geeky,  trains

Trolleys are a process

Trolley Car Diner Sign
Trolley Car Diner Sign

A few weeks ago, anaemia after checking out the Morris Arboretum (located as far northwest as you can go in Philly without actually leaving the city), plague Craftyangie and I decided to check out the Chestnut Hill/Mount Airy sections of Philly. We also had in mind the idea of going to have dinner and ice cream at the Trolley Car Diner (warning, egregious use of Flash on the website) on Germantown Avenue.

Trolley Car Diner
Trolley Car Diner

We actually had tried to do the exact same thing a week earlier, but were completely foiled at our attempts to do by a) getting distracted by the Allen Lane train station, which delayed getting to the Arboretum; b) torrential thunderstorms which closed the arboretum just as we arrived; c) construction on Germantown Avenue itself to repave the street and restore the Septa Route 23 trolley tracks, which made the Trolley Car Diner very difficult to find. (Especially in the crazy rain.)

Wait… back that train up… trolley track construction? I am so there!

Completed section of trolley tracks and street
Completed section of trolley tracks and street

Well, on our second attempt, we did get to the Trolley Car Diner. It is located next to the most recently completed stretch of street and track; the next section is currently in progress just down the street. After a most satisfying dinner of a Reuben Sandwich (for me) and Cheeseburger (Craftyangie) washed down by a delicious malted vanilla-chocolate shake (shared, awww!), we poked around the construction.

Track with Flangeway
Track with Flangeway

The construction is actually a little bit non-traditional. I’m used to seeing rails with built-in flangeways (as seen in the photo on the right, even if that is a former freight line, not a trolley line). But they are using conventional rail here, and simply molding a space for the trolley wheel flange to go out of the concrete. I’m sure this is cheaper, but who knows if it’s better?

Historic photo of New York trolley tracks
Historic photo of New York trolley tracks

They’re also using metal ties, spaced one every several feet, rather than wooden ties, as shown in this very old photo of trolley track (re)construction in New York City. (I have no idea where I downloaded this picture from, probably nearly a decade ago.) Interestingly, they’re using rail with flangeways in the foreground, but when the rail straightens out, they stopped and used regular rail instead. So I guess you could say what they’re doing on Germantown Ave is not without precedent…

Anyway, that’s enough chit-chat. From here, I’ll just show some pictures of the progress, along with my “best educated guess” caption describing what’s going on. If you know for sure what’s going on in these photos, please feel free to comment here!

Metal trolley ties
Metal trolley ties. This is probably a really really easy way to ensure that the track is laid in gauge. No guessing: just put the rails in the slots provided.
Next in line for concrete
The next section of track in line for concrete. It's interesting how they've gone around the manhole with the concrete pouring form here.
Around the bend
The view around the bend. This section looks like it was ready for concrete to be poured next, with all the re-bar and forms in place.
Forms, supports and bracing
A view of the track supports and jacks. It looks like the ties are adjustable vertically on the ends. When the concrete is poured and sets, that carries the all the weight. Also see the jacks that make the track bend around the curve. Looks like they have a steel spike that is driven into the asphalt; then the spike is jacked up to make the rail bend the way you want it. (I wonder at what point the jack can be removed before pouring concrete?)
Beyond the forms
A view beyond the concrete forms. The track is simply laying on the asphalt, waiting for ties, re-bar, concrete forms, etc.
Squiggly Rails
The rails sure look flexible running down the street like this. What amazes me is how incredibly heavy and strong that steel is, yet it can look like all you'd need to do is just kick it to bend it out of shape. (Yeah, right!)
Let's get a good look at that digging machine!

There are more pictures of the whole thing on my Flickr photo stream…


  • Tony

    If there’s one thing cooler than old cameras, it’s trolley tracks. Well, maybe not. But still, pretty cool, and great pictures! We had a heck of a time getting to the Trolley Car earlier this year when construction was directly in front.

  • boombadeus

    My interest in trains goes farther back than my interest in photography, so I’m not going to try to pick favorites here. I think I’ll leave it at, it’s really neat I can enjoy both interests at the same time. 😉

  • Tom Bailey

    Great set of photos. I think one of the reasonbs they may be usinbg ordinary t-rail, is that I’m not sure the grooved girder (with integral flangerail) is available from domestic sources. Most of the recent trackwork I’ve seen is done the way they are doing it on Rte 23, and the new light rail line in Dallas has no girder rail at all, although some of the specdial work on the nearby McKinney Ave trolley uses some relay rail dug from Dallas streets. I did see some very interesting new techniques in Prague Czech Republic a couple of years ago: they were using precast concrete slabs about 20 feet long that included shallow rectangular grooves. They would lay down a few slabs, true them up, line the grooves with rubber pads, and then use a very shallow rail that was about 4″ deep, just enough for tlhe flangeway. I think they welded the ends together. Anyway, when they were done, it looked just like ordinary flangerail. The trench they had to dig dwas no more then 18″ deep, way less than the trenches they dug anywhere they used any kind of ties. Anyone else heard of this method?

  • Nelson

    So have they finished this trolley project yet? It seems so rare that you actually see new trolly systems being built as opposed to paved over or torn down.

  • boombadeus

    Yes, they have finished… but there are no trolleys running. This is a controversial project because they spent a good deal of money on rehabbing the tracks, but there’s no plan to actually run trolleys on it.

    Which might make this the rarest kind of trolley reconstruction project of all…