Alright, this might just be the most bizarre station I’ve ever reviewed…and I have Hastings under my belt. It’s hard to effectively set up the apocalyptic decrepitude of the North Philadelphia complex without getting specific, so I’m just gonna go into this. Also, SEPTA considers this to be four stations (North Philadelphia (CHW), North Philadelphia (TRE), North Philadelphia (BSL), North Broad), so it’s a quadruple post! Wow!
Yeah, that one line of graffiti really stands out. As does the graffiti on the station signs that SEPTA put up. How about the ragtag chain link fence with the “DANGER KEEP OUT” signs that clearly aren’t stopping people from climbing into the abandoned industrial lot? The “TUNNEL CLOSED” board across what used to be an underpass to get between the platforms? This is just the Chestnut Hill West side. We’re just getting started.
But even putting aside the obvious signs of neglect here, it’s also just not a very good station. There’s just one shelter on each side, and since both have had all their glass kicked out, they’re not particularly useful. Only the inbound side gets the step to help people get up to the train, so people who have trouble with large steps: you’re out of luck if you’re getting off or on an outbound train. Since the station’s underpass is out of commission, you have to use the level crossing at the far end of the platform (or just cross the tracks anywhere – not like anyone cares).
As I was taking pictures on the platform, an older white couple was walking around the station. “They don’t look like they belong here…” I thought. They came up to me as I made my way toward the Trenton Line part of the station. “We were trying to go to Paoli but we got on the wrong train,” they said. “Do you know when the next one back to 30th Street is?” Yup, that sounded about right.
With the couple on their way to the right platform, I proceeded with my review. The outbound side of the Chestnut Hill West station has this giant open area with nothing on it, but it leads to stairs and a ramp that go down to the rest of the station (not that the ramp is particularly useful – the station isn’t accessible). Key readers are stationed at the entrance to the platform.
I guess I can see how the Chestnut Hill West and Trenton stations are considered separate things – the platforms are a bit apart, connected by this bizarre entrance area. When you’re coming from the Chestnut Hill West side, you see a bus shelter (no glass remaining, of course) with nothing in it. Who knows what purpose it served.
Before we get to the elephant in the room that is the abandoned station building, we first must talk about the parking lot. Oh, wait, excuse me…the purposeless asphalt. Because this thing is empty, and I’m pretty sure you’re not actually allowed to park in there. Even if you are allowed, very few people do, making it a perfect place to do some donuts! Note the distant skidmarks above.
People do seem to park on the road that leads to the parking lot – perhaps that’s classified as streetside parking? Also, who knows if they’re getting trains or if they’re just residents who couldn’t find a place to park? The drop-off area is still intact, luckily, and it’s centered around this nice turnaround loop with an old Amtrak logo painted on it. Amtrak, for the record, considers the parking availability here to be “unknown”. SEPTA says there’s a “Non-SEPTA” lot with a hundred spaces, but the big empty lot definitely has more than that. So not even the trains that stop here know if you can park or not.
Okay, this building. As you can see, it looks like something straight out of communist Russia, and it’s definitely degraded a bit since it was originally built. It had a long heyday, though: Amtrak built this in 1991, and it efficiently served happy customers until…2001, when it was closed down and abandoned. Now it just stands there, adding to the station’s weird decrepit, er, “charm”.
The reason the station has these ornate facades is that it used to get much more service. Trains have to reverse in and out of 30th Street when going from New York to points west of Philly; that meant that Pennsylvania Railroad service often used this station as its one Philadelphia stop, since it avoided that reverse move and this area was thriving pre-World War II. North Philadelphia hit a major decline after the war, though, and this station slowly lost importance and degraded to what it is today. On the Amtrak front, it only gets one northbound and three southbound trains per day, designed for commuters to New York. Most SEPTA Trenton Line trains stop here, though.
The hallway that takes you to the platforms and acts as an underpass beneath the station was my first time feeling genuinely unsettled here. It’s a dark, austere path with simple graffiti all over the walls, and it feels very sketchy to walk through. I do love the old signs, though – they direct you toward nonexistent trains to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. There’s pretty much no modern Regional Rail signage in here, though, so these outdated-by-a-long-shot signs are all you get. The remnants of old pay phones are still on the walls, while mysterious locked doors lead to possible storage locations.
