SEPTA diesel service

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SEPTA diesel service was a series of intercity and suburban passenger trains operated by Conrail under contract to SEPTA throughout the 1970s, terminating in 1981 and 1983, respectively. The operation consisted of four routes on former Reading Railroad (RDG) lines, and originated from Reading Terminal in Philadelphia. Service consisted of three intercity services — Philadelphia to Newark, New Jersey via West Trenton, New Jersey; Allentown/Bethlehem/Quakertown via Lansdale, Pennsylvania; and Pottsville/Reading via Norristown, Pennsylvania. It also consisted of one intracity service — Newtown via Fox Chase, Pennsylvania.

Intercity service history[edit]

In the 1970s, most intercity service was operated by Amtrak. SEPTA's intercity service to Newark, Allentown and Pottsville (then known as Conrail's Reading Division), was the most extensive non-Amtrak intercity operation in the U.S. All operations coincided with electrified suburban service on the West Trenton, Lansdale and Norristown Lines, respectively. The services were by-products of Philadelphia-area suburban services, similar to Amtrak's Keystone Service, which, at the time, operated between Harrisburg and Suburban Station. SEPTA provided the trains and administration, while Conrail maintained the equipment and operated it. Operating losses were covered by federal, state, and (in Pennsylvania) city and county funds.[1]

The services were among the few non-Northeast Corridor short distance intercity routes that lasted into the suburban-service subsidy era of the 1960s. Since the service carried many commuters to jobs in Center City Philadelphia, the city initially opposed attempts to discontinue the Pottsville and Allentown service. In compromise, the city purchased 12 Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDC) and leased them to the RDG for operation on all three routes as well as the unelectrified Fox Chase-Newtown suburban branch. SEPTA then extended the subsidy program to these routes as far as its jurisdictional limits allowed in the five-county region (Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester); there had been no attempt to merge the services into Amtrak. When the 1976 Conrail start-up subsidy began to dwindle, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) channeled funds through transportation losses in the additional four counties outside of SEPTA's jurisdiction (Schuylkill, Lehigh, Northampton and Berks). PennDOT eliminated the funding in 1981, and instead mostly diverted funds to highway projects.[2] SEPTA was not allowed to allocate any funding outside of the five-county region, leading to all intercity diesel service being eliminated by Summer 1981.[2]


RDCs were the mainstay of SEPTA's diesel services, usually operating in consists of 1-4 cars. Two of the cars (Nos. 9151 and 9152) were equipped with "excitation", an electronic device that assured that track circuits would actuate signals and railroad crossing gates. Because of this unique situation, 9151 and 9152 were the only two RDCs allowed to operate singly; all others had to operate in sets of 2-car configurations (known as "married pairs"). The 12 original RDCs were augmented by seven second-hand RDCs purchased from the Boston & Maine Railroad by the RDG and PennDOT.[1]

As patronage increased, the RDG converted the last six of its short, arch-roofed intercity coaches for pull-pull operation between Philadelphia and Reading on weekdays only. Control lines were installed on car roofs, and FP7 locomotives were attached to each end of the train.[3] While the pull-pull train was primarily used between Philadelphia and Reading, it also made an occasional midday round trip on the Bethlehem Branch between Bethlehem and Philadelphia. This practice allowed SEPTA to perform maintenance on the RDCs during the first two weeks each June.[3] The pull-pull also filled in for ailing RDCs on other lines when needed, making at least one known trip to Newtown on December 12, 1978.[3]

Intercity routes[edit]

Newark, New Jersey[edit]

Newark, New Jersey (RR-11)
Type Commuter rail
Status Discontinued
Locale New Jersey
Termini Reading Terminal (south)
Newark Penn Station (north)
Services Local
Closed July 1, 1981
Operator(s) Conrail
Character Surface
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Route map
A Newark-bound train at West Trenton in 1975; the first car housed the popular snack bar, earning the train's colorful nicknames "boozer cruisers" and "whiskey wagons".
Pages 90-91 from Reading Company Employee Timetable Philadelphia Division No.5 (eff. 1966-10-02) showing the then-effective Eastbound service between Newark Penn Sta., N.J.; Belle Mead, N.J., West Trenton, N.J. and Philadelphia, Penn.


