SEPTA is shuttering ticket windows and as a result, 15 agents have lost their jobs. One is Barbara Lewis, from the Chestnut Hill East station.
It is no secret that 14 regional rail stations are closing this month as SEPTA shutters ticket windows all over the region, mostly because of declining in-person sales.
As a result, 15 ticket agents have lost their jobs. One of them, Barbara Lewis, is a beloved ticket agent at SEPTA's Chestnut Hill East train station at Bethlehem Pike and Chestnut Hill Avenue. She has worked there for 32 years and was laid off on Feb. 2.
“In all of those 32 years, I never took a day off except for a vacation or a death in the family,” Lewis said in an interview with the Local during her last week on the job. “I would get here every day at 5 to 5:30 a.m. and start selling tickets at about 5:45 a.m. I was always up at 3 a.m. I would tell people not to call me after 7.”
Despite that dedication, the layoff notice came in the aftermath of a COVID pandemic that caused a major dropoff in SEPTA ridership. To make matters worse for SEPTA employees, the company's introduction of key cards, along with riders' use of other quick pay options, has made ticket agents even less essential. There is also the undeniable fact that many people are now working at home.
“Now, I will be the only person left here,” said Scott Harris, Lewis’ co-worker who said he has been with SEPTA for 23 years. “Barbara is so friendly with customers. She is just wonderful. She decorates the place every Christmas holiday and makes it look beautiful and puts out snacks for customers at her own expense. It is so sad. There has been a real family atmosphere here. Barbara has always been so helpful. She's like another mother.”
As this reporter was talking to Lewis, customer Pam Jenkins, of East Mt. Airy, walked into the station and began to share her own sentiments about Lewis.
“I have been coming here for seven years,” Jenkins said. “I don't want Barbara to leave. It won't be the same. She is so nice. I don't even want to come here anymore. I will go to the Chestnut Hill West station instead. It will be too sad here.”
Another customer in the station asked to take Lewis' photo as a memento. “I'm gonna miss you so much,” he said. “Thanks for all your help. I'm gonna send this picture to Miss Thompson. She always says, 'How's Miss Barbara?'”
Lewis, who has two children in their 50s, Thomas and Barbara, and seven grandchildren, grew up in North Philadelphia and later moved to Upsal Street in Mt. Airy where she lived for many years. She eventually returned to North Philadelphia, and now lives near Temple University. Almost all of her 32 years with SEPTA have been spent as a ticket agent at the Chestnut Hill East station.
“COVID changed everything,” Lewis said, “and then came the new key card system. You can put money on the card and online. Sales have gone down. In fact, we stopped selling tickets after COVID started. Now I have been selling the key cards and doing customer service. And sometimes people just want to talk. I wear many hats.
“When they started putting in the (automated key card) equipment, I knew it was just a matter of time,” Lewis continued. “Machines are taking over. People don't know how to talk to each other anymore. I knew this would come, but I will really miss the customers. I've known some for so long. I feel we are one big family. They look out for me, and I look out for them.”
Although the ticket window is now closed at Chestnut Hill East, SEPTA customers who have key cards can still sit in the heated indoor waiting area during business hours.
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com