Single Most Transformative Investment? The Commuter Rail Tunnel, Now Turning 30

 

Bathed underground in natural light, Market East Station, opened 30 years ago | Photo: Bradley Maule

Bathed underground in natural light, Market East Station, opened 30 years ago | Photo: Bradley Maule

The real estate developer Willard Rouse III, who died in 2003, once spoke before an audience of Philly boosters a few years after he completed work on One Liberty Place in Center City. (This author was present at the event.) The eminent real estate developer said that every morning when he arose, he looked in the mirror and said to himself, “I live in the best city in the United States.” Then, he gave the audience a rundown of Philadelphia’s selling points to back up his point. One of them was was SEPTA. But in particular, the Commuter Rail Tunnel impressed Mr. Rouse the most.

Reading Terminal Headhouse: rendered obsolete by a tunnel under it 30 years ago, rockin' hard ever since | Photo: Bradley Maule

Reading Terminal Headhouse: rendered obsolete by a tunnel under it 30 years ago, rockin’ hard ever since | Photo: Bradley Maule

The tunnel is a feat of modern urban engineering that, beginning on November 10, 1984, linked Philadelphia’s two great railroads, the Reading and Pennsylvania, into a single regional rail network. It is why, for example, you can board a train in Trenton (on what was the Pennsylvania Railroad) and end up at Wyndmoor Station (along the Reading line). Moreover, the commuter tunnel linked all three of Center City’s regional train stations, effectively enabling Rouse and other developers to build ambitious projects like Liberty Place, and, more recently Cira Centre and Comcast Center.

“You would be hard pressed in the 20th Century to find a more significant physical accomplishment,” says former Daily News editor Zach Stalberg, in “Breakthrough,” the fifth episode of the documentary film “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.”

Officially known as the Center City Commuter Connection (CCCC), the 1.7-mile long tunnel essentially connected Suburban Station and Reading Terminal, both inefficient stub-end terminals that had formerly competed for commuter traffic. The tunnel enabled the through-routing of commuter trains and eliminated capacity limitations and operational difficulties imposed by stub-end terminal designs. This was a first for any U.S. city.

The tunnel, which is owned by the City of Philadelphia, was elected the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement for 1985 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A plaque to that effect is on the south wall in Market East Station’s mezzanine between 11th and 12th Streets. “It got people excited about the city instead of cynical about the city,” says longtime urban planner and real estate developer Craig Schelter in “Breakthrough.”

Commuter tunnel under construction | Photo: Philadelphia City Planning Commission via History Making Productions

The CCCC was initially proposed in 1958 by R. Damon Childs, a planner with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. It was seen as a way to bring more people into Center City—which was losing population and business activity at the time—and would offer improved access from Philadelphia’s western suburbs to the struggling department stores on East Market Street. Besides reinforcing Center City as the region’s transportation hub, the tunnel would would greatly improve the Regional Rail system’s performance by allowing Philadelphia’s two original rail networks to work together.

A diagram of the route of the Center City Commuter Connection | Image via pennways.com

City planner Edmund Bacon was first doubtful about the tunnel, but he incorporated it into the 1960 Comprehensive Plan for the city’s development once he grasped the project’s viability and usefulness. Still, the Commuter Rail Tunnel was considered for years to be a dream that would not come to pass. Funding issues, engineering challenges, and resistance from nearby businesses and residents delayed the start of construction for years.

Ground was finally broken on June 22, 1978. Engineering and community-related problems continued for the widely-maligned project throughout its construction. The $330 million project received 80 percent of its funding from the Urban Mass Transit Administration, now the Federal Transit Administration.

The CCCC is a reinforced concrete box tunnel of cut-and-cover construction. Its design and construction were very challenging, as the tunnel weaves both above and below pre-existing subway lines. Also, several historic and high-rise buildings along the route required a great amount of underpinning. The 14-story City Hall Annex (built in 1926; now the Marriott Courtyard Hotel) needed special treatment, since one track of the tunnel box passes directly under the building’s support columns along Filbert Street. The Masonic Temple, completed in 1873, required an even stronger underpinning method when cracks appeared in its ornate interior plaster.

“The commuter rail tunnel was the first national big dig,” says Schelter, in “Breakthrough.” “They had literally propped up on stilts the whole Reading Market in order to run this tunnel through.”

