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July 07, 2023

SEPTA gives riders free transit access while fare system glitch is fixed

People will not be charged to ride buses, trains, subways or trolleys until the problem is resolved. All modes are running on normal schedules

Transportation SEPTA
SEPTA Key Glitch Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

SEPTA's fare payment system went down Friday morning, temporarily allowing people to ride its subways, trolleys, buses and Regional Rail trains for free.

A technical issue with SEPTA's fare collection system has given riders free access to buses, trains, trolleys and subways since early Friday morning. Officials are working to fix the problem, but until it gets sorted out, fare payments will not be collected and all modes of transit will continue as scheduled.

At 6 a.m., SEPTA received a report that the turnstile screens at Regional Rail and subway stations were down, as well as the fare collection devices on buses and trolleys.

"The fare validators weren't working," spokesperson Andrew Busch said. "This includes all modes. What we're telling customers is there's no impact to them, because they're still going to be able to ride as normal. They're just not going to have to tap at the turnstile or when they're boarding a bus or a trolley. They won't be charged."

Busch said SEPTA is working with its fare collection vendor, Conduent, to resolve the issue, but the specific problem is still being investigated.

"I don't know yet if that's going to be later today or what kind of timeline we might be looking at with that," Busch said. "We have to figure out a little bit more on how long we need for a fix. We hope that it's not going to take too long to get back up and running, and at that point, we'll make a decision on the timing of (fares resuming). We certainly don't want to switch things up on people midstream or anything like that, so we're trying to make the transition back as smooth as possible."

Until the problem is fixed, riders may see the screens at turnstiles either off or displaying a "No Fare Required" message. Fare devices on buses and trolleys may be turned off and covered while the problem persists. 

SEPTA riders are advised to keep an eye on SEPTA's social media pages for updates on the fare collection system.

The fare glitch comes at a time when SEPTA's passenger revenue is still down due to the long-term effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on ridership. About $312 million in federal relief money is expected to run out by next April.

SEPTA ridership is typically lower than normal during the summer months. Right now, the system averages about 450,000 to 500,000 trips per day, many of them from pre-paid monthly passes. The revenue lost due to the fare collection problem will be from riders who use the SEPTA Key card's travel wallet and single-fare Quick Trips.

Across the system, ridership is still at about 60% of pre-pandemic levels on an average weekday, which is approximately 600,000 trips outside the summer months, Busch said. The bus network has bounced back the most, climbing higher than 70% of pre-pandemic ridership. The Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines are at roughly 50-55%. Regional Rail is in the 50-55% range, too.

Despite the revenue challenges, SEPTA has taken steps to encourage ridership through employer-sponsored programs and the recent addition of a second free transfer for riders who use the travel wallet.

Busch said he did not know whether SEPTA's contract with Conduent includes language to insure against revenue loss in the case of Friday's glitch.

"Certainly, we'll be discussing those things with Conduent and have an accounting of that, but the immediate focus right now is to get it back up and running," Busch said.

SEPTA's work with Conduent dates back to 2011, when the firm was selected to build and implement a modern fare collection system that would transition SEPTA away from tokens and cash payments. Philadelphia was the last major city in the U.S. to do so. The development and rollout of SEPTA Key was beset by numerous delays before the card-based system debuted in 2016, with full implementation completed the following year. 

SEPTA's original contract with Conduent, formerly known as ACS Transport Solutions Group, a division of the Zerox Corp., has grown from $129.5 million in 2011 to more than $285 million in the years since. A total of $309 million is committed though the of the current fiscal year.

In April, SEPTA put out a request for proposals for SEPTA Key 2.0, with a deadline for bids approaching later this month.

"That's going to be for managing the system moving forward and helping us adapt to any new payment methods," Busch said.

More than 20 firms have been in contact with SEPTA about managing the evolution of its fare payment system. Conduent may also bid to receive a second contract.

"Sometimes you get a combination of vendors who will team up to make a bid," Busch said. "It will be the successor to the (current) contract with Conduent."

The soonest the new contract will be awarded is later this year or early next year.

The focus of SEPTA Key 2.0 will be expanding the integration of smartphones into fare purchases and swipes in all areas of the transit system. In December, SEPTA introduced Key Tix, which allows riders to purchase bus, train, trolley, subway and Norristown High-Speed Line tickets through the SEPTA app on their phones.

For several years, SEPTA has been planning to debut smartphone fare payments at turnstiles and on buses and trolleys as an alternative to the SEPTA Key Card. The promised rollout has been delayed multiple times and remains in an internal pilot phase, Busch said. Eventually, riders will be able to link their smartphones to debit and credit cards and scan them for fare payment. SEPTA hopes to make this option available on some parts of the system later this year or next year, but definitely before the development of SEPTA Key 2.0, Busch said.

The implementation of SEPTA Key 2.0 is expected to start in 2025 and become fully operational by 2029.

Even when smartphones become the primary fare payment method, SEPTA will continue to have some type of card for riders.

"We think that we're always going to have a need to have a SEPTA card available for people," Busch said. "Our student pass program with the school district is about 55,000 passes. We would imagine that stays on a card. Employer programs are on cards. Probably, demand for cards will go down as we implement these new methods of payment."