An open letter to SEPTA

Dear SEPTA,

Our relationship has been going on for over seven years now, ever since I moved to Philadelphia, and I‘m sure you’ll agree it’s as strong as ever. As a someone that doesn’t, and never has driven, I’ve been a user of public transport all my life and so I’ve got a lot to thank you for; without you I couldn’t possibly live in Philadelphia. You’ve looked after me and helped me live a comfortable and productive life here, and obviously I’m grateful. You know how strong my feelings are for you and I’m always ready to jump to your defence when people unjustly criticize you or make wrongful allegations. A transportation system is far more complex than most people realise and keeping it working is tough, yet you really do an awesome job and in many ways I’ve found you to be even better than my ex, London Transport. But as with all relationships it’s not perfect, and there are still a couple of things that we need to sort out.

Firstly, your fare and ticketing system. It’s ok for the most part – and I’m not even worried about the prices – must make a change eh? For everyday inner-city travel it works adequately. And if it was 1970, it could even be regarded as quite advanced. You have these tokens that are each valid for a single ride, no matter where you’re going, on the bus or the various types of subway-type systems and that’s great. I can pay cash exact-fare but you want to discourage that because it’s a whole load of aggravation you don’t need, so that will cost more. Yeah I understand that too and so the tokens work, even though I have to make an extra trip on a bus to find somewhere that actually sell the bloody things, since there is nowhere in my neighborhood.

Except for the times when they’re not valid and except on your “Regional Rail”, which is apparently different to the other types of rail, like the trollies.

I’ll overlook that these distinctions are far from obvious from your maps and literature and deal with the everyday experience of living in the Philly area which implies a knowledge of these distinctions.

So, I need to take a couple of buses to work. Easy right? I just need to make sure I buy a metric shed-load of tokens and it’ll cost me two tokens per journey. But what’s that you say? I can save money by getting a “transfer”? Cool! Is that another type of token? No. Cash only and exact fare. Hmm, ok well that’s irritating but you’re doing me a favour price-wise, so fine.
Oh yes, did I mention that one of the buses I need is the 124?

Oh dear. Suddenly, with that simple revelation, all of the harmonious simplicity goes out of the window. The 124 and 125 buses are “special” for some reason. They call them “express” buses but it’s not because they’re turbo-charged or anything – it’s because they go a long distance west on the expressway. Other buses that use the expressway (eg the 9 and the 27) are not “express” and so work normally. Hmm.

For the luxury of travelling to work on an “express” bus, a token must be accompanied by some more cash – there’s no way to do it with tokens. For me, the extra amount is currently around $1.25, which again must be in exact change. So pre-buying a load of tokens is no longer the only thing I have to do – I also have to ensure I have pockets of singles and quarters every day. The good news is I can use a Transfer so my total journey costs a token and $2.25 which is pretty reasonable, it’s just a pain in the arse.

Another bizarre thing about the 124 and the 125 is that the extra cash is required even if you travel within the city limits! From 30th street station to Wissahickon there are several buses available. They all cost a token per ride except the 124 and 125 which require the extra cash! Even though that part of the journey is identical and travels on the same roads and in the same types of buses, if you do it on the 124 and 125 you have to pay extra for the privilege. On being told this by a driver I was incredulous and checked it with several different SEPTA sources who all confirmed that this bizarre charge was correct. Not one could explain why, and not one disagreed when I asked them if they thought it was stupid and unfair.

The reason I need the 124 by the way is that at some point in one of my previous lives I must have done something terrible, and have been punished by the gods into repeatedly having to work in miserable King of Prussia, and the 124 and 125 are the only reasonable methods of getting to work. There’s no train. Yet. I know one is planned and because I’m in my early 40’s I may live long enough to see that line opened if, god forbid, I’m still working in King of bloody Prussia then.

Like all of my fellow passengers I completely rely on these services and therefore so do my employers. A huge number of tech companies are based in that area for some sodding reason and so a big chunk of the economy relies on these buses for those who don’t drive.

Up until now I haven’t mentioned the other method of paying for rides: passes. Obviously, I don’t faff about with tokens and change any more, I use a pass. But unlike just about every other public transportation system in the world, it’s actually more expensive for me to use a pass! Yes I pay for the privilege!

And it’s here where the bizarre fare structure starts to reveal itself.

The regular bus-pass is known as a “Transpass” and if you live and work in the city it does exactly what you’d expect. You can move around on any big bus-like thing with wheels without needing any cash. Except regional rail. You can’t use regional rail. Except on the weekends. I know.

