Going into further depth on SEPTA’s proposed fare changes, I am seeing disturbing trends. Apart from the flaws in the technical implementation of NPT (another post in itself), SEPTA’s changes to fare rules and structures indicate an attitude of not wanting to deal with the complexity of the world it exists in and the ridership it serves.
The first and most obvious change is the general flattening of fares.
- Zone 4 is being eliminated, with most stations being moved to Zone 3, but six (Bristol, Langhorne, North Wales, Paoli, Claymont and Wilmington) are being moved to Zone 5, which is being renumbered Zone 4. This maintains the concentric circle zoning I’ve previously denounced, while ending Delaware’s subsidization of Claymont and Wilmington stations based on fare zones.
- The 2-zone Intermediate ticket and the Unlimited Intermediate ticket are being merged into a single Intermediate fare, and the 2-zone Intermediate Monthly pass is being eliminated outright.
- Trips via Center City Philadelphia are being flattened to a single $8.50 fare, whether the trip is from Darby to North Broad (6 stops, 28 minutes, 7.7 miles as the crow flies) or from Trenton to Thorndale (32 stops, 107 minutes, 55.6 miles as the crow flies). It should be noted that this constitutes a fare cut for our hypothetical Trenton-Thorndale rider, who would pay $9.50 today. Our hypothetical Darby-North Broad rider will save money with a Smart Media card by leaving the train in Center City and breaking her trip into two halves, or of course by spending a mere $1.80 for a token or NPT transit fare.
There are arguments in some cases for flat, or flatter, fares, but they do not justify the machete that has been taken to the fare system here. The fare increases for passes and tickets to or from Center City hover around 6%, except Anywhere passes that have received the brunt of the most recent fare increases. The fare changes for Intermediate and Via Center City riders are randomly sized, seemingly capricious, and unfairly penalize riders who contribute disproportionately to SEPTA’s revenue compared to the cost to SEPTA of serving them.
The costs of Regional Rail are scaled to three factors: the length of the line, the ridership load at the maximum load point (which is always either entering or leaving Center City), which determines the length of the train, and the additional cost of providing sufficient off-peak service to make reliance on the service a viable option. Intermediate (and reverse-commute) riders pay for seat-miles that SEPTA must run anyway for another rider, providing free revenue. It’s no coincidence that the busiest commuter railroad in the United States, Metro North, is also the one with the widest array of outlying destinations and traffic generators (Stamford, White Plains, New Haven, etc.), and also has the highest farebox recovery ratio. While the choice of the best fare for Intermediate passengers is not deterministic, SEPTA is not doing a very good job right now of capturing Intermediate ridership. If anything, an across-the-board cut in Intermediate fares may have been called for. At the very least, it is a front where SEPTA’s already flattish fare structure hurts more than helps. Instead, with the elimination of the $75 Intermediate Monthly (IM-1) pass, which provided an unlimited ride option for Intermediate rides up to two fare zones, riders with short Intermediate commutes are facing a 45% fare rise, as they are forced to switch to the Cross County Pass. The Cross County, which is rising to $109/monthly and gaining a $29/weekly counterpart, is still a good deal for longer-distance travel and trips that require a connection, but is a ripoff for shorter trips like Ambler-Glenside, Radnor-Bryn Mawr, Newark-Wilmington, or Morton-Media, especially when a parallel transit division alternative exists. SEPTA should not, under any circumstances, be providing such strong incentives to switch from Regional Rail service that costs almost nothing to provide to expensive suburban transit division service. Even with the distortion created by the elimination of Zone 4, the deeply discounted IM-1 pass should be preserved in some form, whether as currently defined or as modified to fit the new zone structure. My recommendation would be a $2.50 ticket valid within a single fare zone, and a $60 monthly pass to match.
Via Center City fares are even worse. While they are some of the trickiest tickets for riders to acquire and use, and for conductors to collect, they provide good value to riders (who can leverage the network power of our through-running, hub-and-spoke Regional Rail system), and to SEPTA (which can compete for trips and capture revenue from riders who only take up scarce seats on half of their journey at most). The problems with the availability of the tickets, and using them properly, were going to go away with NPT and the elimination of the paper ticket. SEPTA, however, has decided to throw away that opportunity, in favor of a flat $8.75 fare. How distortive is that? Well, in addition to the example I gave above, it means that occasional riders from Trenton should buy tickets via Center City to literally anywhere else, because it will be cheaper than the Zone 6 fare. For trips that originate or terminate just outside of Center City, it will completely destroy the incentive to use Regional Rail. This is a huge step backwards for SEPTA, and the flattening of the via Center City fare should be opposed tooth and claw. Let the intelligent NPT backend do the job it was meant for.
The smaller tweaks to RRD fares are less objectionable.
- The reclassification of North Philadelphia and North Broad stations as Zone 1 stations only acknowledges the decades-old reality that the area around Broad and Lehigh is no longer a destination in its own right; if anything, the massive fare incentive to Trenton-bound commuters to change trains there instead of Center City will provide benefits to both SEPTA, by easing crowding in Center City, and the neighborhood surrounding, by driving foot traffic.
- Re-zoning Eastwick as a Zone 1 station provides a welcome acknowledgment that maintaining concentric-circle zoning is failing the station and the neighborhood, and a welcome start to using the Airport Line as a transit trunk line.
- The Airport Line’s fare rule change making Transpasses invalid on weekdays is a step backwards, and a fare hike for Airport workers, who must now use a Zone 1 Trailpass to commute (a painful effective fare hike of 22%). It is also a hit to city-based air travelers, who could previously make up prepaid days of Transpass term lost to out-of-town air travel, by defraying the costs of getting to the Airport. That option no longer exists for Transpass holders on weekdays; on weekends, all passes (other than the IM-1) continue to be good anywhere in the system. It’s still better than where we were 2 years ago, when a Zone 2 Trailpass was required to commute on the Airport Line on weekdays, and it restores parity between the Airport Line and the other stations in the City of Philadelphia, which can be reached with a Zone 1 Trailpass off-peak, regardless of Zone.
- The end of gender identification stickers is a long time coming, and I am making a point of praising SEPTA for it in every post in this series. As a compensatory fraud-suppression measure, SEPTA plans to implement a cap on pass usage, at 50 system entries for a weekly and 200 for a monthly. While this should not be too onerous for the typical railroad passenger, those numbers are very thin for some commutes that involve three or more vehicles each way, like Germantown-King of Prussia ((23-)65-Wissahickon TC-Manayunk/Norristown-NTC-[99,NHSL-Gulph Mills-124]). I accept the premise of a cap, but would urge a higher or smarter cap to avoid locking out legitimate users.
- The replacement of the 10-trip ticket with the “SEPTA Smart Media Fare” is an NPT win for riders who might not otherwise bother with the discounted tickets.