Dear SEPTA: Your Frustrating Airport Line Is Not Giving a Good Impression of Philadelphia

A SEPTA airport line train. Credit: Scott Sherrill-Mix on Flickr

The Friday after Thanksgiving I landed at Philadelphia International Airport, my mind hazed from a night spent on an airport bench and Lufthansa’s generous drink policy. After the customary rituals of reentry, kissing the ground of my ancestral home and so forth, I turned to more practical matters. How was I going to get home?

Most of my friends and family weren’t in town, so no one could pick me up. A taxi seemed a bit pricey. Thankfully there’s SEPTA’s airport line, serving about 2.1 million passengers annually. But I couldn’t simply clamber aboard the Silverliner in question. That would be too easy.

Approaching the information desk, I asked where I could purchase SEPTA tickets. The attendant smiled sadly and shook her head. SEPTA tickets, she explained, could not be obtained in the airport. Not even for ready money. There is no ticket counter, no ticket machine. The only way to purchase them is from a conductor on the train.

Isn’t there a surcharge for purchasing a ticket on the train? Oh, yes. The airport is in Zone 4 of SEPTA’s regional rail system, which means a one-way ticket purchased in advance on a weekday costs $6.50. But it is literally impossible to do that at the airport, so the cost will instead be $8, and an additional 50 cents if the passenger is traveling through Center City hubs to destinations beyond. (The prices are cheaper on weekends and after 7pm.) To make matters worse, the tickets can only be purchased with cash. After spending the past few weeks abroad I had no dollars on my person, so I would have to go to an ATM (withdrawal fee: $2).

Noting my bewilderment, the woman behind the information desk shrugged. “You should just take a taxi,” she said. At least there I could pay with a credit card.

This is an absurd state of affairs for one of the busiest airports in the nation. It is home to 27 carriers, sees roughly 30 million passengers yearly and enjoys direct linkages to 37 international destinations. Most of these are in Europe, which means that passengers will have much higher expectations of a public transit system. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to introduce them to SEPTA than a train line so terribly organized that airport employees recommend a taxi of at least two to three times the price for an individual passenger.

There can be no advantage to this absurd situation. Only about 7 percent of travelers who passed through Philadelphia International Airport last year also rode SEPTA’s airport line. A more sensible purchasing system, and more frequent trains, could boost that number substantially (which could only be a good thing for traffic on I-95). I know SEPTA has chronic budgetary problems and an immense backlog of capital projects that need attending. I do not know how much it costs to install a ticket machine, but according to New Jersey Transit one of that agency’s ticket vending machines runs $52,500 for both upfront cost and installment.

That’s not nothing. Consider, though, that the trip from the airport is the first impression many travelers will get of the transit agency, and of Philadelphia. It’s pretty shocking that the investment has never been made. The airport line has only been open since, oh, April 1985.

According to SEPTA, this situation will soon be remedied. “Once New Payment Technology is operational on Regional Rail, there will be two fare vending machines installed at each Airport terminal,” SEPTA media rep Andrew Busch writes in an email. “With New Payment Technology, SEPTA will have fare vending machines at 30th Street Station as well.”

No word on the exact date when the installation will take place, but according to SEPTA’s New Payment Technology pronouncements it should happen before the end of 2014.

Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.

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