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The SEPTA mailbag

Today's metro column on SEPTA's customer-unfriendly token policy has filled my in-box with other riders' rants. For instance:

Today's metro column on SEPTA's customer-unfriendly token policy has filled my in-box with other riders' rants. I'll snip their names, since I'm not sure they were looking for publicity - just looking to vent. Some vented about SEPTA. Some vented about me. Either way, it's interesting reading.

Here's one:

Dear Mr. Rubin:

I read your SEPTA piece with interest. It was complete on-point. Recently, I travelled to Bangkok. This city has a VERY friendly subway and elevated train system with customer service representative and cashiers who want to help. Now, I speak no Thai, but was able to freely travel on its system without any problems. Yes, the cashiers make change, including change for large bills, then direct you to the automatic machines. The automatic machines can be used in English as well. Imagine that. In addition, during my first ride, the cashier suggested that I buy a monthly pass rather than pay the per ride rate, even though I was only there for one week, as I would save money. She was ride, as I used the entire monthly allotment in one week. I will not start describing the clean stations. You could eat on the floor, it it were permitted.

I have used public tranportation in other countries, including the lightrail (subway) in Guadalajara, Mexico and express bus in Quito, Ecuador. Both made change and help me, a tourist, navagate the system. SEPTA could learn from third-world countries that PROMOTE tourism and public transportation.

Last, let me share this story. Several weeks ago, I had a job interview at Broad and Spring Garden. Now, I rarely ever use SEPTA. First, its timetables cannot be trusted. Second, it is dirty beyond measure. However, I used it this one day. I made an error and exited the subway one station short. I realized this as soon as I cleared the turnstile outside the change booth, but prior to exiting the station. Immediately, I went to the cashier and explained my situation. I added that I was a tourist. (A SEPTA tourist, that is.) He was without mercy. He said that I must pay another fare as I exited the turnstile. I explained that I was lost, and that he saw me just pass the turnstile. He demurred. I asked if I could purchase a token, and he demurred. I asked if he took credit cards, and he demurred. Now, many U.S. systems and foreign systems take credit/debit cards. He said, "This is SEPTA, and we just don't do that. We only take cash." I gave him the two dollars and he buzzed me through. Well, he did thank me for riding SEPTA. HA. A gallon of gas is cheaper.

Well, again, I only use SEPTA is I absolutely must. This is rare event, and I live in South Philadelphia. On a good day, I walk from my residence to Center City rather than ride SEPTA. On the contrary, when outside the U.S., I always take public transportation.

Thanks for reading.


Here's one from a reader who ripped me:

After reading your article about SEPTA, I think you're complaining too much and that SEPTA is rarely your first or only choice of ride (your 2 year apart examples have given me that clue). I'm not a shill or apologist for the system but i at least ride it about 300 days per year( over the past 30 years) so my information is more based in reality than someone who treks to the occasional game in south Philadelphia. SEPTA, like most large cities across the world, has had an exact change system for about 20+ years. It also has other options for payment of fares if you chose to check out their web site. I'm sure when you were in Europe, you did some homework about the transit system. I'm sure that you did not alight the subway steps in Prague without some idea of what you had to do. I'm going to Lisbon next week and I have be reading and searching the Internet for for the best way to use their transit system. I suggest that you, as a perpetual tourist in your own city, do the same. Did you know that most supermarkets sell tokens along with passes. So does Rite Aid whose stores are awfully difficult to locate. And instead of using smarmy examples to solidify your argument (the cop and RR guy) try asking people who ride the system. I'm sure they will give you some material to work with.


Here's a nice travelogue from another baseball fan:

Mr. Rubin,

Your column today got me thinking about an encounter in Montreal in 1992. We traveled by bus, then subway, to see the Montreal Expos play at their stadium. After the game, we took the subway back to get the bus,but the bus was not running at that late an hour. I asked the woman cashier at the subway booth for help. She responded in French, and was not disposed to help us at all. I noticed that she was reading a book. She didn't even look up at us. I said," It is okay if you don't help us, but don't pretend that you don't know English when you are reading a book written in English!'


A reader filled in a critical hole:

Per your column today concerning buying SEPTA tokens, I can answer your question as to "why". Back in the summer of 1968 PTC and Red Arrow (SEPTA's predecessors) subway cashiers and vehicle operators would make change for passengers. Urban crime caught up with the system and cashiers and drivers were being robbed at gunpoint. Philadelphia, like most cities, converted its transit systems to "exact fare" and the employees no longer had cash. It's been that way ever since.

At that time PTC did not offer tokens or any kind of multi-ride discount. Passengers paid the full fare each time they rode. Passengers transferring between Red Arrow and PTC had to pay two full separate fares since they were two independent companies.

A few years after SEPTA took over PTC and Red Arrow it introduced discounted tokens and commutation passes. SEPTA also eliminated the double fare for Red Arrow riders and allowed pass riders to ride free on certain commuter trains and vice-versa. (Many people have forgotten the numerous fare discounts SEPTA has introduced over the years. Frequent riders pay much less, adjusted for inflation, than did riders years ago; occasional riders pay the same.)

Unfortunately, today urban crime remains a problem. Today we have bus drivers brutally beaten over a transfer, and people murdered in the subway just for the heck of it. If cashiers or drivers had money to make change, they would be targets for crime.

SEPTA subway cashier booths are not bullet-proof. It would be nice if they were, but that would be very expensive. New York City has bullet-proof booths but these were extremely costly to build leaving the NYC system with a large deficit today. The same applies to fare vending machines, while popular, they are expensive to install and maintain (and often broken). The NYC transit system has luxury of far more state and city support for capital projects than SEPTA enjoys.


And finally, a tip:

Hey maybe you could write about how PATCO is using a DIFFERENT "dumb card" than SEPTA. So you still can't easily transfer between the 2 systems. Currently PATCO's dumb card takes longer to read in the turnstiles than the old tickets and charges you max fare with no warning if it doesn't read it in time. You have to check every time you get off their trains to see what you are charged on their dumb cards. Unlike Easy Pass, no monthly statements are sent.