Complex Tunnel Structure

To keep train noise and vibration from disturbing downtown buildings and their occupants, the subway’s tracks use continuously-welded rails on specially cushioned concrete ties. Track level insulation and acoustic panels between the four tracks further deaden train noise. The concrete tunnel structure itself is isolated from adjacent structures by a two-inch layer of cork. In addition, complex construction scheduling was required to maintain vehicle, pedestrian and rail traffic at street level and in the multiple levels of subways and pedestrian concourses. And there was a monumental relocation of utilities, all of which had to be kept in service without disruption.

The Commuter Rail Tunnel actually lengthened the existing five-block subway built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the late 1920s from Suburban Station towards 30th Street Station. Thus, the entire tunnel is almost 2.5 miles long, right through the heart of Center City. As originally constructed, Suburban Station’s eight tracks ended at a concrete wall near 15th Street. The CCCC extended four of the station’s tracks—two in each direction—eastward.

Making room for the straphangers | Photo: Philadelphia City Planning Commission via History Making Productions

The tunnel project also included removing two of Suburban Station’s original tracks. In their place, the two island platforms serving the CCCC’s through-tracks were widened to about double their previous width. The rarely used Track 0, a stub, shares a platform with the southernmost Track 1, and there are three stub tracks north of the four through-tracks. Interestingly, although the station’s four through-tracks are on the south side, Suburban Station was originally designed so that its two northernmost tracks could be extended east towards a proposed tunnel under the Delaware River to connect to Pennsylvania Railroad lines out of Camden, New Jersey. This was never done.

Leaving Suburban Station, the tracks head east through a small interlocking area and pass over the Broad Street Subway. Even though this north-south line was designed to allow a future subway above it north of City Hall, clearances were barely adequate for the Commuter Rail Tunnel. A 20-foot wide section of subway roof was demolished and a new one built while maintaining Broad Street Subway service on at least two of the four tracks. Furthermore, a 400-foot length of SEPTA Subway-Surface trolley line parallel to the new tunnel was moved 16 feet south. A new westbound 15th Street trolley stop was also built, all while keeping service running.

The distinctive tiled mural of Market East Station is especially attractive when seen from afar | Photo: Bradley Maule

The distinctive tiled mural of Market East Station is especially attractive when seen from afar | Photo: Bradley Maule

Market East, the Centerpiece

Connected to the Reading Terminal, Market East Station is the centerpiece of the Market Street East Redevelopment Area, a colossal urban renewal effort east of City Hall envisioned by Edmund Bacon. All nearby office, commercial and hotel buildings constructed during and since Market East Station’s opening were designed for easy access to the station.

Market East Station (which will be known for the next five years as Jefferson Station, the naming right purchased by Thomas Jefferson University for $4 million) cost $75 million to build. This facility is 120 feet wide and two blocks long between 10th and 12th Streets. A huge atrium filters daylight down to the track level 35 feet below the street, and a large abstract wall mural of a forest—made with a quarter million tiles arranged with the help of computer programs—enlivens the place. (The tile mural is best viewed from trains passing by at high speed; unfortunately, they must stop at this location.)

Redevelopment construction began with the Gallery, a three-story high, four-block long complex of department stores, retail shops and food courts meant to compete with established and growing suburban shopping malls. (Gallery I was completed in 1977; Gallery II in 1983.) This was the first inner-city shopping center built after World War II, and its construction was seen as a positive return of retail shopping to Center City. It is now among the most successful urban shopping malls in the country, with many improvements in the works.

Aramark Tower (née One Reading Center) and Filbert Street entrance to Market East Station | Photo: Bradley Maule

Aramark Tower (née One Reading Center) and Filbert Street entrance to Market East Station | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Reading Company built One Reading Center at 11th and Market Streets contemporaneously with the Commuter Rail Tunnel. This was the Reading Company’s first substantial effort in real estate development after quitting the railroad business and emerging from bankruptcy on January 1, 1981. Now known as the Aramark Tower, One Reading Center, designed by BLT Architects (who also designed the Gallery), was completed in 1984. It was the first major office high-rise constructed on Market Street east of Broad in 50 years. The building has 31 office floors above two retail levels and incorporates special curved corners and stepped terraces on the exterior, as well as an 11-story glass-enclosed lobby atrium with a sculpture garden and a reflecting pool.

Reading Terminal and Beyond

Reading Terminal’s headhouse is adjacent to the Aramark Tower. When Market East Station opened, it effectively replaced the old terminal’s function. The CCCC passes under the near-center of the Reading Terminal trainshed, far below its elevation and perpendicular to it. Special challenges arose here during the tunnel’s construction, since full commuter train service had to be maintained inside the shed while extensive underpinning was done below.

