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Fare card still has problems, but SEPTA is already working on Key 2.0

The data system for SEPTA Key cards is already 10 years old and obsolete, officials say.

Commuters swipe their SEPTA Key cards at the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby.
Commuters swipe their SEPTA Key cards at the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA

SEPTA is preparing to launch a series of upgrades to its smart fare payment system over the next six months, including new readers to scan Key cards aboard buses, at subway turnstiles and on rail station platforms — as well as mobile ticketing.

The transit agency on Monday also asked automated fare-collection vendors across the industry to submit ideas for broader improvements, a first step in the design of what officials are calling Key 2.0.

“Moving forward, we want to make sure that we’re at the forefront and able to adapt our system to the changing needs in the industry and in our region,” said Jody Holton, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for planning.

The goal, she said: a “seamless transit network” easier for riders to navigate and flexible enough to integrate with another transit agency or another mode of travel, such as bike shares.

Key’s first edition has suffered from glitches and cost overruns since it began in 2016, with SEPTA scrambling to order fixes to keep pace with rapidly developing technology and evolving financial security standards for the cards.

So far, the system has cost $228.7 million, nearly double the $122 million committed to the project in 2011.

On several large transit systems, including in New York and Chicago, riders already can get their tickets on mobile devices, no need to carry an extra card. And in recent months, some SEPTA customers have complained about a rash of unexpired Key cards failing.

“It’s to the point where the best thing may be to just start with a clean slate,” said Benjamin She, a transit advocate with 5th Square in the city. He said that lately his Key card has not worked on about a quarter of trips he takes on buses and trolleys; often, operators just wave him through when that happens, he said.

Some of the enhancements to the existing Key system have begun. For instance, Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay are accepted at kiosks and sales centers.

Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager, described the upcoming changes:

This summer, Regional Rail conductors will get new handheld validators for Key cards and be able to sell tickets on board trains for credit cards or cash. SEPTA also plans to launch Key cards for the CCT service for riders with disabilities.

In September, Philadelphia School District students will get Key cards that can be loaded with enough transit trips for the whole year. Now they must renew their cards, which use magnetic strips, every week.

SEPTA will begin installing the new card readers, first on buses and at stations on the Broad Street subway and Market-Frankford Line in late summer and continuing into early next year. The new readers will be able to read ticket bar codes that have been loaded onto smart phones.

Eventually, riders will be able to pay with contactless bank and credit cards, but that will take more upgrading of the system.

“You pull it right out of your wallet, tap it at the turnstile and go,” said Kevin O’Brien, an engineer and senior manager for the Key program. “You don’t have to worry about knowing SEPTA’s fare structure, anything like that. Just tap and go.”

Key card 2.0 will require an updated data processing center, software linking it to the new readers, enhanced computing power at sales offices, and bank-level encryption. Eventually SEPTA and, say Amtrak, would be able to sell each other’s tickets through a direct banking link, Holton said.

“So if you’re going from Jenkintown to D.C., you could purchase one ticket, one scannable bar code” and SEPTA would be able to reimburse Amtrak immediately, Holton said.