Metro Board set to approve refund policy for train delays

Passengers fill up Washington Metro subway cars in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)(AP/J. David Ake)
WASHINGTON — Some of the thousands of Metro riders delayed Monday morning by an arcing bolt that stopped trains traveling through Pentagon City would have qualified for refunds if the incident had happened next week.

The Metro Board is set to vote on Thursday to approve the new “Rush Hour Promise” program for the rest of the calendar year, but without locking in the precise details about which incidents would qualify. Instead, a draft resolution would leave the details to Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

“For example, the terms and conditions may have provisions intended to prevent potential ‘gaming’ of the program by fraudulent means. The terms and conditions would also establish program ‘blackout dates’ around major planned capital improvement projects, in the event of a significant weather event like a blizzard, and in the case of a major regional emergency,” Metro staff wrote in board briefing documents.

An unplanned disruption, like the roughly hourlong shutdown of the Blue and Yellow lines Monday morning, would qualify for a refund as long as riders have registered their SmarTrip cards with Metro and tap out of a destination station more than 15 minutes later than the longest expected trip at that time of day.

Delays announced in advance may not qualify, including situations like last week’s derailment-related delays that continued into the next morning.

Reversing ridership declines

Rush-hour ridership has remained relatively flat over the last few months, but off-hours trips continue to decline.

Metro now projects 176 million rail trips overall in the year ending in June, plus 113 million bus trips — that is down from 177 million rail trips and 122 million bus trips in the year that ended last June.

That is down significantly from the prior year, continuing a downward trend. Metro expects another slight decline next year.

“Despite safety and reliability improvements achieved in 2017, ridership has been slow to return. At least 30 percent of riders indicate they are riding less due to reliability concerns,” the board documents said.

The refund program aims to reverse that. Metro plans advertising focused on a drop in the number of unscheduled, rush-hour disruptions compared to a few years ago and a hope to improve customer satisfaction. Marketing would include more “Back2Good” ads, as well as messages directly tied to the refund program.

“Based on research demonstrating that delays of 30 minutes or greater result in significant ridership losses, management believes this program may help to retain customers who experience severe delays, earn back trips, and prevent revenue loss,” the documents said.

An analysis of 58 million trips taken at all times of day in July, August, September and October found that 285,296 trips were more than 15 minutes late during a weekday rush hour.

Metro would only refund about half of those riders under the proposed program, because the other half had not registered their SmarTrip cards before the delayed trips.

To register a card, riders must provide Metro contact information and other personal information. Metro uses the data for customer research and contacts, but also allows riders with registered cards to recover the stored value if the card is lost or stolen.

Among Metro riders who took part in a Metro survey in December, 89 percent said that a customer confidence program would grab their attention. And 79 percent agreed that such a program signals that Metro is serious about improving performance.

Of respondents to the survey, 41 percent agreed it would encourage them to ride Metro more often, and 37 percent indicated it would make no difference.

The refund program would also apply to select bus trips that are delayed, but the refund for bus riders would not be automatic.

Rush-hour bus riders delayed more than 15 minutes would be required to fill out a form on Metro’s website, and would only get a refund if the delay is due to a mechanical breakdown or a bus being dispatched late.

Riders using weekly or monthly rail or bus passes would get partial refunds when they qualify — $3 automatically for a rail trip or $1 when they fill out the form for a qualifying bus delay.

Metro already refunds riders within a few days if they tap into a station only to find long waits, as long as the rider taps out of the same station within 15 minutes.

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