Exploring Philadelphia: PATCO

Yesterday my goal was to learn to use PATCO, the authority that runs the little train that goes between Camden and Philadelphia over the Ben Franklin Bridge.  Why would anyone want to go to Camden?  To find that answer was my second goal.

As usual, I got into Philadelphia on the R2 from Marcus Hook ($0.85 senior rate) to the Market Street East station at 10th and Market, right by the Reading Terminal Market, Convention Center, Chinatown, and the Troc.  (See blog “Traveling Around Philly,” 9/27/05 and “Visiting Philadelphia,” 4/27/08)  The PATCO station is at 8th and Market, so it was an easy walk on a perfect summer day, but I could have taken the subway (free for seniors) since PATCO is a level below the SEPTA subway station.

The PATCO line goes as far out as Lindenwold (wherever that is) and the fare varies by distance.  I was only going to the second stop and that minimum fare was $1.25.  The station was all automated ticket machines with no humans to help and nothing in the way of instructions, and that was puzzling until I noticed “Press any button to start.”  That lit up the screen and the step-by-step instructions that followed were clear.  The system works like the Metro in Washington, DC, where you prepay on a card and the fare is subtracted when you exit.

The ride across the bridge gave a spectacular view of the Delaware as far as the airport where tiny incoming flights could be seen.  I was heading to the Broadway station in Camden that seemed closest to the waterfront and had a customer service office where I could get a senior card that would let me ride any distance in the future for 62 cents.  When I got off, all I saw was a ticket booth, but that was the right place, that was the office.  The young woman was surprisingly pleasant and efficient, showed me what to fill out on the form, took my picture, and, in only a minute, gave me my photo-id card.  She then walked me over to the ticket machine and showed me how it worked, the same machine I had figured out myself a half-hour before.

Oops.  On the senior card the minimum prepayment is $20.  At only 62 cents a ride, that’s a lot of trips to Camden I wasn’t sure I would ever take, so I passed on that and may do it later.  She only momentarily looked disappointed.  I asked if there was a restroom, and she directed me to the lobby around the corner.

The lobby could have been the Soweto station in South Africa.  It was not just being all blacks.  It was partially the dress.  It was a warm day and the standard was T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.  It was partially the activity.  It was alive with activity, and many were struggling with shopping bags and cardboard boxes tied with string.  All it needed were live chickens.  And, it was partially the men’s room, which I won’t describe other than to say it was very hard to breathe.

The waterfront was about a mile away along a broad street with no traffic, no houses, no people, but several municipal buildings surrounded by empty parking lots typical of aggressive urban renewal.  One building by the street was some sort of prison with police cars, chain-link fences, and intimidating instructions for visitors.

The Waterfront (which I now capitalize because that’s its name) is new, beautiful, and wide open.  Too wide open, actually.  It’s a vast area of white railings, and benches along wide brick walkways that go on for miles, but with little reason walk them.  It could easily accommodate 10,000 people, but barely a dozen, widely scattered, were there.  It was a case of “Build it and they will come,” except few did.  It is too isolated for even local residents.

But what it does have is a fantastic view of the Ben Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia skyline, and the commercial activities on the Delaware.  Just sitting there on a perfect summer day was well worth the trip.  The few of us seemed to share a common bond, and whenever our paths crossed felt obligated to exchange a few words of conversation, whatever our difference in status. IMG_3463

The Waterfront does have two main attractions, the New Jersey Aquarium, and the Battleship New Jersey.  Both have pricey admissions but appear quite good, and I expect to go back sometime just to see them.  Both seem like afterthoughts, isolated in all of the empty area.  One man with his toddler son said he had a membership at the aquarium, but driving was the only way he could get there and parking was $10, ridiculous considering the vast unused areas.

The best came last.  They have a passenger ferry that goes between the Camden Waterfront and Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing.  It costs $5 for seniors, but on such a beautiful day, who cares?  It was a convenient way for me to return to Philadelphia without walking all the way back to the Soweto (sorry, Broadway) train station.  The ferry is only used by tourists, so when it goes to Camden it swings under the Ben Franklin Bridge just for the fun of it, and when it returns, it swings by the Battleship New Jersey.  As I boarded, I asked the young deckhand if this was the same location as the old car ferry my father often took returning from our annual Ocean City vacation.  The deckhand said he had heard of a car ferry long, long ago, but he had no idea where it was.  Considering the few number on board, I suspect his ferry, too, will soon be only a legend.



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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