Yeah, yeah, save the comments. I’m, what, six days late? I mean, technically five days, if you count the fact that a 15 trolley ran at, like, 12:30 AM on Saturday, thus allowing SEPTA to claim that they ran that day and service was “officially” ending Sunday. Thanks for that, guys. I’m just glad I got to ride one Friday night, too.
But shall I first back up and explain the 15’s troubled history? Like almost all SEPTA routes, the 15, which runs across Girard Ave and then up into Port Richmond, started out as a trolley before any of us were born. In 1992, along with two other trolley routes, the 15 was “temporarily” turned into a bus; it took 17 years and a lot of political pressure to get the trolleys back, with their return coming in late 2005 (the other two lines are still bus – temporary indeed).
But now, we’re back at a similar juncture: ostensibly due to bridge construction, but also due to deferred maintenance on the 1947 PCC trolleys that run on the line that has led to just four being able to pass inspection, the 15 has been “temporarily” converted to buses. Even though I’m confident that trolleys will return to the line, who knows how long it’ll take – will SEPTA actually bring its PCCs back up to snuff, or will they wait until their trolley modernization project ten years down the line to bring new trolleys to the route? Regardless, this was the last time we’d be seeing SEPTA’s PCCs on the road for at least a while, so some friends and I went out to do final rides in the last week.
And this ride, the one I took pictures for, was on Thursday night. My friend and I waited at 63rd-Girard for a while for an actual trolley to show up (it was majority buses), and when one finally did come, it turned out it was going out of service. Luckily, another pulled in soon after, and we hopped on to head east. The route starts out in a bit of an industrial area, but rowhouses abound, too.
At Haverford Ave, we joined up with the westbound line (the route ends in a loop) at a crazy intersection with a bunch of tracks going every which way. Rowhouses were everywhere as we continued down Girard, picking someone up at pretty much every block. Some businesses appeared on the corners, while a park and a cemetery broke up the constant stream of two-story buildings.
Outside of a striking Checkers (and some other suburban-feeling businesses), we proceeded through the fun part of the route where it joins the 10 on Lancaster Ave for about 150 feet before turning back onto Girard. We passed a few schools before crossing the Pennsylvania Main Line, after which the tracks moved to the center of the road. While it’s nice that there are proper ADA stations here, even if they’re still just platforms with nothing on them, it’s bizarre to me that they’re still spaced a block apart so you’re still stopping all the time. Also, cars drive in the center lanes even when they’re not supposed to, and the lanes often double as left-turn lanes, slowing trolleys down when cars have to wait in front at green lights to turn.
Also, on my Friday night ride, we got to experience the fun of loading a wheelchair passenger along this section. While it’s great that SEPTA’s PCCs are wheelchair accessible (unlike the system’s other, newer trolleys, ironically enough), the wheelchair lift process takes forever. The driver has to make multiple trips to and from their seat to the back door to rig the thing up properly. We timed it out: it’s about a three-minute process.
Soon after passing the fantastically-titled School of the Future, we went by the parking garage for the Philadelphia Zoo, which was lit up in a vibrant blue color at night. I appreciate that for the 15’s zoo stop, they did actually give it a shelter with a little bit of vibrancy, probably for the three tourists per year who actually take the 15 to get here. As we crossed under the Northeast Corridor, a beautiful zoo-themed mural adorned the bridge.
Immediately after the zoo, we crossed I-76 and the Schuylkill River, offering a fantastic view of Center City. It’s also one of the few places on the 15 trolley that has enough of a nonstop section that it can get to a similar speed to the surrounding cars. We ran through the edge of Fairmount Park before re-entering rowhouse-land, this time amongst the breweries and cafes of gentrifying Brewerytown.
One of my favorite parts of the 15 came next: the bit where the tracks split into two one-way sections to make their way around Girard College. It’s just a blast when the trolley unexpectedly squeals its way around this tight turn onto the tiny one-way 26th Street. Granted, the westbound route uses two-way roads the whole time, so this 26th Street routing is technically unnecessary, but who cares, it’s neat! We took 26th for a block before another screechy turn onto Poplar Street.
