A SEPTA Route 50 trolley in May 1976. (Wikimedia Commons)

For the first time since the early 1980s, SEPTA is acquiring new trolleys. 

The transit authority inked a deal last month with French firm Alstom Transportation for over 100 new vehicles to arrive by the end of the decade, with the first touching down in 2027. The base contract for 130 vehicles will cost $714 million, and includes an option to buy 30 more. 

The forthcoming batch will be an improvement over the current model in a couple of ways. 

The incoming fleet is the Alstom Citadis model. They’ll be longer and more physically accessible, than Philly’s current trolley vehicles, and will have audio and visual notices. There are also new on-street and refurbished underground stations planned. 

Many a trolley has graced Philadelphia’s streets. There’s a lot to take in over 160 years of street railways, so we’ve pulled out a few highlights from that storied history. 

A rendering of the new Alstrom Citadis vehicles SEPTA is ordering. (SEPTA)

The first decades were a true streetcar frenzy

Street railcar service in Philly is older than the Civil War. As trolleys moved up in the technological chain, from horse drawn to coal powered to electric, many companies formed to serve Philadelphians — a comic number of them. 

Philly’s first streetcar company was incorporated in 1857. Within two years, 15 other firms started up. The “unrestricted competition” of all these different companies was managed by the Board of Presidents of Street Railway Companies, founded in 1859.

Within four decades, no fewer than 66 different companies had formed. Many were merged into larger firms without ever planning or executing a single route.

In the end, the vast majority were subsumed in 1895 into the Union Traction Company. That in turn was leased in 1902 to the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, which in 1940 restructured as Philadelphia Transportation Company. SEPTA, which was created in 1964, acquired PTC in 1968. 

A 1947 PTC trolley from the St. Louis Car Company. (Washington University Archives via PhillyTrolley.org)

Trackless Trolleys hit the city, become part of lasting legacy 

Trackless trolleys, or trolleybuses, are vehicles that use overhead wires and trolley poles as a source of power, but don’t run on rails. They’re essentially electrically propelled buses, and SEPTA’s current fleet closely resembles the authority’s buses

These vehicles first hit the city in the early 1920s, mostly serving Northeast, North, and South Philly — three routes still run in these parts of the city today: the 59, the 66, and the 75.

The city’s been in the trolleybus business for so long that it’s not only the longest-running in the U.S., but the second-oldest operation in the world, second only to Shanghai, China.   

In many cities, trackless trolleys never really caught on like buses have. However, as transportation agencies look into greening, there’s the potential for a slight trolleybus renaissance, as some experts argue they’re a greener form of transit than battery electric buses.

Integration of trolley drivers leads to nationally-famous transit strike

Philadelphia Transportation Company’s policy allowing Black Philadelphians to work as streetcar operators prompted one of the more infamous local labor actions, at the height of World War II. 

Before the wartime labor shortage, Black PTC workers were only allowed to work menial jobs, despite years of effort by Black workers and community leaders to desegregate the higher paying coachmen positions. As in so many other industries, the demands of war opened the door — but not without significant backlash. 

Things came to a head in 1944, when eight Black workers were hired as trolley coachmen, trained, and set to take a trial run on Aug. 1. 

A sign advertising for women trolley drivers during the 1944 strike. (Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives)

That morning, white PTC workers staged a wildcat sickout strike that continued for five days. Trolley, bus, and subway service was halted, critically affecting the city’s war production industries. 

The strike was resolved when the Secretary of War took over PTC operations with the help of 5,000 troops, and strikers were warned of the penalties that come with disrupting wartime production. 

All told it was the largest U.S. labor action during WWII, and a concrete example of the executive branch’s wide berth to manage local affairs due to wartime powers. 

Baller bicentennial boat trolley from Britain

The 1976 Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia included many “one-time only” events and experiences. SEPTA got in on the action by running a tourist trolley route that featured historic streetcars. 

Along with pulling vintage stock out of storage, SEPTA sought a trolley from across the pond, and couldn’t have gotten a groovier offering from the Brits. 

The Blackpool boat trolleys first operated in 1930s England, and Car 228 was loaned to Philly for the celebration. The special route rode through Old City and past Independence Hall decked out in SEPTA colors (here’s a pre-paint job pic), and it really must’ve been a vibe.

A Blackpool “boat” trolley in 1976. (Temple University’s George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs)

After a summer in Philly the streetcar went back to the UK, and then was gifted to San Francisco in the 80s. Subsequent “boat” road vehicles in Philly were way less cool (and potentially more dangerous).

The record-holding Route 23

Route 23 has come to hold a hallowed place in Philly trolley lore, as it was the longest streetcar route in the world prior to the end of operation. 

Starting in the 1920s, this route ran from Chestnut Hill all the way down to Bigler Street in South Philly, with ample Center City stops on 11th and 12th. 

It was one of a few lines taken out of commission in the early 90s, with riders under the impression that it would return as other suspended routes did. As it turns out, Route 23 had taken its last trip in 1992. 

Guinness World Records has a 14.1 mile, Melbourne, Australia trolley line as its official record holder today, meaning if Route 23 — nearly 14 miles itself — were still running, it would be among the longest in the world.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...