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SEPTA Key latest: How to get one and what’s behind those single ride lines

You *can* get a SEPTA Key card. Sort of.

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Correction appended

SEPTA’s new digital fare payment system has experienced a number of setbacks for literally the last decade, whether it’s the many delays in rolling out the new system or the Early Adopters program that’s caused some confusion among users. 

For now, things are in a bit of a limbo stage with SEPTA Key, the fare payment system that’s expected to lead to the death of tokens and usher users into the 21st century. It’s been a lengthy process compounded by messaging from SEPTA last summer that made it sound as though the Key was being launched in its entirety.

Long story short: It still has not fully launched. But you can still experiment with it. We asked SEPTA some of the most common questions we’re hearing and seeing from transit users in the city, and address those questions here:

Can I buy a SEPTA Key card at this point?

Sort of. So when SEPTA started its “Early Adopters” program last summer, 10,000 people were able to purchase a SEPTA Key card by loading either a weekly or a monthly TransPass for either $24 or $91, respectively. Then, in November, SEPTA started allowing customers to purchase Key cards that had just the Travel Wallet — the program that allows users to add money to pay for single rides onto their cards — on them.

But that didn’t last long, and was only meant to be a temporary feature. So at this point, you can’t buy a Key card with just the Travel Wallet feature, which is likely the system you’d move to if you’re currently a token person. Instead, we’re back to where we were last summer and you can get a Key card if you’re willing to pay the price of a weekly or monthly TransPass.

But I really want one.

Ok, fine. You can technically purchase a Key card with a weekly or monthly TransPass and then load Travel Wallet funds on from there. At this point, you just won’t be able to start with a Travel Wallet. If you’re a rider who wants to use single rides at this point via the Travel Wallet feature, you can buy a SEPTA Key card at one of a few sales offices with a weekly TransPass for 24 bucks, ride up to 56 rides in the city for a week and then load on your Travel Wallet funds from there. For now, the minimum to add to a Travel Wallet is $10 while the maximum is $250.

When will I be able to just buy the Key card and load money onto it?

SEPTA hasn’t set a timetable for when the Travel Wallet functionality will be fully integrated. SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said a full rollout can probably be expected in early 2017. (But if you know anything about how SEPTA Key has gone so far, don’t hold your breath.) That Travel Wallet technology will allow customers to pay $1.80 for a trip, AKA the same price as a token.

So what’s a Quick Trip again? Do people use those?

A Quick Trip is one ride on the Market-Frankford line or Broad Street line, but instead of buying a token like you used to, you can use a credit or debit card, cash or a token to pay for the ride at a kiosk. After you pay your $2.25, you’ll get a disposable paper card to swipe at the turnstile. As of mid-December, more than 157,000 Quick Trip rides were purchased.

The Quick Trip pass can only be used to travel from the station where it was purchased on the day it was bought. And they can’t be used on buses.

I had to get a Quick Trip with my token from the kiosk because no one was in the booth. What gives?

You’re not alone. We’ve heard several reports from users who wanted to pay for their SEPTA ride with a token, but were forced to swap their token for a Quick Trip pass at the kiosk because there was no cashier sitting in the booth. There’s a possibility that’s because SEPTA workers are getting more breaks than they had before.

So union negotiations had something to do with this?

Sure seems like it. Last November, SEPTA’s Transit Workers Union Local 234 members walked off the job on strike for a week as contract negotiations stalled between the union and SEPTA management. In the end, SEPTA made some concessions to get workers back on the job, including allowing workers to take more breaks than they had before.

OK, now I have a Key card. I’m an Early Adopter! How do I load money onto it?

You’ve got a few options. At this point, SEPTA’s recommending customers use the kiosks located at stations to reload money onto their Key cards, especially now while “SEPTA ambassadors” are staffing the stations to troubleshoot. 

Or, technically, you can use the website to reload funds onto your Travel Wallet. Problem is: SEPTA isn’t exactly recommending you use that process at this point to reload, with Busch saying: “It wasn’t really rolled out, but it’s available, so that did cause a little confusion for some folks.”

Instead, SEPTA wants users for now to reload their cards in-person at reloading kiosks. You can find more information on those here. You can also call the Key Customer Call Center at 855-567-3782 for help reloading.

Wait, why is this website like this?

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You’re not the only one who’s complained. The SEPTA Key website feels like something from the 1990s — PlanPhilly noted in a story last month that while septakey.org is a temporary set-up, users have complained that the online experience is straight-up bad. Busch said SEPTA’s heard your cries for help and is “actively working with Xerox to improve the user experience online.” (Xerox is the third-party company heading up the SEPTA Key implementation.)

“Some Early Adopters have given us feedback regarding the website screens and improvements they’d like to see to make them more user-friendly,” Busch said. “We’re incorporating some of these suggestions as we work with Xerox to develop a new responsive mobile site.”

Is there SEPTA Key for Regional Rail?

No. And it’ll be awhile before there is. The current phase is just for transit outside of Regional Rail, including buses, trolleys, Market-Frankford Line, Broad Street Line and Norristown High Speed Line. However, you can still use a Key card loaded with a TransPass on Regional Rail on weekends and holidays.

I keep finding tokens at the bottom of my bag. Can I still use them?

Yes. At most locations, including the ones where all turnstiles have been switched over to the Key turnstiles, you can either hand them to the cashier staffing the booth or you can insert it into one of the kiosks and it will spit back a Quick Trip pass good for one ride that day. Busch said SEPTA plans to accept tokens as payment for the foreseeable future, long past when they actually stop selling tokens.

When will they stop selling tokens?

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No date’s been set.

“We want to continue to see how the rollout goes for us as we expand more with Travel Wallet,” Busch said. “That’s where token customers will move to. As we start building up our numbers on that, we will see less demand for people who want to buy tokens.”

Isn’t there also a program for seniors?

Yep, that’s still a thing. More than 40,000 “senior cards” were mailed to seniors who filled out applications for their new Key picture ID by early December.

Why has this whole process been so slow and gradual?

SEPTA’s still technically in its Key “Early Adopters” program, and Busch said the transit authority is in the process of still gathering data and feedback and will then expand out the full program, including the entire Travel Wallet functionality. At this point, people are engaging with the system in different ways, whether that’s using the full Travel Wallet functionality or just simply experimenting with using a credit or debit card to purchase a Quick Trip. (As of mid-December, more than 22,000 Key cards had been sold so far and, of those, more than 10,000 customers have registered user accounts, according to Busch. There had been more than 100,000 card reloads.)

Busch added that SEPTA was strategic in its rollout — it didn’t want to simply flip a switch overnight and migrate everyone over to a new system that so many people would have been unfamiliar with. That’s largely because some other transit agencies that have rolled out newer, digital fare payment systems were coming from a system that was more up-to-date. In SEPTA’s case, it’s going from some of the oldest technology possible (tokens and magnetic strip cards) to some of the newest.

He admitted there’s been some issues. But better to have issues with a few thousand willing users than a system-wide failure that could impact an entire city.

“It has been kind of a methodical process,” Busch said, “but… that really helped us lay a groundwork for where we need to go.”