Of all the SEPTA diesel services, the Newark run was the only one that crossed state lines. The original service began as part of the North Pennsylvania Railroad which was absorbed by the RDG in 1878. For many years, the route was operated to the Central Railroad of New Jersey's (CNJ) Communipaw Terminal, located across the Hudson River from New York City's financial district. Next to its operation to the New Jersey seashore (via its Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines subsidy), this was the RDG's only high speed run, as it competed with the Pennsylvania Railroad's (PRR) Clocker service. The RDG's hourly New York expresses (which had been interspersed with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Royal Blue Line trains, as they shared trackage) were patronized by those who found its station locations more convenient than those of the PRR. As part of the competitive effort, RDG scheduled its Philadelphia electrified suburban routes as feeders to the expresses.[1]

Frequency deteriorated in the 1950s. The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) began underwriting the service in 1962. Service was then reduced to only the weekday Crusader (an all-stainless steel streamliner) and Wall Street trains by 1965. Eventually, the Crusader equipment was sold to Canadian National Railway and the route became an RDC-only operation by 1966. The implementation of NJDOT's Aldene Connection on April 30, 1967 shifted the route's eastern terminus to Newark Penn Station (then owned by competitor PRR), where train connections to both downtown and midtown Manhattan were readily available.[1]

SEPTA ceased the Newark run on August 1, 1981;[4] New Jersey Transit continued operations in place of the vacated SEPTA until November 1982.[5] At the time SEPTA ended operations, they were paying approximately $10,000 annually ($25,941 today) for operations, while NJDOT was contributing double that amount.[1]


The Newark service catered mainly to upper-middle class intercity commuters from lower Montgomery and Bucks counties in Pennsylvania, as well as Mercer and Somerset counties in New Jersey. Commuters utilizing the trains regularly used their political savvy and daily contact with politicians to stave off continued attempts to discontinue the service. Riders were known to share comradeship, often playing card games and decorating the trains for annual on-board holiday parties. Each train utilized 2-3 RDCs, which included a snack bar selling alcoholic beverages (these were irreverently known as "boozer cruisers" or "whiskey wagons"). One round trip operated directly between Reading Terminal and Newark; others required a change between diesel and electric trains at West Trenton. Speed restrictions on the Pennsylvania side (between West Trenton and Reading Terminal) due to poor track conditions hampered on-time service. Other times, interference from Amtrak and NJT trains at or near Newark also delayed arrival times.[1]


Allentown/Bethlehem/Quakertown (RR-8)
Allentown 102978.jpg
October 1978 timetable
Type Commuter rail
Status Discontinued
Locale Pennsylvania
Termini Reading Terminal (south)
Quakertown/Bethlehem/Allentown (north)
Services Local
Closed July 27, 1981
Operator(s) Conrail
Character Surface
Line length 61.3 mi (98.7 km)
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Route map
Reading Terminal
Spring Garden
Temple University
North Broad
Norristown/Reading/Pottsville Line
Wayne Junction
Fox Chase/Newtown Line
Fern Rock
Melrose Park
Elkins Park
West Trenton/Newark, New Jersey Line
Warminster Line
North Hills
PA 309
Penna Turnpike
Fort Washington
Gwynedd Valley
US 202
North Wales
Stoney Creek Branch (freight-only)
electric service
Doylestown Line
Hatfield closed July 27, 1981
Souderton closed July 27, 1981
Telford closed July 27, 1981
Sellersville closed July 27, 1981
Perkasie closed July 27, 1981
Quakertown closed July 27, 1981
Centre Valley closed July 1, 1981
Hellertown closed July 1, 1981
Bethlehem Union Station closed July 1, 1981
Allentown closed August 9, 1979
A two-car train awaits departure at Bethlehem Union Station, March 11, 1978; crumbling platforms, unsafe conditions and lacking amenities discouraged ridership.
Site of Bethlehem Union Station platform, August 28, 2010; all traces of the railway have been removed (note fallen signal at bottom right by shrubs). Restored Bethlehem Union Station building at right.


