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August 22, 2023

Runaway SEPTA trolley that crashed in Southwest Philly did not have working brakes, NTSB report finds

The mechanic jumped from the trolley when he could not get it to stop rolling down Island Avenue, investigators said. Three people were injured and the historic Blue Bell Tavern was damaged

The SEPTA trolley crash that damaged an historic building in Southwest Philadelphia and injured three people last month was the result of inoperable brakes and poor communication. 

That's according to a new report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal government agency tasked with investigating the crash. The crash was one several involving SEPTA vehicles this summer.  

On July 27, the out-of-service trolley rolled out of a SEPTA depot and derailed near Island and Woodland Avenues, colliding with an SUV and crashing into the Blue Bell Inn, a building that predates the American Revolution. Two of the four people in the SUV, and a SEPTA mechanic, were injured. 

In a preliminary report, the NTSB said the trolley was undergoing an air compressor replacement at the Elmwood maintenance facility prior to the crash. As part of that process, the trolley's brakes were made inoperable. The repairs occurred over the course of multiple work shifts involving different personnel. 

Shortly before the 10:18 p.m. crash, a mechanic attempted to move the trolley to a nearby storage yard. That mechanic, who told investigators he was unaware that trolley's brakes didn't work, was onboard when the trolley derailed and started accelerating down the street toward the Blue Bell Inn. After trying and failing to activate the trolley's brakes, the mechanic leapt from the trolley before it crashed, sustaining injuries.

The Blue Bell Inn was built in 1766 and was the site of a Revolutionary War battle 11 years later. Originally operated as a tavern, the structure is now a residence, which was occupied at the time of the crash. The resident was unharmed. 

The Blue Bell Inn suffered an estimated $300,000 worth of damage as a result of the crash, according to the NTBS report. SEPTA incurred about $500,000 in equipment damage. 

The NTSB's investigation into the crash is ongoing. 

The crash was one of eight involving SEPTA vehicles over a three-week period. They killed one person and left dozens of other people injured. 

The unusually frequent string of SEPTA-involved crashes has captured the attention of federal authorities. Earlier this month, the Federal Transit Administration launched an inquiry into SEPTA's safety practices and protocols in response to the series of crashes. The incidents also compelled SEPTA to put all of its transit operators through mandatory safety training over the next two months. 

In the week prior to the trolley crash in Southwest Philly, there was a deadly bus collision in Northeast Philly, a two-trolley collision in Upper Darby, and bus crashes in Fishtown and Center City

In early August, a SEPTA trolly in Kingsessing was hit by an SUV that was being driven, coincidentally enough, by an off-duty SEPTA employee who has been charged with driving under the influence. Several days later, an SUV driving the wrong direction struck a SEPTA bus in Haverford and, in another incident, two SEPTA buses crashed in South Philly.