The Newtown rail line was opened in 1876 by the Philadelphia, Newtown and New York Railroad, and was last operated by SEPTA on January14, 1983. During the final years of operation, the line was lightly used, which was a product of unreliable, infrequent service and minimal investment over the years, and was in close proximity to other commuter rail lines which were modern, frequent and faster. The Newtown line also served a small but important freight market until 1981 when SEPTA terminated its operating contract with Conrail.
From October 5, 1981 through January 14, 1983, SEPTA operated the Newtown line as a shuttle train between Newtown and Fox Chase. Unlike the rest of the Regional Rail system, which at the time was operated by Conrail, SEPTA’s Newtown line employees were from the Transport Workers Union Local 234, and were subway and trolley operators by trade with no previous experience in traditional railroad operations. Conrail employees from the United Transportation Union (UTU) were opposed to the use of trolley drivers operating Newtown trains, because it eliminated seasoned railroaders from operating the line. Aside from losing work, the Conrail union cited safety risks with this labor move. Frequent confrontations occurred at Fox Chase between unions and SEPTA Newtown trains were picketed which scared off riders. To spite SEPTA, Conrail Fox Chase trains would often leave passengers from the SEPTA Newtown train stranded at Fox Chase as the train from Newtown pulled into Fox Chase Station.
Ridership was also eroded by a lack of service frequency and reliability. SEPTA was forced to maintain the diesel rail cars in Newtown as they could not be serviced in the Conrail facility at Wayne Junction. SEPTA shop workers were forced to work in the snow when servicing the cars in Newtown. This unreliability caused ridership to plummet in the Winter of 1982-83.
SEPTA replaced train service with buses on January 15, 1983 because they were unable to maintain the Newtown rail cars in operating condition. At the time, Bucks County pleaded with SEPTA to restore train service following the railroad strike in March, but SEPTA demanded $2 million up front for money to repair the trains, and Philadelphia withdrew 40% of their contribution to the operational funding, pegged at $1 million per year in 1983.
In July of 1983, SEPTA approved a plan to electrify the line from Fox Chase to Newtown, and with no apparent opposition, the plan seemed ready to go forward. However, funding never materialized.
In 1991, SEPTA conducted a study for restarting Newtown service using either the original alignment (R8) or a new alignment via Jenkintown (R4). This study concluded that the line would operate at a reasonable cost, with healthy ridership using new equipment and frequent service. Efforts by SEPTA to outsource operations never materialized due to political infighting. Another effort materialized in 1995 using an alignment with the R2 Warminster line, but was rejected by transit advocates due to circuitous routing and long trip times compared to the neighboring commuter lines.
In 2006, the Bucks and Montgomery County planning commissions studied the option of converting the Newtown line into a Bus Rapid Transit line between Newtown and Byberry Road. This plan would have required considerable investment to convert the railbed and bridges from rail use to bus use. Public input on this plan was unfavorable, as was the 85 minute commute to center city verses times under one hour on other lines. The concept was rated unfeasible for those reasons. The study did determine, even under the long trip time compared to neighboring rail lines, that this operation would have generated 2,100 new transit riders.
In 2008, SEPTA entered into an agreement with Montgomery County to lease 2.5 miles of SEPTA’s railroad for the purpose of using the rail line as a recreational trail. The county removed the rails between the Philadelphia border and the Lower Moreland Township border. Lower Moreland Township has expressed interest in continuing this trail from its current terminus to Byberry Road. The lease allows SEPTA to reclaim their land for transit operations with one year’s notice to Montgomery County.
On January 15th, 2010, SEPTA held a legislative briefing for county and state legislators to discuss the restoration of Newtown commuter rail service. SEPTA's chief financial officer Richard Burnfield presented the attendees with the challenges and requirements needed to restore service on this corridor. Following Mr. Burnfield's presentation, John Scott from PA-TEC gave a 20 minute presentation on the findings of PA-TEC's feasibility determination of the Newtown Corridor, the problems associated with parking expansion at Jenkintown and other stations, the deficiencies of the Jenkintown-Wyncote parking demand analysis, and closed the presentation with a request for the region to perform a comprehensive analysis of true demand for transit in the region to determine which alternatives would best suit the taxpayers and riding public.
In December 2010, Barry Seymour of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission rejected a recommended study by the DVRPC's
Regional Citizen's Committee to perform a region wide study of transportation conditions in the northern Philadelphia suburbs. This
study would have been a pre-cursor to an actual study for reactivation of Fox Chase-Newtown service. Mr. Seymour stated that addressing
access problems to regional rail and other transportation components in this region was "not a priority".
Additionally, Bucks County claims to not have financial resources to support any action on the Newtown corridor.
SEPTA's great diversion of capital funding away from expanding regional rail service on the entire system has led PA-TEC to temporarily suspend its active advocacy of the Newtown rail corridor, in favor of addressing the misuse of annual capital funding at SEPTA and DVRPC.
Once these issues are addressed, PA-TEC will resume its campaign for incremental restoration of commuter rail service on the Fox Chase- Newtown line.