WASHINGTON — A plan to give automatic refunds to certain rush-hour Metro riders who are delayed more than 15 minutes will require riders to register their SmarTrip cards with the transit agency.
The goal of the refund program is to emphasize that most rush-hour trips are on time since Metro cut service last summer, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said.
“At some point we have to say, yes, we can deliver what we promise and we’re willing to back it up,” he said.
While the details of the “Rush Hour Promise” were still being worked out, Metro Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox said to avoid people gaming the automatic system for rail refunds, there would be limits on how many times per month a rider can claim a credit. The limit is expected to be in the range of four to six refunds.
The requirement to register a card to qualify, instead of giving the refunds to all riders, would also provide an incentive to riders to register their cards online and provide contact information such as an email, phone number and other information.
“That’s actually a great thing for us. It allows us better communication with our customer … we use that database to do research with our customers,” Bowersox told a Metro Board committee Thursday.
About one-in-three rush-hour riders use unregistered SmarTrip cards, Wiedefeld said. The registration requirement also means tourists would be less likely to benefit from the refunds.
Riders reluctant to register cards over privacy concerns should not be worried, Wiedefeld said after the meeting.
“It’s no different than your E-ZPass or anything else that you have. You know, that’s the way of the world now,” he said.
The committee unanimously voted to send the proposal to the full board for a final vote set for Jan. 25.
If approved by the full board as expected, the program could begin the next day on Jan. 26.
The refund program would only apply during the rush hour, and only to trips that take 15 minutes or more longer than Metro’s estimates for the longest possible trip, without delays, at that time of day. That includes the time to walk to and from the fare gates.
For Metrobus riders, refunds would be more complicated.
Bus riders delayed 15 minutes or more will have to submit a form online requesting the refund.
Metro will not provide refunds if buses are stuck in traffic or face other delays that Metro does not directly control. The refund would only be granted if the delay was due to something like a bus breakdown or missed trip.
Metro is not providing automatic refunds to bus riders because there is no similar “tap in, tap out” system to track the travel times of individual riders, Bowersox said.
No refunds on nights, weekends
Outside of the rush hour, Metro will continue the existing policy of refunding rail riders who enter and exit the same station within 15 minutes to allow for flexibility in the case of an unexpected disruption. But riders will not get refunds for delayed trips.
“We really wanted to focus on where we thought we had the strongest service at this point, both in terms of frequency and in terms of on-time performance. Also, being aware of the fact that some of our maintenance is done in the late-evening hours, certainly on the weekends, and so the number of exceptions made there for planned maintenance would be more than we have in the rush hour,” Bowersox said.
On evenings or weekends, missing just one train due to a breakdown or other problem, even without single-tracking, could lead to a delay of more than 15 minutes. For several years, Metro has prioritized rush-hour service over service at other times of the day.
“A great deal of our rider erosion is during the off-peak. And, arguably, if you’re delayed during the off-peak, you may be extra aggravated and extra motivated to leave the system if you encounter such a delay since the frequency of service is not as great,” Arlington County and Metro Board Member Christian Dorsey said.
“We think this is a great place to start,” Bowersox responded. “And it may be that once we evaluate it, that it’s something that we expand. But we just don’t know that yet.”
Even during the rush hour, Metro will not refund trips that are delayed due to previously announced track work such as the round-the-clock shutdown on the Yellow Line scheduled for May.
The refunds will only apply during unscheduled delays like medical emergencies, a police response or track problems.
“It is just important to get the message out that the system is performing,” Wiedefeld said.