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The Origins of SEPTA's Nite Owl Service

By Charlie Webb & John Calnan, SEPTA Service Planning

Recently, SEPTA launched a pilot to study weekend overnight rail service on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines. Train ridership during the extended hours of service has far surpassed the number of trips previously taken on the weekend Nite Owl bus service. But the pilot program isn't the first time SEPTA has operated subway service throughout the night and many have asked - when did late night subway service begin in Philadelphia?

All-night transit service began in in Philadelphia several decades ago when SEPTA's predecessors, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) and its successor in 1940, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC), provided 24/7 transit service on many of the streetcar lines that crisscrossed Philadelphia. The Market-Frankford Line also operated all night service. As new bus and trolley coach lines were introduced in the 1920's, some of these lines, based on ridership, also operated all night. A search of PRT and PTC travel archives revealed that in 1927 all-night service operated on the Market-Frankford Line and 42 trolley lines, but not on bus routes. However in 1928, when the Broad Street Subway commenced operations between Olney Station and City Hall, service operated only from dawn to dusk, and this practice continued with the various extensions of the line over the years northward to Fern Rock and southward to AT & T Station.

In 1949, the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines began operating all-night service in combination with 52 trolley, trolley coach and bus routes. During the 1950's, a number of trolley lines were converted to bus routes and the all-night transit network, known as the Owl route service, shrank from 52 to 45 routes. All-night service continued on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines. SEPTA formally acquired PTC in 1968 and maintained the traditional Owl service routes. However, beginning in the mid 1970's SEPTA decided to reallocate limited financial resources and eliminated some bus and trolley Owl service due to low patronage.

Today, there are 27 routes that provide Nite Owl Service on the SEPTA System. On June 15, SEPTA launched a pilot to accommodate demand for subway service among late-night riders on Fridays and Saturdays. During the pilot, trains are replacing Nite Owl buses on weekends and holidays. Nite Owl buses continue to provide overnight service along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines on weekdays.

The recent overnight pilot on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines was originally scheduled to run through Labor Day weekend, but has been extended until November 2. During this time, SEPTA staff will continue to evaluate service and operational factors such as ridership, security and overall performance. The decision to extend the program into the fall - when college students come back and other riders resume normal routines - will provide the Authority with a more complete picture in considering the long-term options for late-night weekend subway service. SEPTA hopes to see additional ridership and fare revenue increases to help offset the operating costs associated with the program. These service and financial considerations were determining factors for SEPTA and its predecessors in the past and continue to be key points for providing late-night weekend subway service for today's passengers.

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