By Thomas Collins
Recently, in a discussion with some friends about SEPTA’s Media-Elwyn train and its past predecessor operators (The Pennsylvania Railroad and Penn Central), the subject of bus service through Swarthmore and vicinity came up.
There is a significant amount of railroad-related history known or available, but seldom is there a mention of bus service which for years has also been an important transit link in our portion of Delaware County. SEPTA’s bus route 109, in itself, has an interesting history.
Bus service to Swarthmore began in June of 1932, when Aronimink Transportation Company extended its route “O” (letters were used to designate suburban bus routes in those days) from Gladstone (on the Baltimore Pike) to Swarthmore. Aronimink Transportation Company became an integral part of the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company (a.k.a. “Red Arrow Lines”) in 1943.
In the winter of 1938, Route “O” was, further extended, from Swarthmore to Chester. The City of Chester had its own bus company known as Southern Pennsylvania Bus Company (owned by the Beneficial Company), and signed a joint agreement with Red Arrow, limiting some passenger pickups in Chester that were considered in Southern Penn territory.
During the War Years Route “O was well utilized providing service to Chester’s heavy industrial firms such as Ford, Sun Ship, and Scott Paper. Service operated as frequent as every 12 minutes, with typical weekday ridership nearing 14,000 passengers.
Red Arrow always operated its best equipment on Route “O” — including buses built by two Pennsylvania manufacturers: American Car & Foundry and Mack. Its first set of 10 air conditioned General Motors buses (resplendent in a new livery of mint green and white) were assigned to Route “O” in the Summer of 1960. Ridership grew to nearly World War II levels with these new 45-passenger vehicles.
The entire Red Arrow system was sold to SEPTA in January of 1970. Not long after the agreement was signed, SEPTA began to re-designate all former Red Arrow routes to avoid duplication with its City Division routes. Route “O” became SEPTA route 109.
Today the 109 serves Swarthmore and vicinity with 59 weekday, 49 Saturday, and 24 Sunday (and holiday) trips — all operating from Upper Darby (69th Street Terminal) to Chester (Chester Transportation Center) — service operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Current weekday ridership is approximately 8,000 passengers. Many of the daily passengers connect from the 109 to the Market- Frankford subway-elevated line at 69th Street or to one of the nearly 30 other SEPTA bus and rail lines it traverses in its nearly one hour travel time from 69th Street to Chester, serving Lansdowne and the Springfield Mall.
The 109 (and the old route “O”) have been a vital part of our community for 85 years!