• de
  • en

Refurbished PCC trams return to service in Philadelphia

SEPTA PCC-III 2326 pauses at Woodland Avenue and 59th Street, Philadelphia, during operator training on 29 April 2024 | © Bill Monaghan Jr.

Streamlined 1940s-style trams have returned to service in Philadelphia following a four-year absence and intensive rebuilding program. Officially designated “PCC-III” cars, the vehicles operate on Route 15-Girard Avenue, the last of Philadelphia’s purely street-running tramway lines.

The trams were removed from service in January 2020 when concerns about frame corrosion and other safety issues led operator Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to conclude that at least 14 of the 18 cars were no longer roadworthy. Route 15 tram service was already slated to be temporarily replaced with buses due to upcoming road, rail, and bridge reconstruction along the line. The trams’ physical deterioration hastened that move.

] This image from SEPTA’s Woodland Shops illustrates the extensive nature of its PCC car refurbishment programme, with the vehicles stripped down to their essential components to permit frame, structural, and electrical work. | © Roger DuPuis

The imminent arrival of COVID-19 slowed the tram rebuilding process, and the first two trolleys – as trams are called locally – were not completed until August 2021. It was not until this June that SEPTA had completed eight cars, which the agency felt was enough to begin partial operation of trolleys over the line.

Shop crews frequently had to reverse engineer key components and fabricate new parts that were no longer being manufactured, officials said.

“This is a difficult task under any circumstance, but the trolley restoration team also had to contend with once-in-a-generation challenges – from the pandemic to global supply chain shortages,” SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie S. Richards said during a 12 June 2024 rededication ceremony at SEPTA’s Woodland Shops, where the ongoing overhauls are being completed.

SEPTA CEO and General Manager Leslie S. Richards talks about the PCC car refurbishment programme during a rededication ceremony on 12 June 2024 at the agency’s Woodland Shops in Philadelphia. Listening behind Richards are members of the shop’s staff, with refurbished tram 2328 as a backdrop. | © Roger DuPuis
SEPTA PCC-III car 2327 in Route 15 service passes a Route 15 bus on Girard Avenue on 23 June 2024. As of this writing eight out of 18 trams had been refurbished for service. SEPTA’s plan is to operate Route 15 with a combination of trams and buses until additional cars are available. | © Roger DuPuis

SEPTA’s plan is to operate Route 15 with a combination of trams and buses until additional cars are available. Tram service formally resumed on the morning of 16 June 2024 with up to six trolleys scheduled for service each day along with six or more buses.

About the system

SEPTA is a multimodal undertaking serving five counties in the Philadelphia area with commuter rail operations extending into the neighbouring states of New Jersey and Delaware. Its urban transport offerings include an extensive network of buses and trolleybuses, two metro lines, a high-speed rapid transit line evolved from an early 1900s interurban tramway, and the tram network.

SEPTA’s tram system includes five subway-surface trolley lines (10, 11, 13, 34, 36), two suburban trolley lines (101, 102), and the Girard Avenue line (15) – the last remnant of a once substantial network of surface streetcar routes which was dismantled between the 1950s and the 1990s. The subway-surface and suburban lines operate with Kawasaki light rail vehicles delivered in the early 1980s, while Girard Avenue uses the heavily rebuilt PCC-style cars. With a system length of 110 kilometres (68 miles), SEPTA’s trolley network is the largest of the legacy tram operations in the U.S., and second in length only to Los Angeles and Dallas among U.S. light rail systems overall.

System ridership is rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, with this year seeing new highs. According to SEPTA’s website, average daily ridership in May 2024 was 717,630 unlinked passenger trips across all modes, or 71% of pre-COVID May 2019 ridership. Trolley ridership was at 59% of pre-pandemic levels in May, with ridership highest during midday, SEPTA reported.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority PCC-III car 2332 picks up a passenger at Girard Avenue and 40th Street, Philadelphia, on the morning of 23 June 2024. SEPTA resumed tram service on Route 15 on 16 June 2024 after a four-year replacement by buses. The hiatus was required due to road, rail and bridge construction along the 15-kilometre line, as well as due to extensive deterioration uncovered on 14 of the 18 cars in the fleet. Originally built as PCC cars in 1947, the vehicles had been extensively rebuilt and rebranded “PCC-II” cars in the early 2000. The latest versions are now called PCC-III vehicles. | © Roger DuPuis

Route history

Route 15 is a 15-kilometre (9-mile) crosstown route running from 63rd Street and Girard Avenue in West Philadelphia to Richmond and Westmoreland Streets in the city’s Port Richmond section along the Delaware River waterfront. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This is the line’s third separate iteration as a tram route. Tracing its origins to 19th century horse tram operations, Route 15 trolleys were “temporarily” replaced by buses in 1992 as SEPTA effectively abandoned the last of its PCC-operated non-subway tram routes in the city. Popular pressure led the agency to restore rail service to Route 15 in 2005 using the 18 refurbished PCC-II cars.

When trolley service was again suspended in 2020 daily ridership on Route 15 was estimated at above 8,200. According to SEPTA statistics the line was carrying about 5,900 people per day in 2023, when it was served only by buses.

SEPTA PCC-III 2326 passes Kawasaki light rail vehicle 9035 at Woodland Avenue and 50th Street on 29 April, 2024. The PCC car was in non-revenue operator training service. The Kawasaki car, and another in the distance, were operating on subway-surface Route 11 | © Bill Monaghan Jr.

History of the vehicles

The PCC car bodies were originally part of a large order of all-electric PCC trams delivered to predecessor Philadelphia Transportation Co. by St. Louis Car Co. in 1947. They have undergone extensive rebuilding during their working lives, to the extent that very little of the original material remains.

While still dubbed PCC cars, their original PCC trucks and propulsion equipment were replaced with updated light rail technology during a major rebuilding programme two decades ago. The PCC-II fleet, as it was then renamed, was outshopped by the Brookville Equipment Corp. between 2002 and 2004. Brookville’s comprehensive rebuilding programme included new trucks, electrical and control equipment, interior fittings, centre door wheelchair lifts, as well as air conditioning and sealed windows. The rebuilt cars were repainted in the iconic green, cream, and silver 1947 livery in which they were originally delivered.

PCC-IIIs, as the newly outshopped cars are now designated, have retained all the essential features of the earlier Brookville rebuilding. Extensive frame and metal work was required, together with new wiring and floors. The trucks, electrical components and wheelchair lifts also were rebuilt. They again were repainted in 1947 colours.

The refurbished cars could see up to another half-decade of service. SEPTA has a contract with Alstom Transportation Inc. for the purchase of low-floor articulated cars to replace the entire fleet with low-floor articulated trams. Those cars are expected to arrive between 2027 and 2030.

SEPTA PCC-III 2326 is seen in operator training prior to the return of these vehicles to revenue service. Here, the car is at Woodland Avenue and 67th Street, Philadelphia, on 29 April 2024. This trackage is not part of the cars’ normal route on Girard Avenue | © Bill Monaghan Jr.