Stairs lead up to both of the station’s platforms (complete with the same aesthetic as the hallway), but there are also elevators. So…why is this station considered inaccessible, then? Ah, here we go from Wikipedia: “Vandalism also forced the closure of the elevators.” Waitwaitwait…so people were doing such horrible stuff in the elevators that SEPTA or Amtrak or whatever had to close them down, making the station inaccessible??? In all my years of station reviewing, I’ve never seen anything like this.
North Philadelphia’s platforms are longgggg. The only part of them with stuff, though, is the one bit of each where the stairs come up. The little shelters there have a few benches, some wastebaskets, and a few Key readers. No LED screens. No amenities at any other part of the platform. Just these two little benches and some wastebaskets. The rest of the wide open platforms are bare, making them great places (so I’ve seen, anyway) to ride bikes or just stand around with no intention of getting a train.
Continuing down the dark hallway, we pop up on the other side in a shopping center along Glenwood Ave and Broad Street. Here we can see the old station building, with its beautiful architecture, ornate details, and…loud music being blasted out from a radio. Yes, the building received a $7 million renovation in 1999 to be used as commercial space, and it’s now being occupied by “AZ Budget”, a store selling ridiculously cheap merchandise from clothing to furniture. Well, it sure as heck is a better use of the space than leaving it to be abandoned.
Before tackling the Broad Street Line station, an entrance to which is right outside AZ Budget, I want to hop from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Reading Railroad to review its station, North Broad. Only a few blocks south from North Philadelphia Station, North Broad was built in 1928 to compete with it, featuring a magnificent building, an underground walkway to Broad Street, and island platforms serving all four tracks on the line. So…let’s see what it’s like today!
Okay, so North Broad isn’t quite the majesty it used to be. SEPTA “rebuilt” the station in 1992, demolishing the island platforms and replacing them with these tiny side platforms so express trains could speed through faster. And speed through they do: seven Regional Rail lines serve this section of track, but only the Norristown and Doylestown Lines actually stop here, providing service about every half hour despite the fact that trains pass through every few minutes. I at least understand the desire to speed express trains up, but why did they think it was a good idea to build the new platforms so tiny?? Being able to open just one or two cars of a six-car train here is just ridiculous!
There isn’t a ton to say about the northbound platform I got dropped off on: a few benches, a graffitied shelter, and a wastebasket are about all that’s on offer here. There is a mini-high platform, though, actually making this station accessible! My company here consisted of someone rummaging through the trash, and a student with bright clothes and a big backpack looking around and calling someone on her phone. Turned out she had gotten on the wrong train, just like the couple at North Philadelphia.
A ramp leads from the platform to the exit. It has high chain link fences on both sides, plus a bit of barbed wire here and there for good measure. The surroundings are very industrial as the rusting path curves its way up to Broad Street; you can look down and see a trash-filled pit, too. The entrance is actually decent, though, with fine signage and even a single bike rack…with a destroyed bike locked up to it. Guess no one will be parking there anytime soon.
I tried to get to the inbound platform from here, so I crossed the tracks along Broad Street. A nice mural with different patterns lines the wall along the bridge before a SEPTA station sign appears at an alley that leads down to the tracks. Perfect. But actually, no…a fence blocks the alley from the station. Don’t mislead me with your sign placement, SEPTA!
So instead, you have to walk past the station building (more on that later) and hope that you find the teeny-tiny train symbol attached to a wall that can only be seen if you’re walking southward. This points down the correct path, along an alley next to an abandoned factory with half its windows knocked out and a barbed wire fence that can’t contain the overgrowth coming out from the property. There are some random picnic tables in there, though – why not climb the fence and have a snack?
The alley opens up into a little parking lot, but it’s “by permit only” – presumably not for the station. Two brave people did lock their bikes up to the fence, though! Who needs proper locks when you have…fences? The entrance is much less ornate than on the outbound side (also, “Trains to Central Philadelphia”? Better than “Central City“, but still not good), but the platform is identical to the other side.
