The City of Philadelphia is excited to welcome the arrival of The Rail Park, a new open public space project led by the Center City District (CCD). The organization has been working in conjunction with the City, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), and the Friends of the Rail Park, who will assist with programming and maintenance when the first phase of the project is completed. This section, from 13th and Noble Streets, extending southeast to Callowhill Street, is currently owned by SEPTA. The structure is part of the larger, defunct Reading Railroad Viaduct, an old arterial line that once carried freight and passengers into Center City. This old right-of-way runs north from Vine Street through the Callowhill/Chinatown North and West Poplar neighborhoods, and its transformation is expected to bolster the surrounding neighborhoods by prompting residential and light commercial development. As of now, a little over a third of the land in the areas surrounding the Reading Railroad Viaduct is still vacant and underdeveloped, giving unprecedented opportunity for the public space to become a cornerstone of a unique, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood like none other in Center City. The project has the potential to be twice the length and width of New York City’s High Line, and could eventually transform abandoned rail right-of-ways into three miles worth of gardens, installations, and trails.
The first phase starts at Broad and Noble Streets, renovating and calming traffic of the 1300 block of Noble Street, and transforming the SEPTA portion of the viaduct that runs from 13th Street to the south side of Callowhill Street, between 11th and 12th Streets. The Rail Park will consist of a quarter mile of public space, and will feature lush gardens, trees, benches, large-scale swings, and gathering space. Efforts to restore the old right-of-way have been long sought after by the surrounding communities, and were made a reality when the City of Philadelphia conducted a feasibility study that concluded restoration of this major industrial structure would be far cheaper than demolition.
The Rail Park is one of those transformational projects that happens once in a lifetime, and positively impacts generations to come. - Nancy Goldenberg, Executive Director of CCD
The origins of the right-of-way used by The Rail Park date back as far as the late 1700s; the right-of-way that would eventually become the P&R Railroad’s City Branch started as a canal project spearheaded by the Delaware and Schuylkill Navigation Company. Aimed to connect Philadelphia’s two rivers, a partially completed canal was constructed but never finished due to financial troubles that caused the company to fold. In place of the incomplete canal, the City of Philadelphia transformed the old right-of-way for public rail use in the early 1800s, which was soon named the “City Branch” due to the city’s ownership.
In 1850, the P&R Railroad acquired the City Branch, continuing operation at-grade (street level) until the 1890s. P&R then decided to undertake a grade-separation project, moving the right-of-way into a trench spanning 13th to 21st streets and a tunnel between 21st and 27th streets. This project took over 15 years to complete and was a breakthrough achievement in engineering with the price tag to show for it – P&R spent $5.5 million, which equates to nearly $155 million today. Upon moving rail operations to below-grade, the City Branch ran as a freight-only line to service its many industrial customers, including Knickerbocker Ice Company, Baldwin Locomotives, Pequea Mills, and William Sellers & Company. According to the 1910 census, Philadelphia was the nation’s leading manufacturer, producing 211 of the 264 manufactured articles in
the United States.
“The Rail Park harnesses our collective pride in Philadelphia’s history and in our industrial past.” - Nancy Goldenberg, Executive Director of CCD
With the City Branch running as freight only at the beginning of the 20th century, P&R moved its passenger traffic to new elevated tracks known as the 9th Street Branch, which is now known as the SEPTA Spur. Passenger trains were redirected to the new Reading Terminal station via the 9th Street Branch to bring people in and out of Center City. The Reading Terminal station operated from 1893 until the last train pulled out of the station in 1984 for the transition to the newly constructed Center City Commuter Connection Tunnel project. This newly constructed tunnel linked 30th Street Station with the new, redirected Jefferson Station (formerly Market East), the two regional rail service terminuses in Center City. This provided a connection for the Penn Central (Pennsylvania Railroad) and Reading Company’s rail systems acquired and consolidated under Conrail in the 1970s. Conrail carried out commuter rail service in the Philadelphia region for SEPTA under contract until 1983, at which point SEPTA assumed regional rail operations for the Greater Philadelphia Region.
The national downturn of manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s brought a decline in the need for urban freight rail, and the City Branch saw its last freight train in 1992 after its last customer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, moved printing operations to outside the city from its 400 North Broad Street Headquarters. Recognizing potential for future transit use, SEPTA purchased the City Branch right-of-way in 1995 and began studies in conjunction with the then-planned Schuylkill Valley Metro project, which hoped to restore rail service for passengers between Reading and Philadelphia. The project’s eventual failure has left the City Branch unused and untouched, with the exception of its rail removal in the early 1990s.
Before the Rail Park project, both the Reading Viaduct and the City Branch faced a continuing future of abandonment and decay, with little hope in sight for future use. An environmental and feasibility study was conducted by Urban Engineers in 2003 for the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, which was followed up in 2010 by CCD’s commissioning of a future development evaluation for the viaduct. The evaluation brought findings in favor of converting the obsolete industrial structure into the future Rail Park, and in 2011 CCD moved forward with a concept design study, conducted by Urban Engineers and Studio| Bryan Hanes, for the 26,000-square-foot SEPTA Spur portion of the viaduct, funded by grants from the William Penn Foundation and the Poor Richard’s Charitable Trust.
“Most of what you see when you are walking around will be remaining from the
original structure.” - Angelo Waters
After much collaboration with community stakeholders and the City’s Commerce and Parks & Recreation Departments, renderings of the Rail Park were presented to the community in 2012. Following an enthusiastic response, the City’s Commerce Department provided a grant in 2013 to CCD to prepare construction documents, who again engaged Urban Engineers and Studio Bryan Hanes. CCD then raised construction funding from the William Penn Foundation, the Knight Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, and many private and corporate donors. The groundbreaking took place on October 31, 2016, and the project is scheduled for completion around June 1, 2018.
Much work has gone into transforming the old railroad right-of-way into the Rail Park. Much of the SEPTA Spur being transformed for Phase I is comprised of several steel bridges. While the old steel structures were primarily rusted and corroded from years of abandonment, upon inspection they were found to still be structurally sound. Environmental examinations were necessary to check the existing soil fill composition on the structure to test for contaminants and implement a corrective course of action if it was needed. Since the park will feature a lot of greenery and foliage, it was imperative that a proper drainage system was installed for stormwater management. Reinforcements and surface improvements were made to transform the railway into a landscaped pathway for recreational use.
Major site improvements include the addition of staircases at 13th Street and at Callowhill Street, and utility connections for irrigation and lighting. Structural additions include the installation of cantilevers to support landscape plantings and overlook points. Landscape beds will flank chip seal walking paths through the park, and there will be areas for seating and gathering. Benches and platforms will be constructed from a material called Ipe – a durable hardwood that is scratch-resistant and nonflammable. Large, civic-scale swings that can seat up to 10 people at once will sit at the end of the Rail Park overlooking Callowhill Street. The tall, rail supports of the swings pay tribute to the industrial past of the structure and the railroad that once ran through it.