Car traffic surrounding 30th Street Station makes crossing above ground difficult, if not dangerous. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

30th Street Station is a major hub for train travel in Philadelphia region, but if you try to get there via the city’s most-used transit line, the transfer is anything but simple.

That could change in the future, as SEPTA and Amtrak have identified plans to restore a connecting tunnel as a part of a federally funded renovation

As things stand now, the Market-Frankford Line stops at 30th Street, but you can’t get to the Amtrak hub without going above ground, following a route that lacks wayfinding signage and traverses a street that funnels automobile traffic off the I-76 highway. 

“The traffic around the station is terrible,” Mike Cramer, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, told Billy Penn. “The way people drive around there is so unpleasant and so dangerous.” 

The civic association has long hoped for some kind of change, Cramer said. “I feel like Amtrak, SEPTA, and the city should focus on how to make it easy for passengers getting off SEPTA — for people walking from Powelton Village to 30th Street or beyond.”

Work on Amtrak’s historic train hall’s $400 million reconstruction effort  has already begun, spearheaded by asset management group Plenary Infrastructure. Plans call for upgrading facilities, interior, and grounds. There will be a brand new concourse filled with amenities and shops.

Preliminary plans also call for a stairwell leading to a tunnel to SEPTA’s MFL platform. 

“An intermodal connection between Amtrak’s William H Gray III, 30th Street Station and SEPTA’s Market-Frankford and trolley lines at 30th Street is identified within the District Plan, and remains a priority project,” Amtrak said in a statement from spokesperson Beth Toll.

The connector is not part of the current construction project, Toll clarified after this article was published, but Amtrak has submitted an application for a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program grant to fund its design.

Established in 1933 by Pennsylvania Railroad — and renamed in 2014 for William H. Gray, a former U.S. representative and United Negro College Fund president — 30th Street Station stands as Amtrak’s third busiest train station in the U.S. Likewise, the El is one of Philadelphia’s most used transit lines. With each funneling thousands of riders daily, the pair could be an inseparable relay team for commuters, tourists, and other passengers. 

To get between the stations currently, travelers must navigate an exceptionally busy roadway without any signs offering clear direction. 

“It’s not wildly inconvenient, but it’s not very easy to do. It’s not transparent if you’re not from here,” said Bryant Simon, a Temple University professor who often commutes via these stations. “You have to come out of the station, go back outside and then go back down, go back out.”

That convoluted trek wasn’t always required.

“It is kind of hard to bring your suitcases and everything,” said one Philly resident who was making the station switch. “It definitely would be easier and more accessible [with a tunnel].”

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Looking back to look forward

In the mid-20th century, there was a direct connection between the two 30th Street stations that made wayfinding simple. 

Few photos or schematics of that former connector are easily accessible, but David Brownlee, a professor emeritus of modern architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers it clearly.

“There was a stairway — and maybe an escalator” in the middle of the above-ground concourse leading from one side of the Amtrak station to the Great Hall, Brownlee recalled, describing how it “narrow[ed] down into an underground tunnel connecting to the blue line and the green line” in SEPTA’s Market Street station.

“It was an enormous advantage not having to come up from the subway and cross the street,” Brownlee said. 

The tunnel was shut down in 1984 due to concerns around storm leakage, inadequate lighting, and fire hazards.

Car traffic surrounding 30th Street Station makes crossing above ground difficult, if not dangerous. (Vinella Jill Vinca, Nicholas Pompey, and Essie Haverkamp for Billy Penn)

Community members are optimistic a new version wouldn’t have the same issues. 

“I trust that they’re doing construction to make it better, and it’ll be better. I feel like that’s professional. They’ll make it safe — they’re not going to open it if it’s not safe,” said Cramer, of the Powelton Village Civic Association. “The connection to SEPTA just makes life so much easier”. 

There’s also the hope that the underground connection will make the stations more accessible, especially for people living with disabilities. 

“They need to provide handicapped access by elevator or escalator to get down to it, up to the front of the tunnel across from the station to the subway line, once again in the center stage,” historian Brownlee advised. 

It’s unclear when construction on the new connector might begin, since the design has not yet been funded or completed, according to Amtrak.  

But local transit advocates see it as a worthwhile project that’s good for Philadelphia overall. 

“Any way you can make the city walkable, any way you can make the city denser, and less dependent on cars is good for the city,“ said Simon, the Temple professor and regular train rider. “Make this into a centerpiece of a dense, walkable city; a city which has viable public transportation.” 

Updated Aug. 15 with a new statement from Amtrak, provided after this article was published, clarifying that the connector is not yet part of the current construction plan. Updated Aug. 23 because the West Philadelphia subway extension was not completed until 1955.

Essie Haverkamp, Nicholas Pompey, and Vinella Jill Vinca were Billy Penn's summer interns as part of the WHYY Education Youth Employment Program. They are all teens living in Philadelphia who are interested...