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When Fashion District Philadelphia opens in place of the Gallery mall next month, it could help rescue SEPTA’s problem child.

Plagued by years of low ridership and threats of cancellation, the Broad-Ridge Spur is basically the black sheep of the Philadelphia subway system. It’s so obscure that even the city’s most seasoned residents might not be familiar.

Many people know it exists only because they’ve accidentally boarded, thinking it was a Broad Street Line express train.

What it actually comprises is a set of tracks that run with the northern end of the Broad Street Line until Fairmount Avenue, when they shoot off at a 45-degree angle. From there, the Spur curves east down Ridge Avenue and makes two more stops: Chinatown and 8th Street.

The stray chute was originally designed to be part of a comprehensive Center City Loop — but the disappearance of funds in the Depression-era 1930s left it orphaned.

Always the bridesmaid of the Broad Street Line, the Spur serves such a small geographic area that it consistently records low numbers of riders. And when SEPTA admins have to make budget cuts, they often toy with closing it down completely.

For years, there was one major thing the tube had going for it. The Gallery boasted attractions galore, with regular employees and customers — and was directly connected to the Spur’s 8th Street Station. When the mall closed for a revamp in 2015, Spur ridership plummeted.

Now SEPTA officials are wondering: Could the new Fashion District Philadelphia reinvigorate the hundred-year-old subway line? Or is the eternally incomplete line doomed?

The Broad-Ridge Spur’s 8th Street Station connects with the underground concourse and the mall above it Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

A 25% drop, an $8 million upgrade

In the years just prior to the Gallery closing, ridership on the Broad-Ridge Spur was hovering at a respectable level.

Between 2008 to 2014, the Spur’s 8th Street Station saw around 840,000 riders annually. That’s nowhere near the BSL’s Olney Station, which clocked an annual average of nearly 5 million riders, but it’s about the same as Spring Garden Station, and more than several of the MFL’s outlying stops.

In 2015, the Gallery shutdown severed Spur ridership at the hip. During the following year, only 680k people dropped tokens into the turnstiles at the 8th Street platform. That’s an almost 25% drop.

“That coincided directly with The Gallery closing,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. “We’re looking forward to seeing that hopefully pick back up again.”

When the Fashion District opens next month, it will bring with it at least 50 new vendors and thousands of new jobs and new customers to the East Market destination.

To prepare, the Spur is currently undergoing an $8 million upgrade to its signal system.

This’ll bring it up to speed with the rest of the city’s subway lines, which already have the Automatic Train Control system installed. The benefits of ATC are several, including preventing speeding, sending alerts about broken rail lines and generally providing a safer experience for both passengers and workers, according to a 2017 Inquirer story on the transit authority’s safety net.

“Like with all of the assets we have, our focus is on bringing everything to a state of good repair,” Busch said. “We’re ready to continue to serve future generations, and lay the groundwork to make sure that what we have is running in the best manner possible.”

The Spur’s Chinatown Station is often empty of passengers Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The Center City Loop that wasn’t

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Born in 1932, the Broad-Ridge Spur was supposed to have at least three siblings.

“Kind of like with present day challenges with funding, that never came to fruition,” Busch said.

Let’s set the scene: The year is 1912, and the most popular song in the United States is “That Haunting Melody” by Al Jolson. Philly has just hired its first commissioner of the newly created Department of City Transit, A. Merritt Taylor.

The guy is ambitious, to say the least. Right away, Taylor suggested a robust subway network, with lines running along Chestnut, Walnut and Arch streets, plus a tangent off the BSL that would drop off passengers around Center City.

It took just four years for Taylor to be succeeded by someone a little more pragmatic: William S. Twining. The two had vastly different transit viewpoints.

“Whereas Taylor saw transit as a stimulant of urban development,” reads a Hidden City story, “Twining sanctioned building lines only where there was already demand.”

Then a few bad things happened. World War I came along, occupying the city’s previously abundant labor force. Strike one.

Next up: The Great Depression, which depleted Philly’s mattress full of cash reserved for transit development.

And strike three was the next global conflict. World War II required a ton of new machinery, which commandeered most of the city’s steel — meaning it wasn’t available to build new subway lines.

So Twining nixed most of the robust subway network plans and stuck to a more conservative vision: keep up the Market Frankford Line, built in 1908, and finish the Broad Street Line by 1920.

And since the first Spur tunnel was already built, it got to stick around too.

Threats of cancellation and no service on Sundays

The BSL’s only child has plenty of limitations.

A lack of funding preempted the permanent closure of one of just three unique Spur stations. The stop with the lowest ridership, Spring Garden, was closed in 1989. Now it’s a gallery of Philadelphia graffiti.

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And a la one religious and discriminatory fast food chain known for fried chicken sandwiches, this subway line is closed on Sundays.

The Spur has increasingly become a burden for SEPTA administrators — and it’s often considered for the chopping block. In 2003, the Inquirer reported that board members debated halting Spur service forever as part of a plan to save $25 million.

Ten years later, they mulled it over again. When a statewide budget gridlock threatened the transit agency’s funding, SEPTA drafted a “doomsday plan,” which would phase out Spur service until it came to a full stop in 2018.

But somehow, Philly’s rail line with nine lives has weathered each and every storm.

In 2019, the Broad-Ridge Spur persists — and with the Gallery 2.0 set to open next month, SEPTA officials hope it’s worth the effort.

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...