Commuter Tunnel at 30: Legacy and Potential

Community Contributors Richard Voith and Peter Angelides of Econsult Solutions consider the legacy of the Commuter Rail Tunnel, which turned 30 this month, and the importance of capitalizing on its potential.

November 12, 1984 marked the opening of Philadelphia’s Commuter Rail Tunnel connecting Suburban Station with trains that formerly used the Reading Terminal Station. Showing our ages, we still have our buttons for riding the last trains from Reading Terminal.

Connecting the trains from the old Pennsylvania Railroad lines that passed through 30th Street Station on their way to Suburban station with the trains on the old Reading Railroad created new opportunities for travel, in Center City and throughout the region. The tunnel was one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects undertaken in the city of Philadelphia. It created a truly regional rail system that is more integrated than any other city in the country. The tunnel was bold in another way – it transplanted a new heart into the body of a very old system. Far from being a waste of resources on a dying system, the Commuter Tunnel pumped new energy into it, allowing consistent growth in ridership. Now, 30 years later, it is apparent that the Commuter Tunnel was remarkably successful.

More people than ever, about 120,000 per day, use the SEPTA’s regional rail service, and all of them benefit from the increased efficiency that resulted from unifying the two legacy rail systems. And the increased traffic was expected, in part because people would have the new opportunity for a one-seat ride from one suburb to another. After all, the Commuter Tunnel was conceived in the 1970s and completed in the 1980s when the prevailing thought was that cities were dying and “everyone” would live and work in the suburbs. No, the Commuter Tunnel project was forward looking; the city was an afterthought. Survival meant being relevant to intra-suburban commuting. Unfortunately, one aspect of the Commuter Tunnel integration—specifically the slow speeds between Temple University and 30th Street Station — meant that SEPTA’s Regional Rail service did not attract much intra-suburban travel, but it did provide better access to downtown and more efficient operations. It definitely has been a success, but perhaps not in ways originally anticipated.

As it often does, the future threw a curve ball to SEPTA and the Commuter Tunnel. Cities have bounced back and people are using the regional rail system more than ever, in part, because people want to live downtown, often without cars, but need to commute to suburban areas for employment. Off-peak ridership and trips that are not for work are on the increase.

Interestingly, the reason why the Tunnel was never really successful for delivering people from suburb-to-suburb is also one of the big reasons it has not yet realized its full potential, even as Philadelphia is becoming an increasingly dynamic place to live and work. When it was initially designed, the Tunnel was thought to provide better Center City access by having two stops:  Suburban Station and Market East (sign of the times: Market East is now Jefferson Station…) The problem is that Greater Center City now spans from Temple to University City and the Navy Yard.

The Commuter Tunnel provides access to 3 of the 4 most dynamic live/work areas in the region:  Temple University, Center City, and University City with 5 separate stops. Unfortunately, service characteristics have not been adjusted to this new reality. Realizing the Commuter Tunnel’s potential—and fully serving the region by providing excellent access to Greater Center City —requires much faster service from Temple University through Center City to University City. Millions of riders every year endure painfully slow service in the core of the commuter rail system. SEPTA, the city, and the region need to take steps to realize the true potential of the Commuter Tunnel.

Travel needs to be faster in the core of the system, including the tunnel, so that commuter rail is competitive for commuters from the west who want to go beyond Suburban Station to the dynamic Temple University area. Similarly, commuters from the north who want to go to the Eds and Meds in University City need a faster trip through Center City. And by the way, these improvements would also benefit those traveling to the traditional area of Center City, reverse commuters living in Center City, and suburb-to-suburb commutes as well as neighborhood-to-city or suburb commutes. And it is clearly within our grasp.

And as successful as the Commuter Tunnel has been, it can contribute much more to the success of the city and region. Although seldom discussed because of financial constraints, quicker service through the Commuter Tunnel (and really from Temple University to University City) will reveal that there are many people that are ready to take the train as soon as services are fast and convenient enough to be competitive. The region, the city, and SEPTA have a great resource in this asset; it needs to be optimized by making travel through the Commuter Tunnel much faster and more frequent.

About the authors: Richard P. Voith, PhD CRE is President & Principal of Econsult Solutions, Inc. and Peter A. Angelides, PhD AICP is Sr. Vice President & Principal.


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