Commuter Rail Tunnel construction very much disrupted Chinatown, under which the subway curves to the north. The city and project engineers worked closely with local residents and business owners to solve business disruption, noise, dust, parking and traffic flow problems.

The tunnel then passes under the Vine Street Expressway before rising on a steep 2.8 percent grade as it ends at the Green Street portal. A few blocks later, the tracks connect on a direct high-speed alignment to the old elevated Reading main line—the 9th Street Branch—that used to take trains into Reading Terminal. The southern part of this viaduct, from Vine Street to the Reading Terminal, was torn down in the early 1990s since it was no longer needed after the CCCC’s completion, but more importantly to make way for the completion of the Vine Street Expressway east of Broad Street. The southernmost portion into the Terminal has been replaced with a loading dock for the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which now occupies the Terminal’s train shed; the remaining Reading Viaduct from Vine Street to Fairmount Avenue may someday become an elevated park. (The first phase of the park, on an adjoining section of railroad, should begin next year.)

"Mayor Goode points to the baker of the train cake after it was noticed there were no women at the cake cutting" | Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer collection at Temple Urban Archives via History Making Productions

“Mayor Goode points to the baker of the train cake after it was noticed there were no women at the cake cutting” | Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer collection at Temple Urban Archives via History Making Productions

The Commuter Rail Tunnel was originally scheduled for completion in 1981. But serious delays occurred, not on construction of the tunnel itself, but in finishing connecting trackwork, interlockings and signaling, and on the power supply (due to a City-Federal-Amtrak squabble over whether to use 11 or 25 kV).

About three weeks before limited train service was to begin in 1984, the tunnel suffered a scare when a fire began in the ruins of a building at 10th and Filbert Streets. The aboveground fire spread to 17 other buildings, but the tunnel suffered only minor damage.

Train's comin': Market East Station | Photo: Michael Bixler

Train’s comin’: Market East Station | Photo: Michael Bixler

First Trains Through

The last train departed Reading Terminal on November 6, 1984, and the CCCC opened four days later. But less than a week after this the tunnel was closed north of Market East Station when decades-old Columbia Avenue Bridge at Temple University station was discovered to be in imminent danger of collapse. As trains passed overhead, the bridge was visibly seen to sag. A temporary earth embankment was built within a month so that full service could resume.

This incident led to SEPTA’s huge RailWorks project, which rebuilt the four-mile 9th Street Branch—now the SEPTA main line—between the CCCC and Wayne Junction in 1992 and 1993. Twenty bridges were replaced, five were rebuilt, and track, signal and power facilities were totally redone, while a new Temple station was built two blocks north of the old location. SEPTA spent several hundred million dollars on this work.

Daily ridership on the SEPTA Regional Rail system increased to about 85,000 right after the Commuter Rail Tunnel fully opened, up from around 72,300 before. All SEPTA commuter lines use the tunnel to some extent, with almost 500 trains traversing it every weekday. Rouse’s company, Liberty Property Trust, knows this most of all. Its Comcast Center is built on top of Suburban Station—with a second tower under construction extending its concourse—perhaps more than anything proof of the power of urban vision and investment in transformative infrastructure.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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7 Comments


  1. some history in here I never knew about

  2. amazing, thanks for the writeup.

  3. “Now known as the Aramark Tower, One Reading Center, designed by BLT Architects (who also designed the Gallery), was completed in 1984. It was the first major office high-rise constructed on Market Street east of Broad in 50 years.”

    1234 Market Street, SEPTA’s headquarter’s building was built in 1973. Developer Don Pulver built the building for Meritor Savings bank, a subsidiary of PSFS. As a result of their collapse during the great Saving’s and Loan debacle, the building was taken into receivership by the Redevelopment Authority (RDA). It preceded the Aramark tower by 11 years, and was built as a link between PSFS and Wanamaker’s, including a pedestrian bridge over 13th Street.

  4. Thanks for the article- very comprehensive. Do you know if BLT also designed Market East Station, and if not, who did? Judging from the design my guess is BLT but I haven’t been able to find out for sure

  5. john andrew gallery

    The Gallery was designed in two phases. For Phase One, BLT (or its predecessor name) was the architect. For Phase Two, which included the Aramark tower, it was a joint venture of BLT and Cope Linder Associates. I think Cope Linder was the actual architect of the Aramark Tower.

  6. “It is now among the most successful urban shopping malls in the country, with many improvements in the works.” Did I read that correctly regarding the Gallery?

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