Alright, the North Philadelphia building was nice, but North Broad’s really is glorious. The elaborate facade is ruined a bit by the fact that the clock doesn’t work (but hey, if you happened to be here at 4:30, you’d never know) and the fact that someone decided it would be a good idea to stick a big billboard on the top of it, but it still makes for a great addition to Broad Street. It’s now a homeless shelter, a good use for a neighborhood that has certainly seen better days.
And now we return a few blocks north to the day I was reviewing North Philadelphia (or pretend I did all three of these on the same day and just ignore the lighting changes and lack of snow on the ground). I came out of the AZ Budget entrance to review the Broad Street Line station, which bridges the gap between both of the Regional Rail stops. It was rebuilt as recently as 2010, so I’m expecting greatness!
We begin strong with some new entrances that were built in 2007 to allow for better connections to North Philadelphia Station. They’re your standard Broad Street Line affairs, but they look nice and are easy to spot. The bus stops here are standard, too, with your classic northern Broad Street Line routes: the 4, the 16, and the Broad Street Owl.
There’s a distance of about a thousand feet between these, the northernmost entrances, and the southernmost entrances down at Lehigh Ave, so coming from up here, there’s a long hallway to the mezzanine. It’s drab and austere, but it doesn’t feel too dangerous…at least, not until someone appeared around the corner as I approached the stairs leading into the fare payment area. “Hey, buddy, why you taking pictures?” he asked.
“It’s for a blog where I review SEPTA stations,” I said, thinking about how if he had a weapon, he could easily pull it out. “Oh okay,” he said in a threatening voice. “That’s fine, then.” Suddenly two women came running over and looked angrily at me. “What’s going on??” one of them yelled. “Nothing,” the guy said. He looked at me. “He’s just taking pictures for a blog or something.” The women glared. They all retreated to the corner where a group of people were just sitting. No idea what they were up to…
Admittedly, you can kinda do whatever you want here because this entrance has no cashier. To compensate, the fare turnstiles are floor-to-ceiling in an effort to prevent fare evasion. There is a fare machine here, though, contradicting the pre-Key signage at street level that says that the entrance is “for TransPasses and TrailPasses only”. Suddenly, one of the women in the corner got up and glared at me, still taking photos of the mezzanine (although nothing of their group). Time to go, I guess.
Huh, you know those big floor-to-ceiling turnstiles meant to prevent fare evasion? Well, they were unlocked when I was here. “Just go on through,” a random person stepping out said to me. “Yeah, I guess!” I replied. I don’t know if this is still the case, but, uh…free Broad Street Line rides from North Philly if so! The area beyond the fare gates is big and open, with a wastebasket in the middle, a few signs, and a transit police headquarters.
Meanwhile, Lehigh Ave has four headhouses, all on the north side of the intersection. There’s just one on the west side of Broad Street, and it’s a standard staircase; another staircase is located on the east side of Broad Street. There’s also an elevator (the only one at this station), which was smelly and full of trash when I used it. Finally, an upward escalator gets its own exit. Also, while I understand having just signs for the 4 and 16, it’s annoying that there’s no bench or shelter for the 54, a major route at what is probably its busiest stop.
The Lehigh Ave entrances feed into the station’s primary mezzanine. It’s a bit odd that none of them quite make it down to ground level, requiring some extra stairs and ramps, but it’s better than the “step down to go up” business down at Tasker-Morris. The mezzanine itself is as low-capacity as always, with five faregates but just two fare machines. See that wall of exit-only turnstiles to the right of the cashier? How about replacing it with faregates? See all that empty space in the mezzanine? How about replacing it with fare machines?
Alright, actually, it’s pretty odd that once past the faregates, you have to go up a ramp to get to the elevators. I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational engineering reason for it, but there’s also a big part of me that just wants to ignore whatever that reason might be and say “That’s stupid, you gotta go down to go up to go down!” But oh well. The elevators here were surprisingly decent, smell-wise, and if you want to take the stairs, you don’t need to use the ramps at all.
