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Before SEPTA started running diesel buses and sold off an inventory of hundreds of electric trolleys in the 1990s, Route 23 was the longest streetcar route in the world. But will the 23 trolley, which was “temporarily” suspended in 1992, ever operate again?

Probably not. A spokesperson for SEPTA said that there are no future plans that would alter the current bus service. Yet, at least in the top half of the historic route, new tracks and lines gleam on the Avenue, installed by PennDOT just a couple years ago.

Since the future of the 23 trolley remains in limbo, I thought it would be worthwhile to delve into its past. Here’s what I found:

Route 23 was established prior to 1877 as the Germantown Avenue Line, and ran from Germantown Depot to 8th and Dauphin. Today the line stretches between the Chestnut Hill and South Philadelphia neighborhoods via Germantown Avenue.

By the 1980s, Route 23 trolley ridership was so high that an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer referred to it as “SEPTA’s rolling cash register,” said Mike Szilagyi, creator of Phillytrolley.org.

“The Route 23 trolley played a tremendous role in the growth of the business corridor in Germantown,” said Szilagyi. “Eighty-five trolley cars were needed - just for Route 23 - due to the high level of ridership.”

In 1992, Route 23 streetcar service was abruptly suspended.  It was one of three – 23, 15 and 56 – streetcar transit lines in North Philadelphia that were replaced with diesel buses. SEPTA deemed the replacement temporary and then claimed the service would be restored as soon as new cars could be ordered, with a target date of 1997.

Since then, streetcar service has not been reinstated on Route 23 and in 2005, sections of the route were paved over, due to traffic accidents caused by rising trolley tracks.

However, in 2008, PennDOT launched a 17 million dollar road reconstruction project on Germantown Avenue, between Allens Lane and Mermaid Lane in Mt. Airy. A portion of the expense went to installing new trolley tracks, poles and wires along the Avenue.

“There was a tremendous support from local residents to keep the trolley tracks on Germantown Avenue and to keep the infrastructure in place should SEPTA continue service,” said Gene Blaum, a PennDOT spokesperson. “Germantown is an historic district and because the trolley line played an integral part in the history it was included in the project.”


History Quest: For the black and white photo above: Tell us where this is. The City Department of Records told us this is Chelten and Germantown avenues but we think it must be on Chelten because of the overpass - what do you think?


for NewsWorks