Pages 88-89 from Reading Company Employee Timetable Philadelphia Division No.5 (eff. 1966-10-02) showing the then-effective service between Bethlehem, Penn.; Quakertown, Penn.; and Philadelphia, Penn. Service continued under SEPTA subsidy for some time post-Penn Central.

Unlike the Newark route, the Bethlehem trains had no direct railroad competition. The top speed had been 50 mph, which was fast enough to compete with a transit-interurban routing involving Philadelphia's Market–Frankford Line and the Lehigh Valley Transit Company. The RDG route between Reading Terminal and Bethlehem Union Station was originally a long-distance one; as RDG trains ended at Bethlehem, they regularly interchanged coaches and sleeping cars with the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV): across the Lehigh River from the station was the CNJ's Bethlehem Station as well. Between the LV and CNJ, trains operated between New York and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and beyond. Both railroads passed through Allentown (the RDG did not, operating only as far north as Bethlehem), which rather than Bethlehem, was the business center of the Lehigh Valley. LV passenger service ended system wide in February 1961. CNJ service ended on April 30, 1967 with the implementation of the Aldene Connection,[6] leaving the Philadelphia-Bethlehem run as the only passenger train operating to the Lehigh Valley.

PennDOT became involved in the 1970s by channeling funds through the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) to operate trains beyond SEPTA's five-county territory. Pennsylvania further developed a plan for extending passenger service west beyond Bethlehem into downtown Allentown, since LV and CNJ passenger trains vacated the city in 1961 and 1967 respectively. At first, Conrail opposed the expansion due to poor track conditions. However, the political situation proved unusually favorable to the extension: Conrail needed federal aid for its system, and an Allentown area congressman happened to chair a subcommittee which considered such aid.[6]

Regular service between Allentown and Philadelphia began on a once-daily basis on June 6, 1978. The limited service proved popular, forcing SEPTA and Conrail to add additional trains by July 5. A PennDOT proposal for a 403(b) Amtrak extension northward to Scranton via White Haven, Pennsylvania was considered but never got farther than the planning stages.[6]

One drawback that hurt ridership was the railroad line itself. Though double-tracking lent itself to frequent bi-directional freight and passenger service, the Bethlehem Branch suffered many curves and sharp grades, some up to 1.2 percent. Lacking the benefit of parallel streams and rivers (which usually allow railroad lines to have gentle grades), the branch had a fierce saw-tooth profile; derailed freight trains regularly snarled evening rush hours.[6] Though some trains operated directly between Allentown/Bethlehem/Quakertown and Philadelphia, most RDCs were shuttle trains which connected with suburban electrified service at Lansdale, which then made all local stops into Philadelphia. This change of trains mid-route, coupled with slow running speeds north of Lansdale in diesel-only territory, made driving on the parallel Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (completed in 1957) more attractive to commuters.[7]

A second problem was the unattractive station conditions in Allentown and Bethlehem. The LV Allentown Station had been razed in 1972,[8] while the CNJ Allentown Station was derelict and trackage connecting to it mostly dismantled. This left riders to utilize a makeshift platform located one block south of the former terminal at 2nd and Union Streets. Bethlehem Union Station was also in derelict condition, with crumbling platforms and the surrounding station area both unsafe and lacking amenities. For commuters travelling from Allentown/Bethlehem and Philadelphia, it proved faster to drive to the small village of Center Valley instead and board trains there.[6]

Diesel service north of Lansdale ended in phases. The 4.7 mile Allentown-Bethlehem extension ended as soon as it began, on August 9, 1979.[9] This was followed by the Bethlehem-Quakertown segment, which ceased on July 1, 1981. The remaining Quakertown-Lansdale shuttle service continued for one additional month, ending July 27, 1981.[4]

The end of passenger service to the Lehigh Valley was quite significant. As of 2012, the region remains the largest metropolitan area by population on the U.S. East Coast, as well as the third largest metropolitan area in Pennsylvania, bereft of passenger trains.[10][11][12]


