On a road trip early this summer, my spouse and I paid a visit to New York and Philadelphia. In New York, we walked the famous High Line, which revitalized an abandoned elevated freight railway corridor, transforming it into a popular grade-separated walking path on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
While in Philadelphia, I made a point of visiting another abandoned rail viaduct — Rail Park. It’s as ambitious as New York’s famed public space, but — for now — it is much less known.
The viaducts, cuts, and tunnels that will make up Philadelphia Rail Park trace their origin to the golden age of railroading. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which connected Philadelphia with its northern and western suburbs, industrial towns to the northwest, and the lucrative anthracite coal fields of northeast Pennsylvania. For many years, the Reading Railroad, as it was known, was one of the United States’ most profitable companies. In 1893, the railway opened its Philadelphia Terminal, which became famous for the public market that was established below the station platforms. To this day, the Reading Terminal Market remains a vital city landmark. In the 1930s, most of the commuter services were electrified.
By the 1970s, both the Reading and PRR were bankrupt. PRR merged with its New York-Chicago rival New York Central in 1968, before it too went into insolvency. Conrail took over many failing railways in the US Northeast and Midwest, consolidating operations, abandoning or transferring redundant track, and transferring most remaining commuter train operations (which were not assumed by Amtrak) to regional and state transit authorities.
In the mid-1980s, the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), which assumed control of the regional rail services formerly operated by the PRR and the Reading undertook an ambitious project to unite the separate regional rail systems. A new four-track tunnel was constructed east from PRR’s Suburban Station, and a new station — Market East — built to replace the old Reading Terminal. For the first time, trains could run through central Philadelphia, providing improved regional rail services.
Though the historic Reading Terminal headhouse and the famous market were preserved, the station platforms were removed to make way for a new convention centre. For years, the abandoned viaducts and tunnels leading into Reading Terminal sat unused. At least they did, until June 2018.
In 2018, a short, initial phase of Rail Park opened to the public. Spanning just two blocks, from Noble and 13th Streets to Callowhill and 11th Streets, it is still a remarkable public space. Like New York’s High Line, the short section of viaduct provides new viewpoints over gritty city streets, with temporary and permanent public art installations along the route.
Future park extensions will continue westward from 13th Street to a below-grade cut starting at Broad Street. It will continue west to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where the Rocky statue can be found outside), where it will enter a tunnel before emerging at Girard Avenue near Fairmount Park, the greatest of Philadelphia’s urban green spaces. Another section will connect the existing Phase I to the abandoned north-south viaduct between Vine Street and Fairmount Avenue, where the old route to Reading Terminal meets the 1980s rail diversion to Market East Station. Eventually, it will reach 3 miles (5 kilometres) in length.
The formerly abandoned viaduct offers a view of more recently abandoned transit infrastructure: the remnant tracks of the 23-Germantown trolley route, once the longest streetcar line in North America. In the early 1990s, SEPTA was forced to abandon three of its legacy street railway lines due to budget pressures and deteriorating PCC equipment. (Newer Kawasaki-built streetcars were only deployed on the surface-subway routes in West Philadelphia and on the former Red Arrow suburban lines from 69th Street Station.) The 15-Girard Line was later rebuilt with refurbished streetcars, but the 23 and 56-Erie lines were left to rot in a state of “temporary suspension.”
SEPTA has a wealth of transit infrastructure, which I wrote about after my first visit to Philadelphia in 2009, but it hasn’t put enough of it to good use. It has a massive, fully electric regional rail network, yet trains operate only every hour on most routes outside of peak periods. There’s a four-track subway tunnel under Broad Street that’s grossly underused, and unlike Toronto, there are even a few active trolley bus routes. And sadly, it’s allowed much of its infrastructure, like its trolley network, to remain in disuse.