There I was, doing what so few have been able to do in decades, waiting for a train at PATCO's Franklin Square Station.

The underground facility at Sixth, Seventh, and Race Streets in Center City closed nearly 40 years ago and ever since has mainly served as a dimly lit landmark for passengers on trains thundering by in the dark.

I waited with several PATCO officials as just such a train passed the station. They were showing me around and explaining why reviving Franklin Square for the fourth time since the station's 1936 debut will be the charm.

PATCO officials said some of the 1970s design elements from the long-closed Franklin Square Station in Center City may be preserved when the facility is renovated and reopened in the next five years.
JESSICA GRIFFIN
PATCO officials said some of the 1970s design elements from the long-closed Franklin Square Station in Center City may be preserved when the facility is renovated and reopened in the next five years.

The latest reboot, they said, will attract new riders, not merely win the approval of rail fans, history buffs, urbanists, and others who, like me, are fascinated by the white-and-green tiled "ghost" station. It's the first Philly stop on what once was called the Bridge Line between Center City and downtown Camden.

The $26 million renovation project will include structural alterations, elevator and escalator installation,  rerouting of a major city water main, and replacement of antiquated electrical and other systems. Construction is expected to begin in 2020 and end in December 2022, with a grand opening to follow.

Passengers, including a projected 1,300 to 1,500 new riders, will arrive and depart through a glassy new headhouse that will rise on the southwest corner of the park at Seventh and Race.

"Franklin Square Station will benefit from the economic development going on in Center City and in Camden," and may stimulate additional development, PATCO general manager John D. Rink said.

"People who live in Old City could use the line to reverse-commute," he said. "Franklin Square is another option for South Jersey riders who want to go to Old City or Northern Liberties."

PATCO employees inside the transit line’s long-closed Franklin Square Station at 7th and Race Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. The last passengers used the station in 1979.
JESSICA GRIFFIN
PATCO employees inside the transit line’s long-closed Franklin Square Station at 7th and Race Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. The last passengers used the station in 1979.

No question that plenty has changed in Center City, downtown Camden, and the neighborhoods around Franklin Square since the station shut down on Sept. 7, 1979. Then, a one-way trip to Collingswood cost 60 cents — now it's $2.60 — and the notion of the long-woebegone square itself becoming a tourist attraction and event destination would have seemed absurd.

As absurd perhaps as the idea that an adjacent hospital would become condos, or that an apartment complex would be under construction at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge two blocks away, or that eastern Chinatown and lower Spring Garden Street would be booming.

Nevertheless, Franklin Square's immediate neighborhood, once notorious as Philly's Skid Row, was likely as densely populated if not more so, and mass transit certainly was more heavily used, back when the station closed for lack of business in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

And the glamorous "starburst" ceiling lights, sassy orange design elements, and grandly multilingual (English, Spanish and … French) signage certainly weren't enough to attract riders to the rather out-of-the-way station once the Bicentennial was over.

Staff

My tour guides pointed out that  PATCO is being more heavily used not just by commuters from South Jersey — still the majority among the line's 38,000 weekday riders — but by residents of Philly's increasingly traffic-choked heart.

Larry Davis, aka @PATCOWatchers on Twitter, is among those who use the line to get from one side of Center City to the other.  "Franklin Square Station would be hugely convenient for that end of town, for Old City, and for the Rail Park," he said. "Reopening it would be a good thing."

A businessman who lives near PATCO's terminus at 16th and Locust, Davis has more than 3,600 Twitter followers, most of them fellow travelers who celebrate the minor triumphs and commiserate about the tribulations of regular ridership.

Tweets of that nature tend to be more about loud voices and music in the "Quiet Car" than the nerve-racking disruptions of the rail replacement project on the Ben Franklin Bridge, or the epidemic of escalator and elevator breakdowns that made headlines in 2014.

What a difference a few years and a newly refurbished fleet make: The last time an Inquirer reporter toured Franklin Square in 2015, reopening the square was estimated to cost $18 million.

"The money is already in our budget, so riders are not going to see their fares jump in order for us to do this," Rink said. "We think it's a good investment."

I agree.