Despite competition from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, ridership grew over the 1970s, particularly on the lower section of the line between Quakertown and Lansdale. Commuting and shopping in Allentown was not particularly convenient due to poor scheduling. High fares beyond SEPTA territory (north of Quakertown) also discouraged ridership between Allentown/Bethlehem and Quakertown. Since both Allentown and Philadelphia have several colleges, weekend student ridership regularly exceeded weekday commuting patronage.[6]

Direct service between Philadelphia and Allentown/Bethlehem/Quakertown usually consisted of 3-4 RDCs. Single car shuttle trains operating between Lansdale and Allentown/Bethlehem/Quakertown usually utilized one of the two excitation-equipped RDCs.[6]

Further information: Lansdale/Doylestown Line

Stations, mile markers[edit]

.0..... Reading Terminal (Currently the Pennsylvania Convention Center)
0.8... Spring Garden Street
1.8... Columbia Ave
2.9... North Broad Street
4.0... Tioga
4.3... Nicetown
5.1... Wayne Junction
5.9... Logan
6.7... Tabor
7.3... Fern Rock
8.4... Oak Lane
9.2... Elkins Park
10.8... Jenkintown (Wyncote)
11.9... Glenside
13.0... North Hills
13.9... Oreland
14.8... Fellwick
15.9... Fort Washington
17.3... Ambler
18.8... Penllyn
20.0... Gwynedd Valley
22.4... North Wales
23.5... Pennbrook
24.4... Lansdale........(2012) Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad, CSX, SEPTA
26.1... Orvilla............(2012) Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad
27.1... Hatfield...........(2012) Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad
29.6... Souderton.......(2012) Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad
30.9... Telford............(2012) East Penn Railroad & Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad
33.6... Sellersville......(2012) East Penn Railroad
35.0... Perkasie..........(2012) East Penn Railroad
40.2... Quakertown.....(2012) East Penn Railroad
43.7... Shelly..............(2012) track out of service
45.8... Coopersburg....(2012) track removed by SEPTA; future site of proposed Saucon Rail Trail, Phase II (no funding available)
47.6...Centre Valley...(2012) track removed by SEPTA; future site of proposed Saucon Rail Trail, Phase II (no funding available)
50.5...Bingen.............(2012) track removed by SEPTA, site of Saucon Rail Trail
52.6... Hellertown.......(2012) track removed by SEPTA, site of Saucon Rail Trail
56.6... Bethlehem.......(2012) track abandoned and removed by Norfolk Southern Railway; ; future site of proposed Bethlehem Greenway Rail Trail (no funding available)

Bethlehem Branch Timeline (1970-present)[edit]

  • Reading Company: December 5, 1833-April 1, 1976
  • SEPTA: April 1, 1976-July 29, 1981
  • Conrail: April 1, 1976-June 1, 1999
  • Conrail: 1997-June 1, 1999, Lansdale-Telford
  • EPRY/ESPN: 1997–present, Telford-Quakertown
  • CSX Transportation B738: June 1, 1999-August 12, 2011, Lansdale-Telford
  • Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad: August 13, 2011 – present, Lansdale-Telford
  • Norfolk Southern Railway: June 1, 1999, Bethlehem-Hellertown
  • Out Of Service: June 12, 1986 – present, Quakertown-Hellertown
  • Bethlehem Greenway Track removal: March 11, 2004, Bethlehem-Hellertown
  • Saucon Rail Trail Track removal: October 6, 2008, Hellertown-Coopersburg
  • Saucon Rail Trail opened May 13, 2011 between Hellertown and DeSales University


Pottsville-Reading (RR-1)
Pottsvuille 070180.jpg
July 1980 timetable
Type Commuter rail
Status Discontinued
Locale Pennsylvania
Termini Reading Terminal (south)
Reading/Pottsville (north)
Services Local
Closed July 27, 1981
Operator(s) Conrail
Character Surface
Line length 91 mi (146.5 km)[13]
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Route map
A Philadelphia-bound train sits beside a Pottsville-bound shuttle in Reading, Pennsylvania, summer 1980.
Pottsville Station
Single-car train in Pottsville, summer 1978; behind the train to the right is the site of the former station
Site of Pottsville station, winter 2014; former Miners National Bank sign and clock tower is visible on far left


Passenger Timetable (eff. 1972-02-06) of a predecessor to SEPTA diesel service on Reading Lines between Pottsville, Penn. via Reading, Penn. to Philadelphia.

