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Philly NRHS - Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad History


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The Philadelphia Chapter of the

National Railway Historical Society

Established in 1936


Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad History

  The Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad, reporting mark PBL, was incorporated March 10, 1889 for the purpose of constructing and operating a railroad to extend along the water front in Philadelphia, Pa., with an extension to Tacony, Pa. On August 12, 1892 the Board of Port Wardens of the City of Philadelphia unanimously voted in favor of granting permission to the Belt Line Railroad Company to build its roadway along the Delaware river front at Bridesburg. Originally planned for a distance of about 18 miles, 16.3 miles were still in use as of 2002.

Initially the Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad had connections for interchange of traffic with the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road , the Pennsylvania Railroad , and the Philadelphia and Reading. All of the railroad was jointly operated by these three, under agreements which required the using companies to maintain and operate the road for an annual fee and paying all operating costs. The Philadelphia and Reading had the right to use the property to its whole extent, while the Pennsylvania Railroad had use of the line from Vine Street to South Street, and the Baltimore and Ohio had the right to use the rails from Callowhill Street to the tracks of the Philadelphia and Reading. In addition, the Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad was granted trackage rights on about 2 miles of track that belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad on Delaware Avenue. The rights were granted in perpetuity, and passed on to the subsequent incarnations of those railroads (Penn Central, Conrail, Chessie, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Conrail Shared Assets Operations). At the time of the creation of Conrail in 1976, the Delaware and Hudson Railway was given trackage rights to access the Port of Philadelphia (as well as Oak Island NJ and Potomac Yard VA), in order to improve competition. D&H was subsequently acquired by Guilford Rail System in 1984 and when Guilford declared bankruptcy in 1988, they ceased operation on the D&H and the federal government turned the operation of the railroad over to the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway. Canadian Pacific Railway purchased the D&H in 1991 and exercised the trackage rights originally as CP, then in 1996 through its subsidiary the St. Lawrence and Hudson Railway, and again as CP when ST&L was reabsorbed in 2001.

The Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad Company also owned as many as 17 other properties throughout the United States such as the Detroit Union Railroad Depot & Station Co. and Fort Street Union Depot Co., both in Detroit, Michigan.

  Although the PBL was never an operating railroad, it formerly did have track and maintenance material as well as employees. The last compensated employee retired August 31, 1992, and PBL is now chiefly a real estate holding company. It leased a portion of its railroad line to Conrail (now CSAO) and another to the Delaware River Port Authority. The PBL is maintained to insure the non-discriminatory access to the Port of Philadelphia to any railroad. It owns no equipment with which to operate a railroad. Operations over PBL lines are conducted by the employees of the leasee railroads.
  Currently Conrail Shared Assets Operations, CSX, NS and Canadian Pacific operate on PBL tracks. Under terms of the "South Philadelphia Agreement," each linehaul "user" may operate its own trains on the lines of the PBL south of South Street (near Pier 24); north of that point the line, including the Tioga Fruit and Container terminals near Port Richmond, is exclusively operated by CSAO out of Frankford Junction where it connects to the Kensington and Tacony Branch of the PRR. The tracks on Delaware Avenue once connected the Tioga terminals near the Betsy Ross Bridge to the South Philadelphia terminals near the Walt Whitman Bridge, but no longer. Now from the south they terminate just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, from the north they end at the Port Richmond Branch.
  From 1982 to 1995 the Buckingham Valley Trolley Association operated the Penn's Landing Trolley on PBL tracks along Delaware Avenue south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to Washington Street. SEPTA installed the wire and BVTA provided the power, the operators and the trolleys. In 1996 BVTA was unceremoniously evicted by both PennDOT and the City of Philadelphia, and over the next two years most of its equipment was moved temporarily to SEPTA's Germantown Depot, eventually going to the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton PA.
On May 9, 2002, as part of the 2002 Pennsylvania Joint Rail Freight Seminar sponsored by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council, a rail tour using Juniata Terminal Company's restored Pennsylvania Railroad EMD E8 locomotives, the PRR 120 business car, a l950's lounge car and several Amtrak Amfleet coaches traversed much of the South Philadelphia trackage still in use on Delaware Avenue. Stills can be found here, video here , here and here.
  In June 2009 PBL filed suit against SugarHouse Casino, which plans to build a casino on the former Jack Frost sugar refinery location along the Delaware River. PBL had trackage servicing the refinery which was closed in the 1980's and demolished in 1997, and PBL claims it still owns the right of way.
  Copyright © 2003-2009 John P. Almeida
Sources Railroad Retirement Board
  Interstate Commerce Commission
  Surface Transportation Board
  Canadian Pacific Railway
  "Happenings in ye Olde Philadelphia 1680-1900" by Rudolph J. Walther
  The Broad Way: PRR Corporate History
  The Philadelphia Inquirer: 120-year-old Phila. railroad challenges SugarHouse


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Website created June 12, 2002

Last Updated July 16, 2009