Will Philly's vintage trolleys survive?

With classic curves and vintage green and cream paint schemes, SEPTA’s PCC trolley cars are Philly’s transit past brought back to bustling, clanging life on Girard Avenue’s Route 15.

Plans to start replacing SEPTA’s entire 159-vehicle trolley fleet in five years, though, risk sending these 1948 originals to a second retirement. 

During recent interviews for a story on trolleys' future in the city, SEPTA officials said the old Presidents’ Conference Committee cars would be among those to go. When asked about it Monday, SEPTA softened its stand.

“We understand there is an interest in preserving the PCCs, and that is a topic we will consider as we get closer to switching to new vehicles,” said Heather Redfern, a spokeswoman for the agency.

When these cars were built they were among 1,900 trolleys traveling throughout the city on a network operated by the Philadelphia Transportation Company. They were omnipresent throughout the world, and especially popular in Europe, where SEPTA analyst Ed Springer estimated 50,000 were built in the 1930s and 40s.

But the Presidents’ Conference Committee cars, named after a bunch of Depression-era railway bosses behind the car’s design, weren’t intended to roll into the 21st century. Philadelphia's were retired in 1992, along with the Route 15 trolley line, by SEPTA, an eventual PTC successor.

 To make a convoluted story short, a few years later then-Mayor Ed Rendell wanted to bring trolleys back to the route. By the late 1990’s SEPTA, despite reservations, had plans to do just that, but it hoped to buy all new cars. The agency’s budget problems killed that dream, and instead it looked to existing resources. There were 18 PCC cars still available.

By 2005 (nothing happens quickly in transportation) the Route 15 trolley line was back and so were the PCCs. For the past decade they’ve ferried people through the city, from Delaware Avenue near the Sugar House Casino to 63rd and Girard.

The cars returned to service after a $24 million remanufacturing process that essentially replaced every part that made the trolleys go. They’re built on the bones of the original cars, though, and there are bits and pieces of the originals still in there. The paint replicates the PTC colors down to that company’s winged logo.

The biggest departure from the original aesthetics are air conditioning units on the roofs.

They’re crowded, even in the middle of the day. And they make a lot of stops. It’s not the ideal way to get somewhere fast.

Despite their overhauls they remain at heart nearly 70 year old vehicles, said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA deputy general manager, and take a beating traveling streets alongside automobiles.

One rider, though, who boarded near the Sugar House, was a fan.

“They’re steeped in safety,” said Will Nesmith, 51. “You can have someone run reckless and run up in here, you’ll be going to November.”

And one national trolley expert noted old PCCs have value both as historic artifacts and tourist attractions.

“As the conversion occurs you want to make sure that you don’t trash all of your historic vehicles,” said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in California. “They’re valuable. If they’re really historic, they ought to be protected. Use them for special occasions, special routes.”

My story on trolleys this weekend was originally supposed to be exclusively about the PCC cars. When I learned more about plans to update the entire trolley network, it was clear that was the more important story, but the old classics are evocative.

Riding one is a rare chance to experience the city’s past and present simultaneously.

Look out those pill-shaped windows, see the city framed as it was in the days of “give ‘em hell Harry,” the civil rights movement and men on the moon. Share a view familiar to generations of workers, school kids and retirees.

You can't get lost in the history for long, though. The PCC cars are living places. 

They’re noisy. People talk on cell phones or to the person next to them. Teens laugh. One very profane guy bellowed a random apology for his bad language, and then pontificated uninsightfully about kids these days.

People going about their business, irritated by a car blocking the trolley’s path or someone taking too long to pay the fare, and eager to step through those folding doors to get home after a long day. Like people have on these cars for nearly seven decades.