The former RDG Main Line (now owned by Norfolk Southern Railway and Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad, respectively) was the basis for the diesel route to Reading and Pottsville. For many years, passenger trains utilized the entire RDG Main Line by shifting west just north of Reading Terminal onto the former City Branch in Philadelphia between Broad and 22nd Streets[14] (abandoned by Conrail in 1980).[15] With the completion of the Schuylkill Bridge just beyond Norristown in 1900, the route shifted to travelling via Manayunk on the current SEPTA Manayunk/Norristown Line. The PRR offered competitive service on its adjacent Schuylkill Branch, but the RDG's traffic was always heavier and service more frequent (though the PRR route was built to higher standards and had far fewer railroad crossings). SEPTA subsidies covered diesel services as far as Pottstown (the final stop within SEPTA's operating district in Montgomery County). The Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority (BARTA) acted as a conduit for PennDOT subsidies for service beyond Pottstown to Reading.[14]


Of the three intercity routes, Philadelphia-Reading-Pottsville was the longest, stretching 91 miles between its two endpoints. Traffic on the Philadelphia-Reading section of the line was the heaviest and best patronized. Franklin Street Station in Reading was very close in proximity to that city's central business district; convenient scheduling allowed reverse commuting with ease. Pottstown, in particular, had heavy ridership heading to both Reading and Philadelphia up until service ceased in 1981. Conversely, Phoenixville traffic was light given the substantial size of the town and the closeness of its large station to the downtown business district and the Phoenix Iron Works. When Conrail took over operations in 1976, freight traffic increased considerably and track maintenance efforts largely were diverted elsewhere. This resulted in freight train interference (more precisely, poor dispatching) and bad-track speed restrictions, which slowed arrival times of trains. Commuters instead drove to the DeKalb Street Station (now the Norristown Transportation Center) on the electrified portion of the line to board more frequent and punctual departures for Philadelphia. In an attempt to divert passengers from this practice, the Port Kennedy Station (renamed "Valley Forge Park" and currently located beneath the U.S. 422 overpass) and former Valley Forge Station were rehabilitated in 1976 for the bicentennial.[14]

Philadelphia-Reading trains consisted of 2-3 RDCs, depending on departure times.[14] The push-pull consist also operated between Reading and Philadelphia during the rush hours; it would then layover in Reading on weekends.[3] Both ridership and frequency north of Reading to Pottsville was lighter than that of the Philadelphia-Reading service. Weekday service consisted of one of the single excitation-equipped RDCs, which usually made an evening round trip into Philadelphia after the rush hour. Pottsville lacked a station facility (the original RDG station, located one block north of the terminus, had been razed and replaced by a bus terminal) and layovers in between departures were long, hurting ridership. Service to Reading and Pottsville ended on July 27, 1981.[14]

Further information: Manayunk/Norristown Line

Intracity route[edit]


Newtown (RR-7)
Newtown 042780.jpg
April 1980 timetable
Type Commuter rail
Status Discontinued
Locale Pennsylvania
Termini Reading Terminal (south)
Newtown (north)
Services Local
Closed January 14, 1983
Operator(s) Conrail (1976-1981)
SEPTA (1981-1983)
Character Surface
Line length 26.3 mi (42.3 km)
No. of tracks 1
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Operating speed 20–40 mph[16]
Route map


Unlike the intercity services, Newtown diesel service was the only route that operated entirely within SEPTA's jurisdictional limits.[4] The line narrowly escaped abandonment several times, only to be rescued by political forces or changes in nearby population. After 1976, it was the only diesel line that SEPTA actually owned outright; the other three (intercity) services operated over trackage owned by Conrail. In addition, the line was a single-track rural branch line, while the other three intercity services were operated over double track, through routes that were all important lines in the RDG system.

