Key glitch during morning rush snarls SEPTA, ends with free rides

“It’s a Monday,” said a transit authority spokesperson.

Long lines plagued the SEPTA kiosks at the 46th Street MFL stop on Monday morning

Long lines plagued the SEPTA kiosks at the 46th Street MFL stop on Monday morning

Layla A. Jones / Billy Penn

Marked by the fresh wounds of an ugly Eagles loss and sprinkled with wintry mix, the post-Thanksgiving return to work was tough for the entire city. But SEPTA felt it harder than the rest of us.

Around 7 a.m., just as Philadelphia public transit was flooded with its regular 450,000 daily commuters, the Key system experienced a major glitch.

A pervasive bug wouldn’t let people load additional funds onto their cards — not at fare kiosks or online.

Within the hour, long lines and snarls of crowds were clogging subway, bus and Regional Rail stations across the region. At some point between 8 and 9 a.m., SEPTA made the decision to temporarily waive fares and let people in for free.

That means the transportation authority lost out on something like a quarter of a million dollars due to the systemwide malfunction, based on past revenue figures.

If Philadelphia-area transit goers already had their cards loaded, they were good to go. But if their cards were empty, customers couldn’t reload them under any circumstances.

“It’s a Monday,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. “Unfortunately when we found out about it, we were in rush hour for the morning already. We were kind of scrambling at that point.”

From West Philly to Fishtown, customers reported waiting in extra long lines at kiosks, and even being turned away from riding since they couldn’t load the fare onto their card.

By 11 a.m., the transit authority said it found a fix — but was still confused at the original cause of the problem.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “We’re not sure what the technical cause is.”

Busch insisted the transit authority was doing its best to mitigate problems. SEPTA instructed bus drivers and subway staffers to allow folks to board even if their Key cards were empty. Riders were told to ask SEPTA employees for help if they were confused, and extra personnel were deployed to subway stations to help ease the turmoil, Busch said.

The malfunction meant tons of Philadelphians got a free ride this morning. Across the month of October, SEPTA pulled in $38.8 million in revenue. Around a third of that was from city riders — so you can estimate a half-day commute in the city brings in between $200-$250k.

The silver lining? Busch said SEPTA is usually at least a little slower on the Monday after a holiday.

“If there’s one thing that makes it a little easier, it’s probably somewhat lighter today than a typical weekday because people traveled over the holiday weekend,” he said. “Anecdotally, talking with our operations people, it’s not quite a full day out there.”

Busch added: “We are working very quickly to try to resolve this.”

Want some more? Explore other SEPTA Key stories.

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Transit, SEPTA