We merged onto College Ave as we passed the sprawling and fancy Girard College campus, which I recently discovered isn’t actually a college, but an elementary/high school. College Ave turned back into Girard Ave, running past a few more specialty schools, as well as many more rowhouses and apartments. Pretty much everyone on the trolley got off at Broad Street, presumably to get on the Broad Street Line, but it was far enough past the evening rush that few people got on to continue east.
Some fringe Temple University buildings showed up here, but at this point, the businesses on Girard got rather austere and suburban-feeling (just like the neighborhood of single-family houses directly south of us). 9th Street was home to the elevated Regional Rail viaduct carrying the SEPTA Main Line, then as Girard narrowed a bit, it became lined with rowhouse structures again (often with businesses on the first floor). It didn’t take long for some big modern apartment buildings to start showing up, signifying that we were entering Fishtown.
Front Street was where the Girard El station was, but the trolley was empty enough that it didn’t make much of an impact on ridership. Girard Ave curved northeast, but just after that, we turned onto Frankford Ave to head to the 15’s temporary loop – because of the ongoing I-95 construction in Port Richmond, the 15 has been relegated to a terminus at Frankford-Delaware for years. The road took us past several bars, under I-95, and past The Fillmore before we pulled into the Frankford-Delaware Loop.
Time for an intermission to review the loop! Yeah, I mean, as far as loops go, it’s…okay. There’s a shelter, some wastebaskets, and some bike racks. Its proximity to the casino gives it great ridership at certain times, but it can be dead at other times. And it has two major problems: first of all, no Key machine, which would be nice to have; and second of all, the route 15 map provided here doesn’t even show it as serving this loop, but rather as going all the way to Port Richmond! C’mon, SEPTA. The 25 and the 43 go by here too, but they just have signs. Overall: 5/10.
But we cannot simply end our 15 review at Frankford-Delaware! For now we must transition to the 15B, which runs from the Girard El station to Richmond-Westmoreland in Port Richmond! And no, I don’t think SEPTA is actually calling it that anymore, since now both legs of the 15 are bus. Except it does appear to be called that on System Status. Uhh…I dunno, let’s just go ride it.
It was Saturday afternoon that some different friends and I took the 15B. We had ridden the normal 15 to Frankford-Delaware and walked up to the 15B’s first stop after the El station, a center median stop at Girard and Frankford. Having made its little loop from Front Street to get onto Girard Ave, the bus rounded the corner from Frankford…onto the far right lane, skipping the median. We had to flag it down, cross in front, and board in the middle of the street!
Now, if you thought the bus skipping the center median was bad, just wait until you see how ambiguous the route of the 15B is. You’ve got the routing shown on the paper schedule, the routing in GTFS (which is used by apps like Google Maps and Transit), and then there’s the routing we actually took: AND NONE OF THEM ARE THE SAME. The System Status shows no detours, and I don’t think there was one on Saturday, either! But okay…the three routes at least start the same, by running down Girard past various businesses and apartments.
The discrepancies began as we approached I-95 when, instead of taking the ramp to Aramingo Ave like what the paper schedule and GTFS say we do, we stayed on Girard, running through the complete and utter wasteland of highway construction. BUT: as it turns out, the route we took is currently the only way of getting to Aramingo. Soooo…maybe SEPTA should update its maps? Especially the GTFS one, which isn’t difficult to do? Especially when this this routing does actually skip some stops on Aramingo? This ramp closure seems relatively long-term, so…might be a good idea…
We used Cumberland Street to get onto Aramingo Ave, but by that point, had we been following the GTFS data, we’d be on Thompson Street! Instead we stuck to the paper schedule, going up the wide Aramingo and passing suburban businesses on both sides. A park and some rowhouses showed up before we went under railroad tracks, and it was all rowhouses on the other side (plus corner businesses).