The RDG branch to Newtown opened on February 2, 1878 as the Philadelphia, Newtown & New York Railroad. It had been built by fierce competitor PRR in order to block the construction of the parallel National Railway, later home to the RDG's Newark, New Jersey service. After that failed, the line was operated by the North Pennsylvania Railroad starting on November 22, 1879. The RDG began leasing the line, and eventually purchased it on December 31, 1923.[17]

The Newtown Branch was historically the lightest of all the RDG's suburban routes. It was bypassed entirely when the railroad electrified their five other suburban lines in the 1930s (Lansdale/Doylestown, Hatboro/Warminster, Manayunk/Norristown, Chestnut Hill East, West Trenton). Service on the line was allowed to deteriorate throughout the 1930s into the 1960s, when the RDG proposed abandonment of the line. However, a housing boom hit the Fox Chase region and ridership skyrocketed. The RDG then expanded service and, via the Philadelphia subsidy program, electrified the line as far as Fox Chase (the Philadelphia city line) on September 25, 1966. Fox Chase became the line's main terminal, with over half of the route's ridership originating there.[18]

The route north of Fox Chase became a hotbed for political upheaval when public subsidies came into play. Population near the line throughout Montgomery County is sparse, with few stations to serve passengers. Despite small originating ridership, the county was assessed much of the route's cost. Opposition within official county circles for continued service began to circulate in the 1970s. Proposals were floated around at that time to install a track connection where the line crosses the West Trenton route near Bethayres, and to abandon the stretch of track between Bethayres and Fox Chase. However, the lightly-used line served an important purpose, as it was the shorter route to the West Trenton Line crossing as rush hour traffic through the Jenkintown/Wyncote bottleneck was heavy (and presently remains so).[18]

Whereas the line was isolated in Montgomery County, it was near the center of activity in towns throughout Bucks County. Southampton, Churchville, Holland, George School and Newtown all had station stops centrally located and convenient to riders.[18]

Montgomery County also had less to lose if service ended. The eastern portion of the county had such dense passenger train coverage during the era of Newtown service that no point was more than two miles from a station. Conversely, Bucks County had less passenger train service; losing the Newtown route limited rider mobility. The end result would place the two counties in opposition of one another: Bucks County regularly supported service, while Montgomery County was against it.[18]

In August 1974, in an effort to stem losses while in bankruptcy reorganization, the RDG threatened to end RDC service north of Fox Chase. The shutdown was opposed by Bucks County Commissioner Joseph Tracey. SEPTA then intervened to keep the Fox Chase-Newtown diesel service operating on a skeletal schedule.[17] Service was again threatened in 1976 when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recommended the exclusion of the entire branch from Conrail because of its weak status (this was never the case for the double-track lines which hosted SEPTA's intercity diesel service). In an effort to avert this, SEPTA and private companies (such as Frost-Watson) made the commitment of continued use of the line; as such, it was purchased by SEPTA and freight service was contracted to Conrail using federal subsidies provided through the Local Rail Service Assistance Program.[17]

Plans to electrify the line to fully integrate it with SEPTA's electrified commuter network floated around throughout the 1970s. Funds were to be supplied by both Montgomery and Bucks Counties. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also allocated $2.2 million (equal to $6,498,854 today) to electrify the line in 1979, but these funds were ultimately diverted to other projects in the region.[18]

RDC service north of Fox Chase went on hiatus starting July 1, 1981. Around that time, Conrail had made it clear that they wanted to be relieved of its money-losing commuter rail operations in order to survive financially. The Reagan Administration agreed with Conrail, and granted the operator permission to exit the commuter business by January 1, 1983. While SEPTA had already relieved Conrail of their other diesel services, they were soon going to be responsible for all electrified services. As such, rather than terminate the Fox Chase-Newtown diesel service along with their intercity services to Pottsville, Bethlehem and New Jersey, SEPTA decided to use the line to experiment operating railroad lines using City Transit Division operators instead of traditional railroad workers as a cost-saving measure.[19] With the three intercity diesel services having ended, this freed up operable RDCs for operations to Newtown, where the RDCs would ultimately be stored.[17]

