SEPTA key

SEPTA Key: New transit system 10 percent installed as lines build at peak times

It’s happened every day around rush hour for the last several weeks: Backlogs at the turnstiles to get on the El or the Broad Street Line. As SEPTA prepares for the very near digital future, the analog present is rearing its ugly head — it can get pretty hard to get a token accepted.

SEPTA officials say they feel your pain, especially since the lines mean you might miss your train. And while they’re super tight-lipped about how long this pain will last, they did speak with Billy Penn about the installation so far.

(Forget what SEPTA Key will be like when it’s finished? Here’s a handy explainer.)

It will get worse before it gets better.

Kevin O’Brien, a senior program manager working on the project, said so far SEPTA has installed 10 percent of the Key turnstiles and validators that they need to, so really this is just a pilot testing phase. (Read: The backlogs could get worse.) After pilot testing is wrapped up, the transit authority will install 25 percent of turnstiles and validators and will proceed from there.

Once 50 percent of the new turnstiles and validators are installed on trains, buses and trolleys, then SEPTA will start letting us use the new fare system.

When speaking with SEPTA, I, as a user, wanted to know the one thing everyone else does: How long do I have to deal with these handing-my-token-to-the-person shenanigans? O’Brien and his colleagues aren’t putting a date on it, so don’t get your hopes up. When I asked when the transition period will end, he said, “some time during 2015.” Sigh.

SEPTA knew this transition period was going to be a problem. There’s not much you can do about it.

O’Brien said SEPTA officials have tried to balance the number of turnstiles that they’ve switched to the orange SEPTA Key terminals with the relative number of token users at that station.

But he said there’s not much passengers can do to expedite the process if there’s a backlog to get in. After a short period just after installation, all the orange SEPTA Key turnstiles do accept TransPasses and TrailPasses, and you can always hand your token to the person in the booth who will buzz you in. (Except the problem is there are usually two of those, while four or five turnstiles sit empty because they don’t take tokens.)

“We’re going to try to time it properly to minimize [the backlog],” O’Brien said. “But there’s just going to be an impact.”

About half of the El and BSL stations have at least one of the new orange turnstiles.

Here’s where the installation stands, according to O’Brien:

  • About half of the El and BSL stations have at least one of the new turnstiles that won’t accept your tokens (and there are 48 new turnstiles total that have been installed)
  • About 300 of the existing 1,400 buses and trolleys have been outfitted with the new payment validators, however, the pre-existing payment areas are still there on those modes of transportation.
  • Sorry Regional Rail riders: You’re not getting SEPTA Key ‘til 2016.

This is the testing BUT you don’t get to test a SEPTA Key.

SEPTA’s in the process of testing out the SEPTA Key terminals that they’ve installed in the El and BSL stations and on some buses, and they’re looking for bugs on both the back-end and the front-end. O’Brien said the first phase includes controlled testing by contractors and SEPTA staff (there are ten teams of testers) who go through with a scripted set of testing instructions.

They’ll visit a device, use it, and then go back to make sure everything properly went through with regard to accounting. After that’s successful, O’Brien said SEPTA will then move to use “friendly testers,” AKA a bunch of SEPTA employees that will complete more widespread testing and will report any bugs or problems that they encounter.

No word on when — or if — SEPTA will deploy teams of non-SEPTA employees to test the system.

Yeah, this is annoying. But better to be a little annoyed now than a lot annoyed later.

SEPTA officials know you kinda hate this transition period of being all confused by the weird orange things when you’re underground. But they’re actually finding a lot of bugs through this testing period.

Said O’Brien: “That’s definitely our position here at the authority, is to get it right before we go full public with it .”

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