Changes to start soon for SEPTA ‘smart card’ system

Posted: October 09, 2012

SEPTA riders soon will see the first faint stirrings of the future, as workers begin measuring, marking, and testing at subway stations around the city.

Crews are preparing the way for SEPTA's long-delayed "smart card" fare system, which is to go live late next year on subways, buses, and trolleys. For Regional Rail, the system won't be ready until 2014.

Since SEPTA awarded a $129.5 million contract in November to ACS Transport Solutions Group of Columbia, Md., much of the work on the new fare system has been invisible, with designers and consultants drawing up plans and timetables.

SEPTA has set up a laboratory for testing prototypes of new fare equipment on the 18th floor of its Center City headquarters. A hallway there is lined with poster-size sheets detailing about 5,600 steps that must be completed to make the smart-card system a reality.

So far, only about 30 have been completed.

Work will become more frenetic and visible in the next few months on both the fare system and on $84 million in companion projects, such as new control centers and elevator modifications.

By spring, workers will begin installing new subway turnstiles with card-reading screens that will eventually replace all of the current turnstiles that accept tokens and magnetic swipe cards.

At the same time, SEPTA's fleet of buses will be outfitted with new fare boxes that can read the smart cards.

SEPTA's new system will be one of the first in the country to use an "open" fare design, allowing riders to use any contactless bank card, instead of a "closed" system that accepts only cards issued by the transit authority.

Contactless cards are equipped with a computer chip that communicates with a card-reader.

Right now, only about 15 percent of the 750 million credit and debit cards in the United States are contactless, but that number is expected to grow rapidly as banks and card companies such as Visa and MasterCard move customers and merchants toward contactless cards.

SEPTA will also issue its own chip-equipped cards that riders can use. Even some mobile phones will be able to make SEPTA fare payments.

So far, SEPTA hasn't come up with a catchy name for its system, referring to it only by the generic NPT (New Payment Technologies). But that's about to change.

SEPTA has hired a marketing firm to brand its new fare instrument with a name that will resonate - like London's Oyster card or Boston's Charlie Card or PATCO's Freedom Card.

Maybe we'll get the Liberty Card? Or the Philly Phare?

SEPTA will roll out a "very limited" 30-day test of its new system in June, said John McGee, the agency's chief officer of new payment technologies. That test will involve only selected SEPTA employees and other insiders, not the public.

Another 30-day pilot program will be conducted in August, with a handful of real riders chosen to try out the new equipment in a few locations.

Following a 30-day evaluation period, the public will begin to use the system next fall. SEPTA first will replace half of its subway turnstiles with the new equipment, to allow riders to shift slowly from old to new.

By January 2014, all 386 new turnstiles and 121 handicapped-accessible fare gates are to be in place in subway stations and 1,852 fare boxes are to be in buses and trolleys. By the next month, the current tokens and passes will be a thing of the past, McGee said.

At the same time, more than 200 vending machines will be installed in subway stations and bus terminals to sell the new smart cards and one-day magnetic-strip tickets for occasional riders.

For starters, SEPTA is ordering 1.2 million smart-cards and 13 million magnetic-strip tickets.

And those SEPTA cashiers who now sit in subway station booths, unable to make change or sell tokens? They are to be retrained as "customer attendants" to help riders buy and use the fare cards.

Aissia Richardson, chair of SEPTA's citizen advisory committee, said she believed that transformation could work.

"It's how you're trained. Currently," she said, "they're trained to say no. It can't be that hard to train them to say yes."

For most bus, subway, and trolley riders, electronic fares won't mean a big change in commuting habits - new card-reading turnstiles and bus-fare boxes will operate much as the current ones do, though how the new system will handle transfers remains unanswered.

For rail passengers, though, electronic fares will alter the traveling experience.

One of the biggest changes for rail riders will be gates and turnstiles in Center City train stations to herd passengers past electronic fare-readers.

At the other end of their trips, riders will need to "tag in" or "tag out" with a smart card for their fares to be deducted. That may be done at stationary readers on a train platform or by conductors with handheld devices on trains.

Either way, it's sure to mean a change for riders used to rushing to and from trains and simply presenting a pass or ticket to conductors.

And the number of zones that determine how much riders pay for a train trip will be reduced by one, with Zone 4 to be eliminated.

Test runs of the railroad's fare system will begin in early 2014, and full operation on the 13 commuter rail lines is slated for November 2014.

The move to electronic fare payment "is going to be a long process," Richardson said, adding that she was cautiously optimistic that the changeover would go smoothly.

"If you can use a touchscreen to order a sandwich at Wawa or get money from an ATM," she said, "you can use this system."


Contact Paul Nussbaum

at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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