Oh, and it doesn’t work on the 124 or the 125 either! You have to pay the bizarre extra cash like you would with a token. And as the passes are even harder to come by than the tokens it really doesn’t help me much. Again, even if you want to hop on a 124 for a few stops in Center city with a Transpass, you still need to pay the extra cash. That is mental.

King of Prussia is outside of the city limits and into the “zones”, which makes it sounds like some terrible post-apocalyptic nightmare. Which it is. After a great deal of consultation with a number of Septa representatives I’m of the opinion my workplace is in Zone 2. I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen an accurate map of the zones, and even though I believe such a thing exists there’s never been one to hand at any ticket office I’ve ever been present at. I have my faith though.

So I need to up my game if I want a pass, and the best option I have is known as the “Trail Pass”. It is the platinum card of passes and even allows you onto regional rail! But this works out way more than paying for my fares piecemeal. Arrrrgh.

There is, however another option that would appear to be a closely guarded secret: the Cross-County pass. So secret is this card that I’ve had staff at Suburban station swear blind to me that it doesn’t exist.

This pass is specifically designed for people who travel out into the hinterlands and I’ve used it in the past. Despite being much cheaper than the Trailpass, its magic is strong and it too allows travel on Regional Rail and buses, but like all magic it has dangers. The biggest danger being that you can use it with a 124 and 125 without paying an extra fare only if you don’t travel into the city! Which entirely buggers up my reasons for wanting to use it. As soon as the bus hits the expressway I owe an extra $1.25.

There is another method method of getting to work. It would involve getting a train to Norristown, then a bus to King of Prussia Mall, from where I can pick up the 124 for the rest of the journey to my office. All of this without costing me any extra money! But of course it does carry the hidden cost of my will to live.

What’s strange about this journey being valid is that if I paid for it in cash, it would be way more expensive than getting the bus all of the way there! It also allows me to travel right down to the end of my road…because the pass is valid further into Center City on the train than it is on the bus! Again, this sounds absolutely insane, but I have validated that it is indeed the case.

So I can travel from King of Prussia to my house on this pass only if I use the, normally far more expensive, train option. If I want to use the cheaper and more direct bus, I have to pay extra!

So clearly I need to buy a zone 2 Trail pass. This works properly and despite being out of pocket I settle for this option because it removes a massive amount of mental stress caused by my brain trying to work out why the fare system is so arcane. Despite the awesome power of the Trail pass I can no longer use the backup option afforded to me by the Cross-County pass: getting the train via Norristown. Why not? It’s valid on the regional rail after all! Well, it’s because somehow, Norristown is in zone 3. What shape are these bloody zones? But as that’s a last resort route anyway, I’m not too upset.

So SEPTA, that’s the fare structure dealt with. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’re not offended when I refer to your fare system as being “insane” and “mental”. It’s for your own good. But there is another source of concern I feel it’s only fair to address: your parochial attitude! Sometimes it feels as if you’re less of a 21st century transport system in a 1st world city, and more of a peak hours mini-bus service in the backwaters of the Northern Territories of Australia!
It’s 2015 and your phantom “key” service still hasn’t launched and so we’re still having to deal with all this stupid cash and paper nonsense. Tokens in the 21st century? What’s wrong with you? I have to physically travel to a place to buy a pass – have you not heard of the Internet?

And I hate to keep banging on about the 124 and 125 but there is another seriously backwards problem with them: on the journey from King of Prussia to Center City, the bus doesn’t always stop at Wissahickon, a major transfer center. According to your documentation, we have to ask the driver to stop there if that’s where we want to go. “G’day mate, can you drop me off at Dingo Creek as you’re going near there?”
Now, most of your excellent drivers realise that this is ridiculous requirement and always go via Wissahickon because a huge number of people rely on it as an interchange point. Now and again a driver will yell out to the bus as a whole and ask if anyone needs to go there. That’s still backwards, but fair enough – at least we’re given the option.
But occasionally a driver will decide that because nobody has specifically asked them to stop there, obviously no-one is interested and so they go straight to 30th street with a bus-load of pissed off commuters – content in the knowledge that according to the rules, they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, should anyone express dissatisfaction with this state of affairs they will quote the SEPTA regulations at them. Which calms everyone down perfectly as you’d imagine.
How about we drop the “request” service and just stick to the schedules, as if we were living in a civilised 21st century society.

And why are there so few services on the weekends? You do realise that people won’t start to consider public transport as an option if the option is crap don’t you?

So there you have it SEPTA. After all of this negativity it’s important to know that I still love you and will stick with you come what may. But we both know you can be better and if you still want to become one of the world’s flagship Public Transport networks you’re going to have to encourage more people to ride. We can work through this.

I’ll see you Monday morning.


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