We took a right onto Allegheny Ave eventually, still following the paper schedule map. This road was a lot busier than Aramingo, with some big churches, a ton of businesses, and a park. And hey, once we got to the intersection with Thompson Street, we were back to following the GTFS routing, too! We turned onto Richmond Street, but now we had to stray from all the maps: because of the ongoing construction at the loop, buses make a big circle via Westmoreland Street, Bath Street, and Allegheny Ave that runs through an industrial area. We got off at the intersection of Allegheny and Richmond.
Route: 15 (63rd-Girard to Richmond-Westmoreland)
Ridership: It’s interesting how the 15 and the 15B actually serve very different purposes. The 15, with its 5,450 average weekday riders, acts not only as a crosstown route, but also as a Girard local bus, with a lot of people taking it for short trips. While the 15B does get local riders, its primary purpose is to be a feeder line, bringing people from Port Richmond to the El and getting 3,250 people per day. The 15 does get higher ridership, but the 15B ends up being much more productive given its significantly shorter length: the 15 averages about 28 passengers per trip over its roughly 50-minute runtime, while the 15B gets about 17 people per trip over the course of 18 minutes. The 15’s low-ish ridership actually surprised me – you’d think a frequent trolley route along such a dense street would get more people!
Pros: We’ll be talking bus versus trolley later, so these are just the pros and cons for the route itself. As far as pros go, it’s fantastic that this is just a route straight across Girard, and the 15B works well as a feeder, too. These things are frequent, as well: they both operate at least every 15 minutes seven days a week (!), with service every ten minutes at rush hour. Even at night, they run at least every 20 minutes until 11 PM on weekdays and 10:40 PM on Saturdays (Sundays it’s only until 8:20 PM, alas), plus there’s half-hourly Owl service! For any SEPTA route, that’s a great schedule.
Cons: Hoo boy. I really don’t know where to begin, especially given the new problems that have arisen with this new bus operation. Well, since I’ve complained about it enough, let’s start with the various routings SEPTA claims the 15B does: what the heck??? The fact that there’s even a discrepancy at all between various official SEPTA outputs is alarming, and it’s even worse that none of them are right. But no, it gets even worse than that: I don’t know what’s going on in SEPTA’s GTFS department, but I guess they decided that since both legs of the 15 are bus now, there’s no need to give them separate designations anymore. So…um…
WHAT IS THIS??? NO!!!!!!!!! For some reason, SEPTA’s GTFS feed now shows the 15 as one continuous route that deviates to Frankford-Delaware! This is completely inaccurate and misleading. If it’s any consolation, the times at least match up with the schedule, and the 15B is coordinated enough with the 15 that there aren’t any weird time jumps in here or anything, but still: these are operated as two separate routes. And not only that, the 15B boards on Front Street underneath the El. But if you look up directions involving that transfer, Google Maps is gonna tell you to board on Girard, because that’s what this fake continuous route does! They need to change this right away, and I wonder how many people have already been misled by it.
This also brings us to the other major problem with the 15’s new bus operation: SEPTA didn’t change the schedule at all. The first issue with this is that the buses travel faster than the trolleys (sorry, trolley fans, but it’s true – we’ll discuss this more later), meaning that vehicles are likely going to be early with this new schedule. Not only that, but SEPTA totally missed an opportunity here to streamline the ride for everyone. As much as I rag on about the incorrect GTFS feed, that’s closer to the ideal situation than what we have. Instead of running two separate 15s that are now both buses (because, you know, that’s not at all confusing, especially given the fact that operators will sign the bus for whatever they want; I’ve seen eastbound vehicles signed as Frankford-Delaware, Front-Girard, Richmond-Westmoreland, and even Richmond-Cumberland, which the 15 never even terminates at), they could’ve combined the two routes and given everyone a one-seat ride again. They would save vehicles from not having to have layovers at both Front-Girard and Frankford-Delaware, and combined with the lower running times from running buses, they could’ve created a schedule that provides more frequent service with the same number of vehicles.
