The One Big Problem With Bringing Amtrak to City Hall

Amtrak service through the Commuter Tunnel sounds like a great idea. But there’s this little engineering issue …


“Ladies and gentlemen, the next station stop for this train is City Hall station in Philadelphia. Please check your seat and make sure you have all personal belongings with you as you leave the train. Thank you for riding Amtrak.”

At least one Philadelphian would love to hear this announcement. In an essay in the Philadelphia Business Journal yesterday, Bob Previdi, former spokesperson for City Council member Anna Verna, noted that running Amtrak trains through the heart of the city, stopping at a renamed Suburban Station on the way to New York, would offer all sorts of benefits: increased convenience for Amtrak travelers, increased property values for homes and offices now closer to intercity rail service, and even luring New Yorkers to Philly to live, as their commutes and their tax bills would both shrink.

There’s a lot that’s appealing about this idea. 30th Street Station, grand though it is, is across the river from the heart of the city, and Previdi is far from the only person who would love to see restored the city center access that was lost when Broad Street Station was closed in 1952. And he is right to note that this city, like London, has already made a major investment in easy rail access in the form of the Commuter Tunnel.

But in saying that the only thing standing in the way of operating Amtrak service through the Commuter Tunnel is the political will to bring the passenger and freight railroads together to implement the through-tunnel service, he is ignoring one big fact on the ground.

The problem with the proposal is this: Once Amtrak trains would exit the Commuter Tunnel’s east portal, there would be no way for them to get back to the tracks heading to New York Penn Station. That’s because the tracks feeding the tunnel from the north belonged to the Reading Railroad, and the Reading had no physical connections to its crosstown rival, the Pennsylvania.

The Reading did operate its own Philadelphia-New York trains, to be sure. They followed the route of what’s now SEPTA’s West Trenton Line and used the Jersey Central to reach a terminal in Jersey City, where passengers could catch ferries to Lower Manhattan.

The Jersey Central and the Jersey City train station are both gone. And even if a new terminal were built there, it would simply trade inconvenience in New York for inconvenience in Philadelphia.

A new, high-speed connection would have to be built to allow Amtrak Northeast Regional trains to run between Washington and New York via “Philadelphia City Hall.” And that would cost some money and require some land.

The good news is that there is a place where such a connection could be built. It’s near Woodbourne station on the West Trenton line. South of this station, the West Trenton line tracks pass under the former Pennsylvania Railroad Trenton Cutoff, which connects with the main Northeast Corridor line at Morrisville, just across the Delaware from Trenton. A two-track flyover there from south of the crossover to east of it would allow for the through Commuter Tunnel service Previdi would like to see. Build that, and restore the catenary from the junction to Morrisville, and we’re in business.

It would cost less to build this than it would to build the north-south tunnel under Philadelphia with stations at the airport and Market East Penn Praxis students envisioned as a routing for a future Northeast high-speed rail line.

Do we have the money and the political will to do this? Should we even do this at all? I know what Bob Previdi would say. What about you?

Follow Sandy Smith (@MarketStEl) on Twitter.

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  • Wouldn’t it be simpler to utilize Suburban Station as a stub. And reverse the Amtrak trains back out towards 30th Street Station, a la pre-Commuter tunnel days? With the eight tracks going into Suburban, I’d imagine the station could deal with the volume.

    • M.Mitchell Marmel

      My thoughts exactly, though I’d stub end at Market East, reversing through “City Hall Station” to 30th St. and beyond; heck, given the track configuration, both DC-City Hall and NY-City Hall would be eminently doable tomorrow, given the will to do so…

      • Did you grow up at 6th and Spruce?

        • M.Mitchell Marmel

          Guilty as charged! Tho I’m in the Ozarks these days… :)

          • Where in the Ozarks? I was born and raised about 200 miles up US 71 (now I-49) from there.

          • M.Mitchell Marmel

            Springdale, AR nowadays. I commute up I-49 to Bentonville… :D

      • eldondre

        there’s little benefit to turning at market east vs suburban. either you run through as the article mentions or you turn the train at suburban. market east would add time and require a change of ends at a station not built to accomodate it as well as add unnecessary time to the schedule.

  • Enuf already

    Sounds like a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars when it can be best NOT spent.

  • bob previdi

    The answer is not spending millions. The answer is an a connection track between West Trenton LIne and the Northeast Corridor in Bucks County. Yes, some negotiation and possibly funds for some track – maybe even a flyover, the point is that Amtrak has suggested a multi-billion dollar High Speed Rail Tunnel. If we use the right of way in Bucks county – we don’t have to spend billions – and we make much better use of our existing Keystone trains.

    • eldondre

      the fact that a change of ends would be eliminated would allow some leeway for increased trip times on the rails themselves. it certainly is worth considering. howmuch would it cost and what would the trip time look like. I might skip market east altogether to avoid problems in the commuter tunnel but you’d probably want to stop at wayne junction and jenkintown (once it gets high level platforms)

  • bob previdi

    I’m sorry – the connection track already exists and is in operation by CSX. You can see it on google maps.

  • Bob: If I’m not mistaken, the existing connection is from the southbound West Trenton track to the westbound Trenton Cutoff track, it’s a single track, and it includes a sharp turn. It wouldn’t handle high-speed passenger service at all. (I used to commute on this line from my then-home in Wash West to my job as a marketing copywriter for a software firm in Yardley and know the territory well.) There is also a connection northbound to eastbound via the Woodbourne classification yard, accessed from the south via the New York Short Line, which runs parallel to the West Trenton line from just south of Langhorne station to this point, but why would you want to send high-speed trains through yard trackage? What’s needed is a connection from westbound to southbound and eastbound to northbound, two tracks, gradual or banked curves. That will cost something.

    Art et al: The LAST thing you want to do is use Market East as a turnback point. That would wreck the entire operation of the Commuter Tunnel, which is a through facility. Suburban has stub tracks (Tracks 0, 5, 6 and 7), and any turnbacks would have to take place there. (Keystone Service trains used to do this.)

    Finally: Manuel Smith in SEPTA Media Relations advises me that at peak hours, trains operate at roughly three-minute headways on all four tracks in the Commuter Tunnel. Inserting Amtrak trains with longer station dwell times (passengers loading and unloading luggage and all that) into this mix would cause serious delays,

  • this idea would take Amtrak right through my town allowing me to travel directly to NYC without a transfer at 30th. I salivate at the prospect. My commuting options by train open up tremendously.

    Before this article, I had never thought about this possibility. Before, I was hoping against hope that NJT would at least reestablish the West Trenton line, but the current NJ administration is no fan of trains. So, thanks for planting another impossible dream in my head!