SEPTA’s Regional Rail fare collection contortions are a symptom of a system that is strategically adrift

Ever since last summer’s Silverliner V equalizer beam crisis, SEPTA has been collecting Center City outbound Regional Rail tickets at the platform stairs in the evening rush.  On Tuesday, SEPTA announced that beginning July 10th, it will modify the procedure to punch tickets only, but have passengers retain their tickets and have them displayed throughout their journey.

The reason is simple: without a subsequent on-board check, it is possible for anyone to ride for any length after presenting a Zone 1 ticket to the fare collectors, or for that matter just a Transpass if your train boards at the same platform location as the Airport Line.  And to make the latter loophole even worse, SEPTA’s ambassadors check SEPTA Key cards for Transpass validity rarely to never.  SEPTA remains completely paranoid about revenue leaks from fare evasion, so they are moving to plug the hole now that trains and platforms are no longer quite so overcrowded.

Unfortunately for SEPTA, rush hour trains remain crowded enough that they cannot be easily swept by conductors for ticket checks until a significant number of riders have disembarked, meaning that the ambassadors checking for some form of fare instrument are still necessary to forestall an even more damaging form of fare evasion that was common before last summer: simply carrying one ticket in the knowledge that conductors will not be able to reach you to punch it.  Even riders without nefarious intent simply weren’t always able, or inclined, to seek out a conductor to get their ticket punched.

SEPTA, like most American commuter rail operators, including all of the Northeastern railroads as well as Metra in Chicago, insist on the obsolete and incredibly expensive method of fare collection where multiple conductors per train manually check every passenger’s fare by hand.  This system has been retained virtually nowhere else in the developed world outside of the United States, cast aside in favor of full faregating, or proof-of-payment, either of which dramatically reduces the employee headcount per train, which in turn allows for much less expensive provision of transit service, which in turn means either lower government subsidies and/or lower fares, and usually also allows more frequent and more useful service for riders.  There is a straight line to be drawn between the massive expense of conductors and the sparseness of our train schedules.

SEPTA is at least making a half-measure towards faregating with the upcoming rollout of SEPTA Key on Regional Rail.  The five Center City stations — University City, 30th Street, Suburban, Jefferson, and Temple — will be equipped with bidirectional faregates, requiring a fare to enter or exit.  Platform validators will be posted at the outer stations; when a Regional Rail rider only taps once, they will be charged the maximum fare.  This defeats the disadvantage of the July 2016-July 2017 system, since the default is to the most expensive fare, and can’t be defeated with a cheaper ticket.

But the main advantage of installing faregates will be lost if SEPTA continues to retain low platforms at so many stations, which necessitate the retention of conductors for their other function, raising and lowering the traps for low-platform stations.  SEPTA is still only installing high platforms at one or two stations per year, rather than the mass installation it needs in order to gain the economies from rationalized train staffing, higher train performance from lower boarding delays, and compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of the ADA.  It has not even prioritized engineering for that program, instead wastefully diverting in-house engineering resources to an unnecessary project to extend Market-Frankford Line stations to eight cars long, on the off chance that this President and this Congress decide to do a helicopter drop of money to shovel-ready infrastructure.  Even though MFL ridership is higher than the entire Regional Rail system combined, the potential financial and ridership return to high-leveling entire Regional Rail lines is much higher, and can be done in phases or batches scaled to the amount of money available.  SEPTA does not even prioritize high-leveling stations with high ridership like Elkins Park, which can shave entire minutes from schedules, nor stations like Eastwick or Fox Chase which are the only low-level stations on the Airport and Fox Chase Lines, respectively, which would allow for fewer conductors on those trains.

That said, it is entirely possible that SEPTA’s experiment with partial faregating will fail.  There are notable station chokepoints at all five Center City stations that may simply be incompatible with masses of humanity trying to filter through faregates, in one direction or the other or both.  Time will tell.  If it does fail, the only reasonable option left will be conversion to proof-of-payment, although the platform/door safety function will necessitate conductor overstaffing for decades at current rates.

Prioritizing the reduction of staffing is not an anti-union or even anti-employment position.  Right now the main obstacle to SEPTA providing real transit service on its Regional Rail lines is the chronic, acute shortage of engineers.  The best and easiest source of ready candidates for training as engineers, which is a months-long and high-attrition process in the best circumstances, is the conductor corps.  SEPTA can use literally anyone they can get through the training program to add service for riders.  The next time you are caught in bad traffic on I-76 or I-95, the failure of the Manayunk/Norristown or Trenton Lines to capture mode share away from driving due to their inadequate, once-hourly schedules, will be the main root cause.  We need approximately the current overall staff levels, just shifted, in order to protect out regional prosperity from predictable congestion.

Meanwhile, we are about to witness the worst of all possible worlds: overstaffed trains, multiple redundant fare checks, and a system that cannot get out of its own way and does not have a sense of urgency about getting better.  This is SEPTA in 2017.  May the Great Maker have mercy on us all.

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