Dubbed the Fox Chase Rapid Transit Line, SEPTA initiated operation of the diesel service on Monday, October 5, 1981. The service was unique in several ways:

  • it was the only diesel service left operating in the SEPTA system; all other diesel services had been eliminated by August 1981
  • it was the only commuter line operated by SEPTA at the time; all other commuter services (all which were electrified) were still operated by Conrail

SEPTA ended service to Newtown on January 14, 1983 due to mechanical issues with the RDCs and decreasing ridership. The service had outlasted the intercity routes by 18 months.


Fox Chase-bound SEPTA RDCs waiting to cross the Conrail-operated West Trenton Line, May 1982. Disgruntled Conrail dispatchers regularly gave their commuter trains preference, delaying the RDCs and resulting in missed connections with Conrail electric trains at Fox Chase.

During the RDG and Conrail era, service consisted of five round trips between Philadelphia and Newtown, usually utilizing 1-2 RDCs. One additional run was an RDC shuttle that connected with electrified service at Fox Chase.[20] During the SEPTA transit experiment, service increased to eight round trips between Newtown and Fox Chase. Because SEPTA operated the service as a transit operation, RDCs could not travel directly into Reading Terminal. Nearby electrified Hatboro/Warminster and West Trenton lines offering one-seat rides into Philadelphia were more attractive to commuters.[17] All throughout its operational history, service north of Fox Chase never reached the hourly frequency of nearby electrified services, which regularly hurt ridership.[21]

During the SEPTA transit era, several additional operational issues saddled the route. The 17 RDCs, which had worked tirelessly on the former intercity services, were now in deplorable condition after years of deferred maintenance and lacked working air conditioning. SEPTA's inexperience with operating a railroad lead to them being reactive to performance problems. As the RDCs failed, motormen were instructed to feed the units excessive amounts of oil, resulting in the destruction of head gaskets on the engines.[17]

SEPTA was also left without a proper facility to service the ailing RDCs. Originally, trains were serviced at the RDG shops at their Reading, Pennsylvania base. With Conrail closing the shops in July 1981 after the intercity diesel services terminated, SEPTA was left without a maintenance location, resulting in makeshift oil changes being performed at Newtown Station with passengers present.[22]

Changing trains at Fox Chase also caused problems. Conrail motormen were still chafing at SEPTA's choice to operate the Fox Chase-Newtown segment with transit workers. Missed connections at Fox Chase were frequent, as Conrail motormen intentionally departed early when they spotted the RDCs from Newtown approach the station. RDCs were also held at the West Trenton Line crossing at Bethayres, with Conrail dispatchers giving their trains preference. The delayed RDC would then arrive at Fox Chase. having missed the connection to the city. SEPTA only allowed for a four-minute window for the transfer at Fox Chase, and frustrated riders fled the ailing line.[17]

Further information: Fox Chase Line

End of service[edit]


The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) eliminated funding to operate trains that operated outside of SEPTA's service area (the 5-county region), as well as diesel services in Pittsburgh: most limited funds were diverted to highway projects.[2] Coupled with the Reagan Administration's policy abolishing federal operating subsidies for mass transit,[23] SEPTA was not allowed to allocate any funding outside of the 5-county region, resulting in public hearings held during the week of January 26, 1981.

Via a flyer distributed to soon-to-be-displaced riders, the Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers (DVARP) urged passengers to contact Governor Dick Thornburgh, who ordered PennDOT to eliminate train service. Thornburgh later fired PennDOT Deputy Secretary of Transportation Ed Tennyson for refusing to carry out the governor's order.[24] Tennyson stated that such a move was illegal on Thornburgh's part, as the elimination of such extensive passenger service would result in additional automobile combustion and pollution.[25]


