At the Tacony train "station," which is actually a battered green wooden shelter with holes for windows, the waiting passengers were not pleased with SEPTA's latest policy for onboard ticket sales.
Melissa Valle, a student at Community College of Philadelphia, pays $5 for the trip to Philadelphia without a ticket and just $3.50 for the ride home, because she can buy a ticket in Center City.
"How do they get away with it?" fumed Marlene Bednarczyk, headed to Center City for her job at the Philadelphia Parking Authority. "They're basically punishing people."
Alison Lecker, a Temple law student, buys a pass so she doesn't have to pay the new onboard surcharge, she said. But she sympathized with passengers who don't ride every day.
"A lot of people who go in for the day, they're not going to buy a pass. And if they can't buy a ticket, what are they supposed to do?"
SEPTA's new policy requires passengers to pay a higher onboard fare, even if the station where they board has no ticket agent. Of SEPTA's 153 rail stations, 75 - including Tacony - have no ticket sales, and very few booths are open afternoons and weekends.
Also, SEPTA took the last of its ticket vending machines out of service in January, citing their inability to accept newly designed U.S. currency.
Until six weeks ago, SEPTA had a $2 surcharge for onboard tickets if the passenger could have purchased a ticket at the station.
SEPTA implemented the new onboard charge as part of its fare increases in July, saying it hoped to drive rail riders toward weekly or monthly passes and advance ticket purchases. Despite the rider outrage, the policy seems to be working for the transit authority.
In August, SEPTA reported about 250,000 onboard sales, a drop of 14 percent from the 290,000 in the previous August. There were "corresponding increases in sales of one-way and 10-trip tickets and passes," said John McGee, SEPTA's chief officer for revenue, ridership, marketing and sales.
SEPTA hopes to reduce onboard sales by 25 percent eventually, McGee said. He said riders should plan ahead and buy tickets in Center City stations with longer ticket-sales hours.
SEPTA's rail division took in about $800,000 more than anticipated in August because of the fare increases and a shift in riders' buying habits.
The roughly 11 percent fare increase in July brought relatively little opposition from rail passengers. But the onboard surcharge has been a source of frustration for months. The one-way charge ranges from 50 cents to $1.50, depending on the destination and time of day.
"What does SEPTA expect someone to do, make an extra trip to the train station to buy a ticket before the booth closes?" asked Christopher Cimino of Newtown Square. "On the R5, this is generally around 2 o'clock. I made the mistake of having to take a train when the ticket booth attendant was on her lunch hour, so I had to pay an extra $3 on the train since the booth was closed."
Conductors who sell the onboard fares bear the brunt of passengers' wrath.
"It's really tough for my guys to explain this to passengers when we haven't offered them the opportunity to buy in advance," said Ralph Vazquez, a SEPTA conductor and the general chairman of Local 61 of the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors. "It hurts occasional riders the most."
"SEPTA hasn't done the advertising to let people know," Vazquez said. "You have to provide passengers with a fair shot at buying a ticket."
"We understand SEPTA's desire to reduce costs by reducing if not eliminating onboard ticket sales, but this plan will do little to actually reduce these costs," Matthew Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers told SEPTA during public hearings that preceded the new surcharge.
"SEPTA will still need to pay conductors to account for and turn in their revenue, and have personnel to receive and handle the cash," Mitchell said. "The right way to reduce cash-handling costs is to make convenient and reliable ticket vending machines available at all stations so all passengers can purchase tickets before they board. Then the clerks and other personnel will no longer be necessary, and SEPTA will gain substantial savings in the operating budget year after year.
"Forcing passengers to pay a higher fare even if they have no way of obtaining a ticket at their boarding station is unfair. SEPTA should not be allowed to punish the passengers for its inability to maintain its ticket machines."
Two of the balky orange relics, padlocked and posted with closed notices, sit at 30th Street Station, on either side of a working NJ Transit ticket machine.
Amtrak also has operating ticket machines. So does PATCO, the South Jersey commuter railroad. In cities such as Washington and New York, ticket machines are a regular feature, accepting cash and credit cards.
SEPTA's explanation for its lack of ticket machines is a familiar one: money.
"Those other agencies have invested in maintaining and modernizing their machines, and we have not," McGee said. He said the SEPTA ticket machines were too old to upgrade and too expensive to replace.
Each new machine, he said, would cost $60,000 to $70,000, not including software and telephone packages. The eventual plan, he said, is to install an electronic "smart card" fare-collection system.
Some SEPTA officials have said a new fare system could be ready in three or four years. McGee said yesterday that SEPTA staff was waiting for the agency's board of directors to "help shape and direct" a fare plan.