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Metro wants to refund fares for late trips. Here’s how that idea worked out in other cities

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Metro made headlines this week when transit agency officials announced a plan to automatically refund fares to riders whose rush-hour trips are more than 15 minutes late — at least through the end of the year.

Despite the fine print — i.e. refunds won’t kick in if the delays are caused by weather or scheduled repairs, and the data used for the 15-minute delay window is a little fuzzy — riders seem cautiously approving. The proposal will be presented to the Metro board Thursday, with a vote expected later this month.

But Metro isn’t the first transit agency to institute such a policy, or offer some other kind of formal mea culpa when its trains fail to run on time.

In unprecedented move, Metro seeks to provide refunds for trips delayed 15 minutes or more

Other agencies’ policies range from the modest (apology notes and middle-school-style late passes) to the extremely generous. And those policies have garnered mix results.

Check out how other transit systems have executed their own passenger refund programs:

In London, riders demand their ‘pound’ of flesh

Transport for London, the agency that runs the city’s subway system, has a policy similar to the one that Metro officials are seeking to adopt.

According to their guidelines, refunds are issued for trips that take at least 15 minutes longer than they should have, and passengers must apply for a refund within 28 days of the subpar commute. The exceptions are even more sweeping than those proposed by Metro: Riders are not eligible for a refund if the delay in question was caused by a strike, a security issue, weather, scheduled repair work, or medical emergencies.

And yet, even with those wide-ranging exceptions, Transport for London still doles out a significant amount of money each month in passenger reimbursements. From September 2016 to August 2017, the transit agency reimbursed riders for a total of 135,011 delayed trips. That amounts to 503,920 pounds — about $680,972 — in refunded fare revenue.

The refunds are automatically added to riders’ Oyster cards, the name of the fare passes that riders use for the London subway and other British transit systems — which have followed Transport for London’s lead and offered refunds when trains are significantly delayed.

And still, people aren’t always happy with the restitution.

And, as British commuters demonstrate, just because riders are receiving fare reimbursements doesn’t mean they will cease to complain about late trains.

In Boston, even golden retrievers (used to) get refunds

Years ago, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston had its own delay reimbursement program, refunding fares when trains were more than 30 minutes late. The program was canceled in 2011.

At the time, the MBTA’s general manager, Richard Davey, estimated that the system would save $1 million annually by nixing refunds.

“While some customers may be disappointed with the program’s elimination, it’s important that people know that this money will be put to very good use,” said Davey (who, incidentally, is now a consultant who performs work for Metro). “By reallocating these funds into the development of more customer service enhancements, we expect a greater number of T riders to benefit from this money.”

But the refunds weren’t just costly — they were ripe with opportunity for abuse.

That became clear in 2006, when a Boston Herald investigation revealed that the MBTA, known locally as the “T,” was consistently handing out cash for fraudulent claims. Staff hardly ever bothered to check records to determine whether trains were actually delayed at the times listed in refund requests.

From a recap in the Boston Herald:

A Herald review of fraud cases last year found grifters were submitting heaps of phony claims on behalf of relatives, unwitting friends and even the dead.  A Whitman family was caught submitting requests in the name of its golden retriever Max. …
Under its customer bill of rights, the T grants refunds to riders if service is 30 minutes late.  But officials said money was being returned without efforts to verify if trains or buses were actually behind schedule. In 2005, the T granted every request it received.

The Herald’s investigation prompted the T’s transit police agency to conduct a year-long crackdown. That year, the T received 68,500 filed claims — less than half from the year before. And of those filed claims, 30 percent were debunked and denied. From the Herald:

New statistics on refunds paid through the T’s “on-time performance guarantee” program show the cash-strapped authority was being bilked regularly, with some checks going to people claiming to be on two trains at once.
“The backroom business of people trying to cheat the system was even more rampant than we thought,”  Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said.  “It’s taken a lot of extra work on our part to get control of it.” …
During the investigation, Transit police forced several charlatans to pay thousands of dollars in restitution and prosecuted one woman who initially refused to return the money.  The T has since changed refund forms to require more information from riders and has inserted new language warning fraud will be prosecuted.

This, too, was part of the reason the T canceled the program.

“There were many fraudulent claims,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo told the Boston Globe in 2015. “The process of verifying the claims was a costly and time-consuming strain on our limited resources.”

In Tokyo, it’s never too early to say ‘sorry’ 

It’s one thing to offer refunds to significantly delayed passengers. It’s another thing to run a service that’s so punctual that such a reimbursement system would be absurd.

Such is the state of the subway in Tokyo, where delays are measured not in minutes, but in seconds. And in the rare instances that trains are (slightly) tardy, administrators of Tokyo’s transit systems deliver profuse apologies.

But Tokyo’s Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company garnered international attention last year when a train operator mistakenly departed the station 20 seconds early. The company issued a statement, saying that workers had failed to double-check the exact scheduled time of departure, 9:44:40 a.m., before pulling out of the station at 9:44:20 a.m. (Still, they pointed out in the statement, there was no evidence that anyone had actually been left behind on the platform.)

It’s the kind of problem that most American transit agencies would love to have.

Jack Evans, chairman of the Metro board, said this week that the Japanese adherence to punctuality is the kind of service for which Metro should be aiming. Evans said Metro’s proposed fare refund program is in keeping with the spirit of the Japanese ethos, if not the execution.

“I think this is a step toward saying we’re serious,” Evans said. “Contrast that, however, with my trip to Tokyo, where the on-time rate is 99 percent, and when you’re not, the conductor comes down and apologizes to everybody on the train.

“That’s the goal,” Evans said, “and we’re 15 minutes out.”

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the U.S. dollar equivalent of 503,920 pounds.

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