Newtown Branch History
Below is a partial, and abridged history of the Newtown railroad line.
1876: June 14th First Train operates from Newtown to present day Newtown Junction
1878: February 2nd, Newtown Branch incorporated as the Philadelphia, Newtown and New York Railroad.
Churchville Station constructed
1879: Philadelphia, Newtown & NY RR fails. Is taken over by the North Pennsylvania Railroad (later PRR/PC)
1921: December 5: Paper Mill train wreck A Ban on wood-framed passenger coaches is enacted as a result of this accident. Reading Camelbacks #167 and #278 are lost.
1923: December 31st, Newtown Branch is incorporated into the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad
1958: Operation Northeast begins: City of Philadelphia initiates funding of service and improvements to rail lines in NE Philadelphia. The Newtown Branch received electrification as far as Fox Chase. The new funding added 4 separate daily trips to Fox Chase. Service to Newtown remained at two trips, with one trip on Saturday, and no Sunday service.
1962: Reading Company ends locomotive hauled trains on Newtown Branch, and initiates use of Budd RDC's.
1964: March 14 - 8:13AM Reading commuter train bound for Philadelphia derailed near the exact location of the 1921 Paper Mill train wreck.
Newtown Station torn down by Reading Company.
1966: September 25 - City of Philadelphia & Reading Company completes electrification of the Newtown Branch between Fox Chase and Newtown Junction. Bucks County chose not to participate in the program and electrification ended at the city line.
1969: Reading Company further reduces service between Fox Chase & Newtown on August 31st timetable
1974: August 4 - Reading Company, in an effort to stem loses while in Bankruptcy reorganization, threatens to shut down passenger service on Newtown Branch. Shutdown is fiercely opposed by Bucks County Commissioner Joseph Tracey, SEPTA intervenes to keep line running on skeleton schedule. Calls for electrification are rejected because Montgomery County opposes erection of transmission towers along the line.
Service ends on the Frankford Branch at Unity-Franford Grocery warehouse at Penn and Unity Streets when two boxcars got loose and broke through the back wall on their elevated siding with one boxcar hanging precariously over Griscom Street. Remaining customers at Orthodox Street later shut down ending fright on this portion of the Frankford Branch.
January 6: SEPTA agrees to buy Reading's Newtown, Doylestown and Chestnut Hill Lines and Penn Central's Chestnut Hill, and West Chester Lines, which are not included in Final System Plan, plus 30th Street Station, for $7 million
April 1st - The bankrupt Reading Company formally hands over operations of all rail operations to Conrail. Conrail continues operation of the Newtown Branch's passenger and freight services.
By this time, the Newtown Branch only generated about 200 annual carloads of freight with the de-industrialization of towns along the line. Companies such as Frost-Waton, Agway, Oskar Huber and James River Corp (now New Age Industries) were the remaining large industries still using freight. Most agriculture and mail was no longer shipped by rail on this line.
With the collapse of the private railroads in the northeast, the USRA had recommended the exclusion of this line from Conrail because of its weak status. However, SEPTA and private companies such as Frost-Watson made the commitment of continued use of the line, so it was acquired by SEPTA and freight service was contracted to Conrail using federal subsidies provided through the Local Rail Service Assistance Program.
SEPTA assumes operation of the Newtown Branch between Fox Chase & Newtown
As mandated by the Federal Government under President Reagan, Conrail must exit the passenger service business by 1983 and hand over employees and operations to local transit agencies. In anticipation of this, SEPTA made the decision to experiment with operating railroad operations using city transit operators instead of railroad workers. The experiment was performed on the Newtown line between Fox Chase and Newtown. Because the line was operated as a transit operation, it could not travel directly to Reading Terminal, forcing passengers to transfer to the Conrail train at Fox Chase.
1981: June 30 - The last Conrail operated train to Newtown departed from Reading Terminal on June 30 at 9:19 p.m. SEPTA ends its contract with Conrail to operate passenger and freight service on the Newtown Branch. Line is shutdown between Newtown and Fox Chase for upgrades and repairs to the line. SEPTA repaints all grade crossing signals, wayside signals and replaces ties and rails. Freight service ends at this time.
August 31 - SEPTA terminates rail service on all non-electrified lines (Reading & Bethlehem branches). Remaining operable RDC's are transferred to Newtown Yard.
October 5 - SEPTA Initiates operation of the Newtown Branch as Route HS-1operating the line using TWU Local 234 union employees from the Broad Street Subway. The 6:25AM trip from Newtown never left the yard due to Conrail protesters blocking the line, the second train is delayed 30 minutes and six protesters are arrested at Fox Chase Station. This is in retaliation for SEPTA's attempt to eventually run the entire commuter rail system using TWU employees instead of the current Conrail union employees.
1982: January 2nd, Ex-Reading Company RDC 9164 collides with a Arco gasoline tanker at Second Street Pike grade crossing in Southampton. The Engineer (motorman from SEPTA's Fern Rock District) Donald Williams, 42, is severely burned and dies days later from his injuries.