Newtown service ended for different reasons. Unlike the intercity lines, SEPTA owned the Newtown Branch outright. As such, they were responsible for its upkeep. The intercity routes operated over Conrail-owned track; any track or railroad crossing maintenance was their responsibility. Though SEPTA invested approximately $650,000 (equal to $1,686,146 today) for upgrades and repairs during the summer of 1981, the line was in mediocre operating condition.[26] Many railroad crossings along the line remained unprotected, one of the few SEPTA lines that had this problem. Inadequate warning signs and signal protection were the causes of two fatal accidents. The financial and, in some cases, legal burdens placed on SEPTA after these accidents contributed to the decline of the branch.[27]

Other reasons[edit]

Another factor was the omission of ventilation fans in the design of the Center City Commuter Tunnel that opened in 1984. DVARP President John Pawson, author of Delaware Valley Rails: The Railroads and Rail Transit Lines of the Philadelphia Area advocated for the inclusion of ventilation fans that would allow diesel exhaust fumes to exit tunnels and stations. SEPTA deemed the option unfeasible throughout the planning process.[23]

Pawson later characterized the termination of diesel service as "SEPTA's worst railroad mistake."[28] The end of diesel service resulted in over 150 miles of passenger service lost, much of it through regions whose populations greatly expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s.[28]

Restoration of service[edit]

Since the cancellation of SEPTA's diesel services, there have been infrequent proposals to restore passenger services to the outlying communities. However, discussion has not gotten very far due lack of political will, coupled with preferred alternatives to utilize expensive electrification to some extent in order to meet sufficient ridership projections. Since the passage of PA Act 89 in 2013, nearly doubling SEPTA's capital funding, there has been renewed interest in partial service restoration.[29]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Pawson 1979, p. 63.
  2. ^ a b c DVARP flyer "SEPTA is Giving You the Boot", January 1981
  3. ^ a b c d Woodland, Dale W. (December 2003). "SEPTA's Diesels". Railpace Newsmagazine. 
  4. ^ a b c Williams 1998, p. 47.
  5. ^ Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 275–277. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Pawson 1979, p. 64-65.
  7. ^ Williams 1998, p. 83.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Woodland, Dale W. The Reading in the Conrail Era; 1976-1998: Book Two. Telford, Pennsylvania: Silver Brook Junction Publishing Company. ISBN 0-9640425-9-2. 
  10. ^ Schwieterman, Joseph P. (2001). When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment, Eastern United States. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press. pp. 253–257. ISBN 0943549973. OCLC 702179808. 
  11. ^ "How Well Does Amtrak Serve U.S. Cities?". Retrieved March 23, 2011. 
  12. ^ Table of United States Metropolitan Statistical Areas
  13. ^ Pennypack Creek Watershed Study, p. D3; Temple University, School of Environmental Design
  14. ^ a b c d e Pawson 1979, p. 65.
  15. ^ Reading City Branch
  16. ^ Newtown Branch track chart
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Newtown Branch history
  18. ^ a b c d e Pawson 1979, p. 54.
  19. ^ Williams 1998, p. 47-48.
  20. ^ Pawson 1979, p. 49.
  21. ^ Pawson 1979, p. 49-51.
  22. ^ Bode, Charles H. (December 2, 2009). "Can the Internet bring back the dead R8 Fox Chase-Newtown line?". Bucks Local News.  Bucks Local
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ Tennyson, Ed. "Position Papers: Ed Tennyson, Former Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary for Transportation". Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions. Archived from the original on 2012-03-21. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  25. ^ "SEPTA and DVRPC Giving the 'Boot' to Citizens that speak Truth to Corrupt Power"
  26. ^ HS-1 Fox Chase Rapid Transit Line timetable
  27. ^ Branch
  28. ^ a b Pawson, John R. (January 1993). "SEPTA Regional Rail: Progress in 10 years?". The Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers. 
  29. ^ Sokil, Dan. "SEPTA, DVRPC looking into extending passenger rail service". 
  • Pawson, John R. (1979). Delaware Valley Rails: The Railroads and Rail Transit Lines of the Philadelphia Area. John R. Pawson. ISBN 0-9602080-0-3. 
  • Williams, Gerry (1998). Trains, Trolleys and Transit: A Guide to Philadelphia Area Rail Transit. Railpace Company, Inc. ISBN 0-9621541-7-2. 

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