Sigh…anything else? Oh, the stops are too close. As usual. And I find that hilarious, because the center median stops actually required infrastructure to build, and SEPTA still put one every block. Classic.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Girard has a ton of businesses along its entire length. From soul food places in West Philly, to cafes and breweries in Brewerytown, to fast food places around Broad, to the many bars and restaurants of Fishtown, to pubs and ethnic eateries in Port Richmond, there’s pretty much stuff anywhere along here! Also, if it was still running trolleys, I’d say the route itself is nearby and noteworthy, but…no, you’re just getting a bus now.
Final Verdict: 4/10
Look, if you had asked me to review this prior to the bus implementation, I probably would’ve given it a 7. It’s a direct route with a much-better-than-average schedule whose only pitfalls are the standard SEPTA problems: too many stops, mediocre Sunday service (although again, it’s much better than other routes), and the bunching problems that come with running a long-ish route down a busy street. But the way they handled this new bus routing drags the route down so much, from missed scheduling opportunities to confusing routings to completely incorrect GTFS, that I had to lower the score by a lot.
But now, it’s time for the part where I get cancelled: should the 15 be a trolley or a bus? Look, the PCCs are beautiful pieces of machinery. The architectural details, the sounds they make, the fact that they look really good in photos…I love these things as much as anyone. But they lose a lot of their luster when SEPTA treats them like buses, when they should be treated like trains. A trolley like this will only work if it’s separated from traffic; as it stands, the trolley lane often doubles as the left turn lane, so trolleys would get stuck at green lights waiting for cars in front of them to turn left. The bus can just go around them. Not to mention other problems like having to go slowly around curves, the stairs people have to climb up to get on board, and the incredibly long wheelchair process. It also doesn’t help that the trolley routing in Port Richmond stays (and will continue to stay, despite the opportunity to change the route) on Richmond Street, which sticks next to I-95 and the no man’s land around it. It’s more direct than the bus, but it’s barely serving anything.
Am I saying that the 15 shouldn’t be a trolley? No, not necessarily. But in order for a trolley to work, SEPTA needs to take major steps to ensure that they can move down the street with decent speed. This includes not only restricting the existing median portions to trolleys only, but also giving the trolleys their own lane along the rest of the route; consolidating stops so the vehicles can gain more speed between them; getting new, modern trolleys with level boarding (sorry, PCCs); and ideally changing the route in Port Richmond, although we’re past the point of no return on that one. And making the route more traversable by trolleys allows the benefits of trolleys to shine – not only do they look and feel great, but they also have higher capacities than buses. But if SEPTA doesn’t want to make the necessary changes…then I’m okay with the 15 staying a bus forever.
So with that totally-not-controversial message in mind, here are more PCC photos!!!
Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates
Have been waiting for this one. You did NOT disappoint. Thanks!
Those trolleys are so photogenic. Brings me back to my youth riding Boston’s Green Line.
Thanks for a great ride through some great neighborhoods in Philly. What type of ethnic eateries are there in Port Richmond? I may have to visit next time I’m in Philly…
Thank you! Port Richmond has a huge Polish community, so there’s a ton of Polish places over there.
Just for clarification, you are generally not against street running, but here it’s done wrong so you prefer buses?
I’m generally against trolleys in mixed traffic, but if they get their own lanes, then they’re great assets.
I don’t know… Street running works in Prague, and most other European systems, but it is still generally considered as something that must be avoided at all costs in the US.
It seems like what might make more sense is to have trolleys make limited stops, and then if necessary provide local bus service alongside them. In that case, the 15 would stop at 63, 60, 56/57, 52, Lancaster, Belmont, Leidy Av, 40, 38, 34, 33, 29, College Av, Corinthian Av, 19th St/Ridge Av, 16 St, Broad, 11/12, 7/8, 5th, American, Front, Frankford, Palmer, Aramingo and Richmond/Cumberland. That’s still 26 stops to go about eight miles, so around 1300-1600 feet between stops. Then you could have a local bus that makes all 51 of the current stops and comes every 20-30 minutes; that would mostly be targeted for the elderly and disabled who can’t really walk more than 400-500 feet to a stop.