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Many SEPTA Regional Rail users have been getting charged double for trips into Center City.
Over a dozen regional rail riders told Billy Penn they noticed duplicate charges on their Key cards only after logging into their online account and viewing their trip history.
Several who noticed the extra charges said they have a monthly pass, but saw the separate fare in their Travel Wallet, a prepaid balance on each Key card that is used like a debit account.
“I have a monthly and two weeks ago I got stopped in Jefferson because of a $6+ charge,” one frequent regional rail customer told Billy Penn. “They claimed it’s because I didn’t ‘tap out’ — but I always do. So I had to pay and was told to dispute it, but I know I’ll never see that $ again.”
Riders who said they’d submitted fare disputes reported mixed results, with some refunds issued and others not addressed.
“I was told there was nothing wrong on repeated occasions, only to find out later a duplicate charge had been applied,” said a rider who was incensed by the issue.
After Billy Penn reached out to SEPTA, the transit authority acknowledged the problem and blamed a software bug.
About 1,600 customers were affected, according to spokesperson John Golden.
“The issue of duplicate fare charges on SEPTA customer Key cards was triggered by a bug in the software, causing some fare validators to go off-line. The result was that some accounts incurred a negative card balance,” Golden said.
SEPTA has put a software fix in place and so far issued refunds for about half of the affected customers, he said.
Riders with weekly or monthly passes are being credited automatically, with the remaining customers to be refunded by the end of next week, per Golden, but for travel wallet riders, the SEPTA Key Call Center is reviewing sales individually.
Golden claimed the fare validators were offline for about two weeks. It’s unclear when the transit authority discovered the issue, how long it was working on a fix, or why customers weren’t alerted.
“Customers are encouraged to contact the SEPTA Call Center if credit is not received within a reasonable time frame,” Golden said. “SEPTA apologizes for any inconvenience. Customers should contact SEPTA Key Customer Service at 1-855-567-3782 with further questions or concerns including those issues related to possible fare overcharges. SEPTA is committed to addressing the concerns of our customers.”
Why tap and also scan?
The duplicate fares on regional rail is “just another one of the issues of the current Key system,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, an organizer at Transit Forward Philadelphia.
Advocates have been pushing for SEPTA to drop Key and move toward a more modern system, he said, like the contactless technology now rolling out in New York’s transit system.
The payment system allows riders to use one Key card to pay for all their rides on SEPTA — regional rail, Subway, El, bus and trolley. They can buy one of several multi-ride pass options that are loaded onto the card, or load the Key with money and use it as a debit card for each trip.
SEPTA has been using Key for Regional Rail since 2020 and for other transit modes since 2017. The payment program has been plagued with issues since its conception in 2007, including extended delays and setbacks in the process of setting it up, and a sluggish, clunky website once it was operational.
Regional rail riders are supposed to tap their Key cards on a sensor at their local station before boarding and present the card again to a conductor while riding the train. When this works properly, the conductor’s scanning device shows that the person has already tapped in at the regional rail station and they are not charged again.
But in some instances, riders have noticed two charges within a few minutes of each other — one at the regional rail station and another from the scanner on the train.
The scan on the train is seemingly meant to prevent people from riding for free if they neglect to tap in at the station. Center City stations like Jefferson and Suburban have turnstiles to keep people from boarding without tapping their Key, but outlying stations don’t have that equipment.
In cases where people skip the tap, whether on purpose or inadvertently, the conductor’s scanner would charge the travel wallet.
“I don’t get why we scan at the station and on the train, and then in order to not be charged … you have to complete the trip by scanning again on your way out,” said rider Brittany Salerno.
The dual system exists because Regional Rail fares increase the further a station is from Center City. The conductor’s scanner doesn’t know where each rider boarded. Riders who don’t tap in at a station and wait to be scanned on the train may be paying a higher fare than necessary.
For instance, a rider who boards the Manayunk-Norristown Line at East Falls, but does not tap in, might see a Zone 2 charge on their SEPTA Key card, even though East Falls is in Zone 1.
SEPTA’s big challenges
This regional rail issue is taking place alongside some major challenges and undertakings for SEPTA.
The system is struggling with low ridership, which is at 52% of pre-COVID levels, SEPTA representatives said in budget hearings last month.
SEPTA’s ridership recovery rate as of April (49%) was behind all but one of the 25 similarly sized transit agencies in the country, according to TransitRecovery.com, which uses data from the National Transit Database. Service offered, however, is 89% of what it was before the pandemic. For Regional Rail in particular, service is about 75% restored, TransitRecovery.com said.
For the coming fiscal year, which starts Friday, SEPTA is projecting revenue of $316 million, which is 61% of annual revenue pre-COVID, and that’s partially based on regional rail ridership being 75% of pre-pandemic levels. It’s also reducing Regional Rail fares for Zone 1 effective July 1, in hopes of increasing ridership.
Zarrinkelk, of Transit Forward Philadelphia, made note of those efforts, but ridership recovery is hindered by problems with accessibility and convenience, he said. Duplicate charges on Key cards fall into that category.
“SEPTA can do a lot in trying to … incentivize riders to come back onto the system by fixing all these little bugs,” he said.
The agency has been working on various other short-term and long-term plans to improve ridership for all of its transit offerings. It has been surveying people in the area to figure out what would make them use SEPTA more.
The agency is expecting revenue to continue growing in the coming years, reaching 83% of pre-COVID levels by 2028. Federal relief funding that has propped up SEPTA’s budget for the past few years will run out at the end of 2024. The projected budget for 2025 and on shows state subsidies making up the difference through the SEPTA Service Stabilization Fund.