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Many SEPTA Regional Rail users are charged double for travel to Center City.
More than a dozen regional rail travelers told Billy Penn that they only noticed duplicate charges on their Key cards after logging into their online account and checking their travel history.
Several who noted the extra cost said they have a monthly pass but saw the separate fare in their Travel Wallet, a prepaid balance on each Key card used as a debit account.
“I have a monthly and two weeks ago I was detained in Jefferson for a charge over $6,” a frequent regional train customer told Billy Penn. “They claimed it was because I didn’t ‘tap’ – but I always do. So I had to pay and was told to dispute it, but I know I’ll never see that $ again.
Riders who said they had filed fare disputes reported mixed results, with some refunds being issued and others untreated.
“I was repeatedly told nothing was wrong, only to find out later that a double charge had been made,” said one rider outraged at the problem.
After Billy Penn contacted SEPTA, the transportation authority acknowledged the problem and blamed it on a software bug.
About 1,600 customers were affected, spokesman John Golden said.
“The issue of double fare charges on SEPTA customer key cards was caused by a bug in the software that caused some rate validators to go offline. As a result, some accounts had negative card balances,” said Golden.
SEPTA has implemented a software solution and has refunded about half of affected customers so far, he said.
Riders with weekly or monthly passes will be credited automatically, and the remaining customers will be refunded by the end of next week, per Golden, but for travel wallet riders, the SEPTA Key Call Center will review the sale separately.
Golden claimed the rate validators were offline for about two weeks. It’s unclear when the transport authority discovered the problem, how long it worked on a solution or why customers were not notified.
“Customers are encouraged to contact the SEPTA call center if credit is not received within a reasonable time,” Golden said. “SEPTA apologizes for any inconvenience caused. Customers should contact SEPTA Key Customer Service at 1-855-567-3782 with any further questions or concerns, including issues related to potential overload. SEPTA is committed to addressing the concerns of our customers.”
Why tap and also scan?
The double fare on the regional train is “just another one of the problems with the current Key system,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, an organizer with Transit Forward Philadelphia.
Proponents have urged SEPTA to drop Key and move to a more modern system, he said, such as the contactless technology now being rolled out in New York’s transit system.
The payment system allows riders to use one Key card to pay for all their rides on SEPTA – regional train, metro, El, bus and trolley. They can purchase one of several multi-ride pass options that are loaded onto the card, or load the key with money and use it as a debit card for each trip.
SEPTA has been using Key for Regional Railways since 2020 and for other modes of transport since 2017. The payment program has been plagued with problems since its conception in 2007, including lengthy delays and setbacks in setting it up, and a slow, clunky website once it was operational.
Regional train passengers are supposed to tap their Key cards on a sensor at their local station before boarding and show the card again to a conductor while on the train. If this works properly, the conductor’s scanning device shows that the person has already tapped at the regional NS station and that it is not being charged again.
But in some cases, passengers have noticed two loads within minutes of each other – one at the regional train station and another from the scanner on the train.
The scan on the train is apparently intended to prevent people from riding for free if they don’t knock at the station. Downtown stations like Jefferson and Suburban have turnstiles to prevent people from boarding without tapping their keys, but outlying stations don’t have that equipment.
In cases where people skip the tap, intentionally or accidentally, the conductor’s scanner charges the travel wallet.
“I don’t understand why we scan at the station and on the train, and then not pay … you have to complete the journey by scanning again on the way out,” said rider Brittany Salerno.
The dual system exists because regional train fares increase the further a station is from Center City. The conductor’s scanner doesn’t know where each rider got on. Riders who don’t knock at a station and wait to be scanned on the train may pay a higher fare than necessary.
For example, a rider who boards the Manayunk-Norristown line at East Falls, but does not tap, may see a Zone 2 charge on their SEPTA Key card, even though East Falls is in Zone 1.
The great challenges of SEPTA
This regional rail problem is happening alongside some major challenges and commitments for SEPTA.
The system is struggling with low passenger numbers, which are at 52% of pre-COVID levels, SEPTA representatives said during budget hearings last month.
According to TransitRecovery.com, which uses data from the National Transit Database, SEPTA’s recovery rate in April (49%) trailed all but one of the 25 comparable-sized transit agencies in the country. However, the service offered is 89% of what it was before the pandemic. In particular, for Regional Railroads, about 75% of service has recovered, TransitRecovery.com said.
For its next fiscal year, starting Friday, SEPTA forecasts revenue of $316 million, which is 61% of annual pre-COVID revenue, and that’s based in part on regional rail transportation being 75% of pre-pandemic levels. . It will also cut regional train fares for Zone 1 effective July 1, in hopes of increasing passenger numbers.
Zarrinkelk, of Transit Forward Philadelphia, noted those efforts, but the passenger recovery is hampered by accessibility and convenience issues, he said. Double charges on Key cards fall into that category.
“SEPTA can do a lot to try… to incentivize riders to return to the system by fixing all these little bugs,” he said.
The agency has been working on several other short- and long-term plans to improve passenger traffic for all of its transit offerings. It surveyed people in the area to find out why they would use SEPTA more.
The agency expects revenues to continue growing in the coming years, reaching 83% of pre-COVID levels by 2028. Federal aid funding that has supported SEPTA’s budget in recent years will run out by the end of 2024. The projected budget for 2025 and beyond shows state grants making a difference through the SEPTA Service Stabilization Fund.