The Broad Street Line platform is longgggg. Make sure you’re waiting close to the Lehigh Ave side of it, because the end of the train ends up being nowhere near the Glenwood side. Of course, it’s even worse when a two-car Broad-Ridge Spur train trundles in. But what about regular express trains? Well…although North Philadelphia was built as an express stop to capitalize on the then-importance of the neighboring railroad stations, it doesn’t get the ridership anymore to justify all express trains stopping here. So because the Broad Street Line’s service patterns weren’t already confusing enough, Broad-Ridge Spur expresses make the stop, but the Walnut-Locust ones just speed on through, blaring the horn and scaring everyone on the platform.
As for the amenities on the platform, they’re…fine. You know, you’ve got a few benches, a few wastebaskets, a few maps, a few LED signs – it’s really nothing to write home about. But certainly after the industrial dump of the Chestnut Hill West platform, the rotting hulk of a once-great Trenton Line/Amtrak platform, and the what-were-they-thinking tiny-platform rebuild of North Broad, this Broad Street Line platform is probably the best thing we’ve seen all day. Congrats, you cleared a very low bar.
Stations: North Philadelphia and North Broad
Ridership: The best performer here is the Broad Street Line station, which gets around 4,150 riders per weekday, more than many of its neighboring stops. The problem is that since it gets express service too, the ridership per train is actually much lower here than at most other Broad Street Line stations.
The Trenton Line station is pretty low for Regional Rail, with 195 boardings per weekday (259 alightings, though). Still, it’s better than the poor Chestnut Hill West platform, which gets an abysmal 45 boardings and 24 alightings per day – the fifth least-used station on the entire network. North Broad is in the bottom 25 as well: 142 boardings and 136 alightings per weekday.
But all of those horrible performances still beat the king of low ridership here: Amtrak. Despite having stops in towns as obscure as Connellsville and Tyrone, North Philadelphia is the railroad’s least-used station in Pennsylvania: 2,076 riders in 2018, or just about 8 people per service day. And 2018’s ridership was double that of 2017! Hey, at least it’s on the rise… (these numbers are lower than reality, though, thanks to quirks in monthly pass purchases: many commuters buy passes from 30th Street to New York instead of North Philly to New York, just to have the freedom to board from there if they miss a train – a lot of people are connecting from the Chestnut Hill West Line)
Pros: The Broad Street Line station has decent enough aesthetics and is pretty much your run-of-the-mill BSL stop. North Broad is accessible. And the North Philadelphia Regional Rail station…well, it’s definitely a cool place to get pictures. No, okay, an actual pro: the North Philadelphia Regional Rail station is in Zone 1, making it just $3.75 from there to Trenton (versus $9.25 from Center City). Even with the BSL fare from Center City, it’s still great for reasonably fast train travel to New York if you’re on a budget!
Cons: While the Broad Street Line station is run-of-the-mill, it still has your classic problems with SEPTA subway stations: not enough fare machines, a few architectural quirks (going down to go up to go down), and lots of trash on the tracks. This one also has the strange express situation – I think that in an ideal situation, either all or none of the express trains would stop here, since this half-and-half is confusing, but it’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. I sometimes question if SEPTA really needs a cashier at every entrance, but the Glenwood Ave side of this station seems like an entrance that does need a cashier but doesn’t have one. What could those people possibly have been doing in the corner that would require someone to essentially keep guard and make sure no one could potentially document their activities?
Next we move on to North Broad, whose main issues stem from the fact that it’s a tiny stub of a station that gets hardly any service. Look, I get that its ridership is abysmally low and Regional Rail isn’t an affordable option for most people in the surrounding neighborhoods, but that doesn’t change the sadness of watching five trains go by for every one train that actually stops. Of course, signage for the station is terrible, the shelters and ramps are in horrible condition, and the platform can only handle a portion of the train.
But now we come to where this whole thing started: the North Philadelphia Regional Rail/Amtrak station. This thing is such an absolute mess, and it almost boggles the mind how much it’s deteriorated. Where do you even start? The closed passageways? The empty parking lot? The Amtrak building that was only open for ten years before being left to rot? The dark hallway covered in graffiti? The elevators that SEPTA has literally let break, making the station inaccessible? I have never seen anything like this. You could film an apocalypse movie here without having to change anything.
