But the evolving role of the Market-Frankford Line and the subway system overall, which first opened in 1907, has also reflected broader societal changes that in some ways left it behind. Ridership peaked in the 1940s, due in part to rising auto ownership, highway construction, and suburbanization. Philadelphia now has fewer residents than it did in 1922, and Frankford is economically depressed. SEPTA has struggled to manage the impacts of homelessness and drug use on the system and to reverse a collapse in ridership caused by the pandemic.
“It’s a neighborhood asset that’s utilized — and under-cared for,” said Kimberly Washington, executive director of the Frankford Community Development Corporation. “The El could definitely use a little bit more TLC. The city and SEPTA and state officials definitely have to figure out a way to build people’s trust in the public transit system, and make people feel like they want to ride the public transit system.”
‘Overcrowding at all hours’
Residents have simultaneously appreciated and disdained the Frankford El since it was first proposed. Hepp said that during a presentation he gave at the Northeast Philadelphia History Fair in April, an audience member recalled that his grandfather had been a member of a local business association that lobbied against raising the line’s “ugly” columns and girders over then-quaint Frankford Avenue.
“Who wants to see the sunlight obliterated and big, metal, ungodly, structures in the middle of your main thoroughfare?” said Jack McCarthy, an archivist and historian who previously worked at the Historical Society of Frankford. “All that metal and steel — it was just not a very pleasant visual.”
The environment around the El has also been shaped by the continuous rumbling of passing trains, which for decades ran 24 hours a day. The noise gave rise to the “Frankford Pause,” in which conversations on the street stop until the El goes past, McCarthy said. A green space next to Arrott Transportation Center is called Pause Park.
Yet despite the El’s unlovely appearance and thunderous noise, it was a huge success in its early years. So intense was demand that in April 1930, the 300 members of the Business Men and Taxpayers’ Association of Frankford voted to denounce its “inadequate service.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that they accused the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, or PRT, of running fewer trains with fewer cars.
“There is overcrowding at all hours of the day, and during rush hour it is far greater than it used to be,” association director James France said.
At the time the businessmen would have been riding in the El’s Brill A-15s, red railcars with many windows and “really terrible” interiors that maximized standing room rather than seating, according to Hepp. In 1960 the PRT’s successor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, replaced them with stainless steel cars nicknamed “Almond Joys” for the smooth nut-like bumps on their roofs.
The bumps housed ventilation fans but not air conditioning, which the city could not afford. “In the summertime, it’s amazing how hot the cars could get,” Hepp said. SEPTA took over the transit system in 1968, and in the late 1990s introduced the current cars, called M-4s, which finally brought air conditioning as well as modern features like automated announcements to the Market-Frankford Line.
The route of the Frankford El changed slightly in the late 1970s, when the construction of I-95 through Center City led to relocation of the line to the highway median and construction of Spring Garden Station to replace the old Fairmount station. Between 1987 and 2000 SEPTA completely rebuilt the line to address long-standing structural problems, although design flaws caused some of the new concrete to crumble and required further repairs.
A huge challenge
A major concern and challenge since the Frankford extension opened has been rider safety. Even in the 1920s, the PRT tried closing some stations at night to save money and avoid situations where someone could be waiting on a platform alone, Hepp said. Streets in the industrial, working-class neighborhoods north of Center City could be rough places, he said, and some blocks have intermittently served as open-air illegal drug markets for decades.
“The Frankford El has always had a somewhat mixed reputation,” Hepp said. “Well before I was born, the corner of Kensington and Allegheny” — where Allegheny Station is located — “was considered a fairly tough neighborhood.”
Recently, issues with drug use and people who are homeless sheltering in stations came to a head during the pandemic. SEPTA closed Somerset Station for two weeks in March 2021 to fix elevators damaged by urine, human waste, discarded needles, and other trash, and to make other repairs and deeply clean the facility. Allegheny and other stations underwent similar makeovers. SEPTA also posted transit police officers and social outreach workers to the stations.