Presbyterian College > Academic Web Server > Jon Bell > Transit > (Cities | Types) > Philadelphia > Trackless

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
Trackless Trolleys


The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has operated a total of seven trackless trolley routes. (In other cities, these are called "trolley coaches" or "trolleybuses.") Five of them survived into the 21st century, and three of them are now operating with newly-built vehicles from New Flyer Industries.

Number Name Opened Closed Depot
29 Tasker-Morris 1947 2003 Southern
59 Castor 1950 2003 Frankford
61 Ridge 1941 1960 Ridge
66 Frankford 1955 2003 Frankford
75 Wyoming 1948 2003 Frankford
79 Snyder 1961 2003 Southern
80 Oregon 1923 1960 Southern

Unlike many other cities, Philadelphia did not convert streetcars massively to trackless trolleys. The Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) did in fact plan to do so, beginning in the late 1930s and early 1940s; but the plan was delayed by World War II. In the 1950s, PTC was owned by National City Lines, which was dominated by General Motors Corporation, so it ended up converting mostly to diesel buses. Therefore, Philadelphia's trackless trolley system was never very large.

It does have a unique feature (for the United States, at least): express operation during rush hours on the Frankford route using a second set of overhead wires. Frankford Avenue is a four-lane thoroughfare with trolley wires over each lane; "local" trolleys used the outer set of wires, and "express" trolleys used the inner set.

In 1979, AM General built a batch of about 110 new trolleys as replacements for the original Brills and Marmon-Herringtons. They did not actually come into general use until the early 1980s because of severe manufacturing defects that had to be corrected. As ridership declined, by the late 1990s only about half the fleet was actually in use.

As of 2003, the trackless trolley system was in two sections which did not connect physically to each other. Routes 29 and 79 operated on east-west streets in South Philadelphia, and were connected to the Southern Division depot on Oregon Avenue by non-revenue wire on 22nd and 23rd Streets. Routes 59, 66 and 79 were based at Frankford Terminal on northeast Philadelphia. Only route 66 actually served Frankford Terminal; the other two began at Arrott Terminal next to the Margaret-Orthodox elevated station, and were connected to Frankford Terminal by non-revenue wire on Frankford Avenue, underneath the elevated tracks of the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated Line.

(The earlier route 61 was completely separate from the other two sections. Route 80 was based at Southern Division, but was dieselized before route 79 was made a trackless route.)

In June 2003, SEPTA decided to replace trackless trolley service with diesel buses for the 2003-04 budget year, because of funding cutbacks. At this time, routes 59, 75 and 66 were already being operated temporarily with diesel buses because of reconstruction of Frankford Terminal, and route 29 had been temporarily dieselized because of demolition work in a housing project at the west end of the route. Only route 79 was actually using trolleys; they ran for the last time on the morning of 3 June 2003.

SEPTA eventually ordered a batch of new trackless trolleys from New Flyer Industries, of which the prototype arrived for testing in August 2007. The production vehicles are now (April 2008) arriving, and the first ones will begin official scheduled revenue service on 14 April 2008. There will eventually be enough to serve routes 59, 75 and 66. However, I understand that SEPTA has decided not to restore trolley service on the Southern Division routes (29 and 79).


These pictures were taken on 7 March 2000, except for the last one which is from February 1996. [R] indicates pictures that have been rescanned beginning in 2006.

[picture] Rear view of a westbound route 79 trolley on Snyder Avenue, boarding passengers next to the entrance to the Broad Street Subway.

[picture] An eastbound route 79 trolley on Snyder, in a residential area near the end of the line. Another trolley is following in the distance, preparing to return to the depot after the morning peak period.

[picture] An eastbound route 29 trolley on Morris Avenue boards passengers at Broad Street. This route runs in a one-way loop, eastbound on Morris and westbound on Tasker Avenue. Both are narrow one-way residential streets, with a single traffic lane.

[picture] A broadside view of a westbound route 75 trolley on Wyoming Avenue as it crosses Broad Street.

[picture] Trolleys on route 75 and 59 prepare to leave the Arrott Street terminal, with the recently-renovated Margaret-Orthodox elevated station in the background.

[picture] A southbound route 59 trolley on Castor Avenue at Rhawn Street.

[picture] Two route 59 trolleys lay over in the loop at the end of the line near Castor and Bustleton Avenues.

[picture] A route 66 trolley at Frankford Terminal, seen from the elevated station platform above and to the rear.

[picture] A route 66 trolley at Frankford Terminal in the evening twilight, seen from the opposite direction as the previous picture, looking back towards the elevated station.

[picture] A route 66 trolley passes the entrance to Cedar Hill Cemetery just before returning to Frankford Terminal. At left is the end of the Frankford Elevated structure.

[picture] A southbound route 66 express trolley on Frankford Avenue, a few blocks north of Cottman Avenue. This section of Frankford has four pairs of overhead wires, for express and local service in both directions; but this express is using the outer (local) wires. For some reason, most express runs use the inner wires only as far as Cottman, and I got off a local too late! Although you can't see all of the overhead wires in this picture because of the cluttered background, you can see the insulators that suspend them all from the span wire.

[R] [picture] A double line of trolleys sits in the snow at Frankford Terminal in February 1996. A blizzard had struck Philadelphia the day before, and apparently conditions were still not good enough for the trolleys to operate, because I did not see any of them running that day.

This page was last updated on 8 April 2008.

Presbyterian College > Academic Web Server > Jon Bell > Transit > (Cities | Types) > Philadelphia > Trackless

This page is © 2008 by Jon Bell (jbell at, who is solely responsible for its content. If you're interested in using these pictures, please read my terms of usage.