Nearby and Noteworthy: AZ Budget just has one door, as far as I can tell, but it was just completely blocked off by stuff when I was here! Is it possible to get in? Who knows? I mean, it’s not like you’re gonna see any glorious remnants of the old station building in there, but it would still be an interesting place to walk through.
Final Verdict: 6/10 for BSL station, 2/10 for North Broad, 1/10 for North Philadelphia
So I guess that averages out to a 3/10 for the whole complex. The Broad Street Line station isn’t that bad, but the Regional Rail stops drag the whole place down. Again, they barely get any ridership, and as it stands they face serious vandalism problems, so I can see why SEPTA would be hesitant to fix them up. The Broad Street Line is cheap, frequent, and almost just as fast, so of course almost all of the ridership is gonna end up on that. Fare reform on Regional Rail could help bring more riders to these stations, but existing riders and their political representation would certainly not be okay with that. It’s gotten to a point where this neighborhood has fallen so far that transportation improvements are only one tiny piece of the puzzle. There’s a solution out there. It’s beyond the scope of this blog.
Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates
When I lived in Mt. Airy, those Amtrak trains were actually amazing. If I needed to be in NYC early, it was faster for me to take a bus there and catch it there by almost an hour. I’m also kinda disgusted that they managed to get away with letting the elevators rot – that’s a pretty clear ADA violation
That possible offensive graffiti is Wu Tang Clan lyrics.
Man I feel old (with the fact I’m old enough to be your dad making me older.)
Really? Shoot, I’m uncultured!
Like Ashley Ryan said, I’m surprised that it was permissible to just close the elevators like that. Though I guess if ridership at the station really is that low, maybe no one has actually made a complaint all this time. If I remember correctly, when there was a similar problem of elevator vandalism at a few stations in dodgy neighborhoods on the New York City Subway, the MTA actually hired elevator operators as a deterrent. And it’s very ironic that there are unlocked fare gates at a station that has a police station on site. Is it possible the gates were left unlocked as a sting operation of some sort?
It’s actually completely illegal to close the elevators like that. Amtrak is required by law to reopen them, and so is SEPTA. HOWEVER….
….the way the ADA works, it is only enforced if someone with a mobility impairment wants to travel to or from that station and sues. And with such low ridership, nobody has sued yet.
This review should be required reading for the next SEPTA GM. It’s a perfect summary of all the challenges that Ms. Richards will face. Also, it sums up why for many suburban residents of the region, SEPTA is simply not relevant.
I feel Leslie Richards so far has does a lot more for SEPTA than Jeff Knuppel did! She has eliminated the $1 first transit transfer fee. She has also handled to COVID-19 pandemic really well!
This is some good stuff
Where do you get your ridership stats from? I’m curious to see for myself which stations see the least riders. Thanks
Station ridership is in the annual report: http://www.septa.org/strategic-plan/reports/FY-2020-Annual-Service-Plan.pdf
And bus ridership is in the route statistics document: http://septa.org/strategic-plan/reports/2018-Route-Statistics.pdf
Brilliant! I take Amtrak from Harrisburg through Philadelphia to New York City and back twice per month. I’ve always wondered “what’s going on with this North Philadelphia station?” Now I know!
North Broad and North Philadelphia stations are not safe at all! I once got off at North Broad Station coming off of a Lansdale/Doylestown Line train heading to Center City. I’m like, ‘Never again am I getting off at this station!’ At the same time North Broad station is very depressing to look at. I can’t help but feel sad for the homeless people who sleep at North Broad Station. SEPTA does not care at all about North Broad Station! North Philadelphia regional rail station was once a nice train station back in the day from what I can tell. It’s just sad to see what that area at Broad and Lehigh come to.
I feel like the Norristown Line shouldn’t be one to stop here, because outbound trains have to cross ALL THE WAY OVER four busy tracks at 16th Street Interlocking to get onto the branch. Especially in the morning rush when priority is given to inbound traffic, outbound Norristown trains can be held at stop signals for several minutes. Ideally, if SEPTA can’t or won’t have all the ex-Reading services stop here, it should be the Doylestown and West Trenton Lines that stop, since they don’t have to do the clumsy flat junction crossover move.