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SEPTA Key’s Regional Rail rollout is expected by spring. Here’s what needs to happen before then.

An exact time line is murky. Can SEPTA make it by then?

Commuters board at the East Falls Regional Rail SEPTA Station.
Commuters board at the East Falls Regional Rail SEPTA Station.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

SEPTA’s modernized way to pay is here — just not if you’re a Regional Rail rider.

The Key card’s rollout for train commuters has been slow, but an end may be near. The agency expects to have the majority of train riders using Key by spring, though an exact timeline is murky.

Can SEPTA get there by then?

“That’s our plan,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager, acknowledging that Regional Rail “has not rolled out as quickly as we would have liked.”

There’s a Travel Wallet and a parking feature to work out, plus employee training to finalize. And, riders will need to learn how to use what will ultimately become a “tap in/tap out” method of payment.

While SEPTA discusses logistics behind closed doors, some riders are still asking the basics.

“It’s just that I don’t think that they answer all of people’s questions,” said Karen Wolpert, a Fox Chase Line rider. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that I work with that ride the Regional Rail, and because I use it now, they’re asking me all sorts of questions, and I say, ‘I have no idea.’”

Where we are

SEPTA Key’s transition onto Regional Rail was always intended to follow its adoption onto transit, which itself was delayed beyond its original scheduled rollout in 2014. Regional Rail’s introduction was expected to be incremental, too — never a sudden flip of a switch.

There are a “few more layers” on Regional Rail, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said, compared to buses, subways, and trolleys.

“Regional Rail, it’s completely different than how people have paid in the past,” he said, referencing the “tap in/tap out” process.

SEPTA has laid down the groundwork ahead of its April deadline. It’s been about two years since installation of turnstiles at the five Center City locations and validating towers at outlying stations began. As of Nov. 1, the agency had phased out legacy monthly TrailPasses for Zones 1 and 2 — a deadline not applicable to all employer-based programs, however.

While SEPTA announced that riders could buy the Key card at all 72 Regional Rail ticket offices outside of the main Philadelphia hubs last week, it was also set to start a “tap to exit” pilot program at Jefferson Station on Monday.

“We’re going to encourage customers to use that, if they can, to give it a try, to get them familiar with it," Busch said.

Earlier this year, SEPTA’s board approved nearly $91,000 to buy additional handheld devices used to sell and validate fare for Regional Rail conductors to use on-board. That’s separate from a $17.8 million cost increase approved in October for a Key-related contract that helps pay workers from Edens Corp. to act as ambassadors and ticket agents on the Regional Rail system. That contract will last through next year.

“Hopefully, the full transition to the Key makes the job of the conductor, I don’t want to say easier, but it’s streamlined a little bit that they’re doing spot checks and things like that,” Busch said.

What it will look like

Before Key, conductors would visually check for passes and collect from riders paying with cash. Now, conductors are instructed to approach as many riders as they can to validate Key cards — a time-consuming process, but it won’t last forever.

Bernard Norwood, head of the SEPTA conductors union, said the Key’s rollout onto Regional Rail is a change for the better, especially since it cuts conductors’ need to carry cash.

“Everybody’s afraid of change, so when everyone gets used to doing this, it’s going to be beneficial to everyone, I think,” he said.

The future involves Regional Rail commuters loading the SEPTA Key card with a pass or Travel Wallet and tapping “on” where they board and tapping “off” at their destination. Out-of-town visitors will one day have lots of options to pay. They could buy a QuickTrip with cash or credit, but also download fare on an app — like NJ Transit’s “MyTix”or opt for contactless card or digital wallet.

Open payment, which is available in cities like London and began to roll out in New York in May, was an early promise. But with a recently approved $4.4 million to replace more than 4,000 card readers to make way for the feature, SEPTA assures it really is coming — “maybe around June,” Busch said.

Matthew Mitchell, vice president and commuter rail chairman of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, is disappointed that open payment hasn’t yet become a reality — it’s "the game changer for the occasional user,” he said.

“SEPTA sold this project to the community based on a lot of benefits that have not been delivered," Mitchell said. "The open payments, the ability to buy cards at Wawa or other sales locations, being able to make the transfer fare easier — SEPTA took all the things that made their system easy to administer, so they took all the concessions, and didn’t turn around and give back the benefits.”

And those towers, or “platform validators”?

“Some people might see them and not really know what they’re for right now, which frankly, that’s part of the problem,” Busch said.

Riders boarding at East Falls have been tapping their cards to see what happens, said Jerome Whitener, 28, who regularly rides the line. “People have been scanning it just for fun, and I’m not sure if it even does anything,” he said. Busch, though, says it is “opening their trip.”

SEPTA is planning an “aggressive” education campaign around the validators by the end of the year. Tentatively in the spring, those who forget to tap out will be charged an incremental fare of $3.75, Busch said.

The agency won’t be too “heavy-handed” with penalties as users adapt and is developing some kind of “tap forgiveness” system, Busch said. For example, riders with weekly passes could be charged after they forget to tap more than two times.

The method will require “a real education because this is a big change in how the customers interact with SEPTA and how our conductors operate,” Burnfield said.

Travel Wallet, which lets riders pay by trip, is the source of many questions — why can they use that money on the Broad Street Line but not on Regional Rail?

Travel Wallet on Regional Rail is expected to be added to the Key system sometime in March, Busch said, allowing riders to pay with the same fare used elsewhere in SEPTA’s network.

“I’m fine if they push it back a whole nother year, as long as they communicate what’s going to happen,” Whitener said. “Then, I feel much better.”

Staff reporter Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.