Rev. Michael Caine, Friend of the Blog and pastor at Old First Reformed UCC in Old City, shares the following story (edited slightly for readability):
Today the SEPTA token booth “non-worker” couldn’t tell when the next southbound Broad Street Spur would come. I asked, “do you know if there are scheduled times or do they come every so many minutes or just when they come?” She got all loud and responded, “now how would I know that?” It actually made me laugh out loud! I didn’t bother to reply, “because you are [the one] inside the token booth!”
The non-token booth is possibly the most aggravating aspect of being a Subway or El rider; a person is required to accept cash fares and to sell and accept paper transfers, but does not sell tokens or any other fare instruments, nor do they seem to be able to tell the confused rider the most basic information. This seems to be a setup for frustration and crushed hopes. The most visible of all SEPTA frontline employees, and the most findable, can not help with the most basic of customer service tasks. No wonder that local message board regulars have dubbed them “booth trolls”, whether that is for their resemblance to mythic creatures or internet pranksters. Rev. Caine probably has a leg up on the average harried commuter or confused tourist in terms of ability to retain equanimity in such trying circumstances.
This raises the question: whither the booth workers, come the Fall and NPT? With NPT bringing fare vending machines to every Subway and El station, and the end of paper transfers, the booth troll may be an endangered species; they will have no functions left to do. Such is the price of progress. Hopefully, if SEPTA allows the booth workers an opportunity to transfer to other jobs in the agency, they won’t be customer-facing, unless intensive customer service retraining is required.
When the MBTA went over to all electronic turnstyles (smart cart or stripe-eneabled paper ticket) for the subways, they kept the booth staff on as “ambassadors”. The usefulness of them has varied both in place and time. Some of them very actively assist passengers to use the fare-adding machines and help with recalcitrant turnstyles (there were many at the beginning and I paid an extra $2 for a very crappy ride last week because the smart card reader took both my pass and an additional fare from my card). There seem to be fewer than there used to be, but many are still around. Can never find one when you really need it though.
I’d be in favor of having dedicated customer service people in stations, especially in the more touristy parts of Center City, but the current crop of booth trolls have all the “ambassadorial” skills of the North Korean Diplomatic Corps. OK, not all of them… but many.
It’s an amazing phenomenon. I’m usually pretty sympathetic when folks point longingly to the various emotional or cultural institutions that are falling by the wayside with increased technological and economic rationalization. But …. the combination of economic inefficiency and surliness and stupidity and pointlessness and cluelessness … not a winning one.
Have you ever tried explaining the fare acquisition system in the El or Subway to someone not from around here?
When I’ve explained SEPTA fare payment to an out-of-towner, the reactions I’ve gotten usually suggest that the followup question being stifled is whether or not Philadelphians have electricity and indoor plumbing in our homes. I’d much rather have to explain the story behind throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.
We’re supposed to be throwing snowballs at Santa Claus? Man, you Philadelphians have all these customs nobody ever told me about…
On the other hand, pelting someone with snowballs is, in fact, a perfectly brotherly activity. Maybe that’s the problem, and we’ve been misinterpreting our fair city’s name. Did Penn have siblings?
The useless booth people are no match in embarrassment potential to our hideous token system. I can’t wait til that’s gone.
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