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British to test instant refunds for shoddy rail service

A commuter passes an East Coast mainline passenger train as she walks along a platform at King's Cross train station, operated by Network Rail Ltd., in London, U.K.Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — British transportation officials are testing a new system that would give passengers instant refunds for trains that arrive late at their destinations.

Locally Metro does not offer a service guarantee refund policy.  Metro policies do offer travel credits for future trips on occasion, as seen earlier this month after the derailment near the Smithsonian station.

VRE does not typically offer refunds because tickets are non-refundable. The agency does allow people to request refunds and says it makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

MARC does not offer refunds either, although train conductors will often skip collecting tickets when trains are running significantly late.   Thus the train would be free for those who purchase single day tickets.

SEPTA commuter trains in Philadelphia have service guarantees.  If a train arrives more than 15 minutes late at the destination, then passengers will get a free future trip.  But according to SEPTA, passengers must go to one of several locations to fill out a refund claim form.

The same is true in the United Kingdom.  But the Times of London reports that nine out of 10 people who are eligible for a refund do not claim the money. People are often unwilling to take the time to go somewhere to fill out a form.

Now there are plans in the UK to begin a trial program next year. This program would eliminate the need to fill out forms.  Technology would allow rail operators to automatically refund money back onto smart fare cards when trains arrive late.  Under the proposal, the refund would be automatically added back to the card when the passenger touches it at the destination.

Such a plan would be hard to put into practice for Metro because there are so many trains in use at a time.  Delays on commuter trains might only impact two or three trains, whereas on Metro, delays affect dozens of trains and tens of thousands of people.

It would also be difficult to implement on VRE and MARC because both agencies are still heavily dependent on paper tickets, rather than SmarTrip-like farecards.

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