SEPTA's not-so-smart cards

Power problems delayed Amtrak, SEPTA, NJ Transit and other rail services Tuesday morning for more than an hour. Princeton Junction was among the many Northeast Corridor stops where passengers waited. Story and more photos, B2.

The one-way fare system that SEPTA is exploring for its regional rail lines could invite jokes about commuters being lured into Philadelphia for free, then socked with a big fee for the privilege of getting out of town.

But that’s hardly the only pitfall suggested by this plan, which SEPTA officials say is in the talking stages as part of a long-delayed transition to a $77 million “smart card” fare system for buses, subways, trolleys, and trains.

Would there be nightly logjams of passengers trying to squeeze through the turnstiles at gated Center City rail stations? What works at the starting gate for thoroughbreds at PhiladelphiaPark may result in chaos with commuters lugging briefcases and other belongings.

Another unknown is whether occasional riders or those traveling to city rail stations would balk at paying a double fare for the ride out of Center City. And how about fare evaders who might ride into town for free, then take a cheaper bus, subway, or trolley home?

Giving rail commuters the option to pay by credit card — or even a cell phone — might be a convenience that’s outweighed by the complexity of the one-way fare system. For instance, many commuters to suburban towns would face an added step of having to validate their smart-card fare a second time at their destination.

SEPTA officials need to resolve such concerns before moving ahead with the one-way fare plan akin to the toll system on Delaware River bridges.

That calls for greater public input, which transit officials pledged to seek this week after more specifics on the fare plan were aired.

One riders’ group, the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, still isn’t sold on the plan more than a year after SEPTA officials first consulted them. The group’s June 2009 newsletter listed many of the same concerns mentioned this week.

The transit agency should get a clearer picture of how the rail fare system might work when proposals are returned this fall by prospective bidders on the new fare system.

It just may make more sense to have train conductors continue to check fares, but equipped with digital card readers.
Whatever form the smart-card fare system takes, it certainly shouldn’t be less convenient for rail riders. For instance, commuters now can use their weekly and monthly rail passes on all SEPTA vehicles — a level of convenience not available on many urban transit systems.

It’s commendable that SEPTA officials hope to “leapfrog” other transit systems by going with the most cutting-edge fare system. But while this process has dragged out for years over funding problems and other glitches, transit riders in other major cities have seen more convenient fare systems put in place.
It’s long past time for SEPTA to get on board.