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The Philadelphia Chapter of the

National Railway Historical Society

Established in 1936


Railfan Pictures of the Day - 01/18/2016

Reading-Conrail City Branch Philadelphia PA January 16 2016

Friends of the Rail Park and the Center City District last weekend sponsored a tour of the proposed Rail Park that would occupy the former Reading Railroad (and later Conrail) City Branch and the remaining portion of the unused Ninth Street Branch up to Fairmount Avenue. The City Branch ran from the main line at Park Junction to meet up with the Ninth Street Branch out of Reading Terminal at Carlton Street. Originally the branch, dating back to the 1830's, was at grade level between Broad and 30th Streets but a plan to depress the tracks was approved in 1894 and the project was completed in 1900.

In 1995, SEPTA purchased the City Branch from Conrail which abandoned it in 1992 when the last customer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, moved newspaper printing to its new West Conshohocken plant. Over the years, organizations such as DVRPC have proposed various transportation uses for the line such as light rail as part of the Schuykill Valley Metro (dubbed Metrorail by SEPTA), tourist bus similar to Philly Phlash, or dedicated bus rapid transit, but the costs in the $100 million plus range far exceeded the return on ridership. So, almost by default, a pedestrian, trail and cycling route has been deemed the best and most cost effective way to use the space.

The project can be divided into three distinct elements: the tunnel, the cut and the viaduct. The west end is dominated by a tunnel more than a half a mile long, starting from this spot at Hamilton Street near 22nd Street to 27th and Pennsylvania where the line continues into Fairmount Park up to Girard Avenue. The east end of the tunnel is the start of the cut, and also an area that is currently experiencing an explosion of construction activity and gentrification. To the left is the Rodin Museum, the Barnes Foundation and the many other cultural attractions of the Museum District along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. To the right, both old and new apartment buildings of the Spring Garden neighborhood.

Heading east, the first two blocks between 21st and 19th Streets are blacktopped and currently used for parking for the nearby Central Police Division and the Ninth District. The ramp to the right is a former railroad siding to street level, which may be very useful in the future in order to provide pedestrian and cyclist access.
The next block, between 19th and 18th Streets adjacent to Matthias Baldwin Park, was clear cut by SEPTA and shows the generous amount of space that the planners will have to work with. There are a number of thorny issues that will need to be resolved in order to make this project happen, and a couple of the biggest are those of air rights over the cut and development rights along the cut. The open feel of the cut could be destroyed by new high rise buildings that turn it into a dark ravine, and it goes without saying what building over the cut would do to it.
In contrast to the last block, the block between 18th and 17th Streets is a veritable jungle, a thicket of mostly Paulownia tomentosa, a tree native to China whose seeds were used as packing material in the 19th century. It has become a particularly invasive species along the eastern seaboard, especially where railroads ran.
The next block from 17th to 16th is just as bad, with the vegetation all but obscuring the only remaining part of the vast Baldwin Locomotive Complex that once occupied most of the area bounded by Broad Street and 18th, Hamilton and Callowhill: a railroad bridge that connected the factory at street level to a siding to the below grade City Branch.
The cut extends east a couple more blocks (currently obscured by overbuilds) and ends at Broad and Noble Streets where the viaduct begins (and where we will continue).

All pictures January 16 2016 Copyright © 2016 John P. Almeida

Photographs for personal use only. All rights reserved by original owner of image. Reproduction or redistribution in any form without express written permission is prohibited.

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Last Updated January 18, 2016

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