1983: January 1 - SEPTA Assumes control of all ex-Reading/Penn Central commuter lines from Conrail. Trains run on limited schedules with unions working without a contract.
January 14th. SEPTA's last day of train service between Newtown and Fox Chase. By this time, 15 of the 17 available RDC's in Newtown were non-functional because of mechanical problems. Logistics made it difficult to get the trains to Wayne Junction for servicing (oil changes were done in the trackbed at Newtown). The last remaining working train set was itself barely functional. A crew member working the line in those days recalls how one of the RDC's in the pair had to be "jump-started" by moving the train while a conductor ran along the train outside and pushed the start button to engage the motor while the train was moving.
The second train set that operated on this line was already being covered by a Comly depot bus.
107 years of rail service between Newtown and Center City Philadelphia ends. Service ended on this day at 9.25AM after the first train of the day returned to Newtown and discovered that a major component of the braking system fell off the train at Bethayers. The maintenance crew took the last working train out of service and called Comly depot for buses to protect service on the line.
March 15 - SEPTA railroad unions strike for 108 days
1984: SEPTA and PennDOT sell or donate ex-RDG RDC's to Boston's MBTA, RMPA, BM&R & Alaska RR. Some units are still operating in Revenue Service today with the Alaska RR and Bellefonte Historical Railroad
September 3rd: SEPTA tests British BRE-Leyland Diesel railbus on Newtown branch and Pottstown lines, but decides against purchase because of poor ride quality. This was the last known movement of a railcar on the rails of the Newtown branch north of Fox Chase.
Other SEPTA budget problems also prevented the purchase of these railcars under a $10 million dollar proposal.
1990: Remaining bridges are removed along the Frankford Branch (and the North Penn Line)in NE Philadelphia.
1993: SEPTA receives six bids from private contractors to re-open the Newtown line. The bidders were: Thomas E. Dyer Inc., Rail Easton, Transrail Inc., W.R. Allen, Railroad Construction Co., and Railway Management Co.
After allegations of collusion and a unfair bidding process that Bucks County has promised to guarantee loans to rival bidder Rodney Fisk of Rail Easton, Inc. without a public vote or an open process, the privitization effort is ended.
1995: DVRPC completes a thorough study of the Newtown Corridor. The study shows that rail service is feasbile using a number of alignments. The most lucrative being electrification and operation over the original alignment beween Newtown and Fox Chase.
After DVRPC study, SEPTA considers operating the line themselves after the privitization fiasco. However, SEPTA again practices secrecy and reckless haste in handling this line. SEPTA was prepared to open the outer 9-miles of the Newtown line as a shuttle between Newtown and Fulmor station on the R2 Warminster branch. This plan was considered costly at $32 million and ineffective since it had the longest travel time, and involved using a bi-level station to transfer passengers between the Newtown line and Warminster line. DVARP protests and SEPTA board shuts down the vote on the project.
1997: Dismantlement begins - SEPTA removes diamond crossing at Bethayers.
1999: SEPTA allows private cable company to install fiber-optic line under Newtown line tracks between Richboro and Huntingdon Valley. Right-of-way is cleared of debris, some rails removed.
Culvert next to Shady Lane overpass in Rockledge collapses. Despite warning signs of decay for several years, SEPTA knowingly allowed the culvert to collapse, and flood many local residences. SEPTA engineers remove the culvert completely, severing the northern end of the Newtown line from the rest of the system. In hindsight, cost estimates were lower to repair and maintain the culvert in the early 1990s, than the collapse, removal and litigation from the damaged homes. (A 250ft span will be required to restore service at this point)
2005: SEPTA removes signs from all stations. These signs were installed in 1984, a year after the line closed. All traces of "SEPTA" are gone from the Newtown Branch.
2006: Bucks County TMA (RushBus) completes initial study on converting Newtown Branch between Newtown and Byberry Road into a private Rapid-Transit Busline. The idea is met with skepticism from attendees at a public presentation in Newtown (plans showed the BRT as a dedicated route between Newtown and Woodmont/Byberry Road only). TMA ultimately declares the project as unfeasible, at a cost of $50,000. Rail was never considered in this study.
2008: Montgomery County leases SEPTA right-of-way easement between Lorimar Park (Walnut Hill Station) and Abington for use as a recreational trail. SEPTA receives $1 for the lease, railbanking the SEPTA owned right-of-way for future mass transit related uses.
June 16: Montgomery County Commissioners dedicate Pennpack trail on SEPTA's Newtown branch from Old Huntingdon Pike to Moredon Road/Lorimar Park. SEPTA retains the right to remove the trail and restore train service at any time.
In response to intense public pressure, SEPTA hosts a legislative briefing for regional state, county and federal legislators at SEPTA headquarters, to discuss challenges and options for reinstating train service to Newtown Borough.