SEPTA builds new payment technology test facility, prepares for contactless system

In a former storage room on the 18th floor of its Market Street building, SEPTA is setting up shop and building the Noah’s Arc of new payment technology – a test facility with two of every machine that will be used in SEPTA’s smart card payment system.

To prepare for the switch from the outdated token system to the highly anticipated “new payment technology” card-based fare collection, SEPTA has cleared a spare room and is beginning to install two ADA accessible turnstiles, two bus and trolley fare boxes, two vending machines, two information machines, like those users will see on outer regional rail platforms, and two backend computer systems. 

Now in the final phase of design for the new payment technology, SEPTA will use the room to develop the final equipment prototypes, offer technical training to staff, test the products with its “extended transit family” and work out any kinks that may arise. 

At the moment, the furnishings are sparse. The room has one plywood structure the size and shape of a turnstile with an ADA accessible gate, a touch screen like the one that will be installed in the vending machines, one bus fare box and two racks to hold the backend computer systems. 

New payment technology coming soon

But work on the new payment technology is moving quickly

By mid-January SEPTA plans to complete the design phase. In the summer of 2013, SEPTA will conduct two test runs, and in September 2013 it will launch the new payment technology on the subway, busses and trolleys. The card system will be fully implemented on these modes of transit by 2014, and regional rail will follow a few months later with implementation by mid-2014.

System-wide signs of progress are beginning to show. Construction is underway at the 69th Street Transportation Center. On the Fox Chase line crews are digging trenches for the conduits that will power the mobile information display screens, and a couple weeks ago crews removed turnstiles at some stations to see what the floor underneath looks like. 

John McGee, Jr., SEPTA’s chief officer of new payment technologies, said SEPTA is doing this type of preparation so that as soon as the equipment is ready it can be installed and activated. 

Changing rides

On the buses, subways and trolleys, instead of dropping a token into the turnstile, riders will hold a contactless card up to a card reader. Other than that, riding on the subways and busses won’t be much different. 

Regional rail will see more changes. In the five Center City stations – Market East, Suburban, 30th Street, Temple University and University City – users will tap their card on a reader to enter the platform and tap their card on the reader to leave the platform. SEPTA is still working out the full details of how to account for and charge all regional rail trips system wide. 

Riders will be able to purchase temporary cards and various passes or add value to permanent fare cards at vending machines. These vending machines, though, will accept cash, credit and debit cards. Riders will also be able to pay directly through the turnstile with certain credit and debit cards and cell phones.  

The cashiers currently stationed in the subway booths will no longer sell passes, transfers or single rides. Instead, they will serve a customer support role. 

Though the transition to new payment technology will take money from the cashiers’ hands, SEPTA insists it will not take money from their pockets.

“Nobody is going to lose their job,” McGee said. “There may be changes in the way cashiers are deployed.”

Some cashiers may be transferred to zone offices at system end points and in Center City, where they will be able to manage stations remotely via computers and video monitoring. 

Regional rail conductors will no longer collect train fare, but their job will still include ensuring passenger safety. McGee said SEPTA conducted a survey and found the public is in favor of moving fare collection off of the trains for various reasons. 

McGee said SEPTA will propose two possible fare increases for the public and SEPTA board to consider. One option will be the standard fare increase that SEPTA implements every three years and which accounts for inflation alone. The second fare increase proposal will take the cost of the new payment technology into consideration. 

Leading the way with contactless cards

When the new payment technology takes over, SEPTA will be one of the only public transit agencies in the country with a contactless card, “open fare” system. 

The contactless cards mean that instead of using cards with magnetic strips, SEPTA will use cards read via a computer chip, and instead of swiping a card through a traditional reader, riders will tap their card on the new contactless readers. These cards will include the SEPTA issued fare cards as well as contactless credit and debit cards. Some smart phones will work with the contactless system as well. 

Although only a small percentage of credit card companies in the United States are using contactless cards at the moment, SEPTA expects the number to increase.

McGee said financiers have told SEPTA that SEPTA will help speed the transition to contactless cards in the Philadelphia region. 

“To a certain extent we’re already changing the industry,” McGee said. “… We’ve kind of gone boldly ahead of the pack.”

To develop this somewhat unprecedented system, McGee said, “What we tried to do is take the best elements of consumer payment in general and essentially lay them onto transit.”

He said the new cards and vending machines will be cutting edge and will be able to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. 

“You think about vending machines, you think about ATMs for example, and they’ve really come a long way,” McGee said and cited examples of machines that require few instructions and let users set preferences. 

“Every several years there are these changes that take place. Our system will be able to adapt to that. This system will have a very long life.”

What to do with all the tokens

Moving away from the token system means that SEPTA will, “No longer [be] a novelty like an amusement park where you buy special tickets,” McGee said. 

He said SEPTA hopes payment will no longer be a barrier that keeps people from riding public transit and that getting rid of the tokens will save SEPTA money, as now SEPTA pays a third party to collect the tokens, count them, repackage them and then return them. 

What will SEPTA do with all the tokens when the cards are fully implemented? Scrap ‘em! McGee said SEPTA will put out a bid for the tokens to be scraped for their metal value. 

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