-peak passengers out here are going. And imagine if SEPTA had (yes, I know this is far-fetched) free transfers, and buses could end at 30th Street or maybe even Gulph Mills? Gosh, that sure would allow for faster trips and more frequent service, wouldn’t it?
Nearby and Noteworthy: For what it’s worth, I…kinda like the King of Prussia Mall. I haven’t explored the whole thing yet, but it seems like the largest mall in the country by retail space has so many stores that some interesting small businesses have managed to wriggle their way in. My friend and I were planning on walking around the whole thing when we came for the 125, but we ended up getting lost in a record shop that we found early on!
Final Verdict: 3/10
I hate these routes. I wish I could give them a lower score, but I can’t deny that they get good ridership and, at least for reverse-peak commuters, a decent frequency is provided. But ugh, they’re awful in every other way! And until King of Prussia Rail opens up (if it opens up), we’re stuck with these. So…here’s my radical proposal to fix them:
Firstly: the 124 and 125 become shuttles to the King of Prussia Mall. I think the 124 could run rush hour only, especially since it mostly duplicates the 92, but the 92 also kinda sucks so the 124 might need midday service. The 125 is converted to a one-way loop, which only speeds the trip up for people – it would run all day.
Finally, in my desired plan, there would be a route 122 that just goes from King of Prussia to Gulph Mills every 10-15 minutes, connecting to hopefully-just-as-frequent NHSL trains. Yes, this would be a three-seat ride from Center City to the mall, and yes, this can obviously only work if transfers are free, but it would be about the same amount of time as if not faster than slogging down the insanely unreliable I-76 (you could also probably cut the 123). BUT: if an express route has to happen, it should only go to 30th, again with free transfers. Even better would be only going to Wissahickon, especially since folks coming from here do get screwed over by this plan (barring Regional Rail fare integration, that is), but it might be an odd place to end the bus. I’d settle for 30th.
The best part about this plan is that it provides more frequent service with half the buses. The 124/125 at rush hour currently requires 15 vehicles; the Gulph Mills version of this plan would only use a maximum of 8, allowing for more service on, say, the NHSL or other suburban bus routes. The express version would obviously require more vehicles, but terminating at 30th would still save a lot of time and probably let the route shave off a few buses, and the service would be a lot less confusing. It’s also admittedly a lot easier to implement politically – Gulph Mills would be unpopular.
But for now and possibly forever, I’m just gonna keep losing one more portion of my sanity every time I take a bus on the Schuylkill Expressway.
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