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Automatic Refunds For Bad Metro Service? Riders Say It's An Overdue Idea.

1990s SmarTrip technology is limited, but refunds are possible

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If Metro can’t keep the trains running on time, its customers want something else: refunds.

Consistently unreliable rush hour service, which Metro for the first time has conceded is hurting ridership, has some riders demanding easier refunds as well as flexible fare pricing.

Metro rarely issues large-scale refunds. Instead, the transit authority asks riders to individually call customer service if they want their money back. The most recent big refund followed the Aug. 6 derailment of an empty train outside Smithsonian station that messed up service on the Blue, Silver, and Orange Lines; 158,000 customers received an average SmarTrip credit of $4.75.

But with so many problems snarling commutes on a daily basis, riders are calling on Metro to adopt a more robust refund policy that would automatically reimburse their fares when trains are late. Evan Burke, waiting for a Blue Line train at L’Enfant Plaza on Monday, told a typical story.

“Last week I was about a half an hour late to a meeting because I ran into two delays on the Yellow Line and the Red Line,” said Burke, a consultant who has meetings all over the region.

“I suppose being compensated for that time would be good,” he said.

But how late would a train have to be to warrant SmarTrip refunds?

“The details need to be worked out by people who have the time and knowledge to do that,” said Barbara Hermanson, the chair of the 21-member Metro Riders Advisory Council (RAC).

Her group is pushing Metro’s board of directors to approve a new refund policy.

“We stated support for the principle of finding something that seems more equitable when there were extreme delays,” she said.

An eye toward future tech

SmarTrip cards are 1990s technology, but the overlaying software system is able to issue automatic refunds — if the board of directors votes to approve such a policy. At a recent board meeting, however, officials raised a broader issue.

At a time when peoples’ expectations of their transportation options are changing — when they can pick from any number of competitively priced, responsive services right from their smartphones — some Metro board members said future fare payment systems should be just as nimble.

Board Chairman Mort Downey pointed to the dynamic pricing of the tolls on I-495 and I-95 in Northern Virginia, which he referred to as “one of our major competitors.”

“They vary the price as long as they provide good service,” Downey said. “You will get what you are paying for.”

For Metro, a similar setup could instantly adjust fares lower when service fails during rush hour, Downey said. A common complaint of riders is they pay the highest fare when passing through the gates at rush hour no matter how badly service is disrupted.

“I am not sure we can be dynamic minute-to-minute but we may need some activity within our fare structure to deal with bad issues,” Downey said.

Variable fares would require a cloud-based payment system. Metro is testing new fare gates that would work with chip-enabled cards or smartphones, but the pilot program is suffering from a lack of participation, among other issues.

“People want on-demand transit,” says Gabe Klein, the former chief of the District Department of Transportation and expert on new transportation technologies. He cited D.C.’s bikeshare program as an example of a new mode of personal transport competing with Metro for short trips.

“Capital Bikeshare is a public-private partnership. The government oversees it. It was the government’s idea. It is executed on a daily basis by the private sector. It uses a lot of technology and works really well,” said Klein.

“The problem all too often at Metro is they are not benchmarking against systems around the world. That’s advantage you get if the private sector is operating elements of your service,” Klein added.

“Look at the Oyster Card that is used in London. Look at what they are doing in Rome or in Istanbul. There are great fare systems around the world that we can look to, but we don’t. We think, ‘OK, we are Metro. We are different.’ Well, we’re not different.”

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