BESET BY hemorrhaging ridership, Metro is poised to make an astonishing overture to its beleaguered passengers: a money-back guarantee (well, credit to a registered SmarTrip card) if their rush-hour trips are delayed by more than 15 minutes.
Whether that's enough to turn the tide against Uber, Lyft, the rise of telework, and years of execrable service and reliability by Metro, time will tell. But we have to admit: Short of a bouquet of flowers, the credits — along with an automated next-day email apologizing for the delay — are about the sweetest public relations gesture imaginable from a large, faceless transit system whose performance and general reliability have not engendered many warm feelings in passengers.
Very few major transit systems around the world offer such credits; fewer still do so on an automated basis. Then again, Metro has had some 'splaining to do in recent years as it has struggled to overcome the ill will caused by chronic breakdowns, fatal accidents, smoke incidents and the like. If Metro's board approves the project — it has been proposed on an experimental basis, for calendar 2018, at an estimated cost of $2 million to $3.5 million — it will be the most passenger-friendly gambit the system will have made in recent memory.
The impetus is no secret, nor has Metro tried to hide it. Average weekday rail ridership, now about 615,000, is down nearly 20 percent from its 2008 peak of 750,000. The drop was especially precipitous in the fiscal year that ended last summer, due largely to the SafeTrack maintenance program that fixed scores of miles of decaying lines at a cost of thousands of riders.
It will be no easy trick to lure those riders back to a system that has since slashed service and hours. Metro points out that on-time performance has ticked up to about 90 percent from 88 percent in recent months, but that good news must compete with quotidian news reports about delays. (On Monday morning it was the Red Line [power problem at Glenmont and medical emergency at Twinbrook]; Blue and Silver lines [power problem at Morgan Boulevard] and Orange Line [train problem at Eastern Market]). Plus, there's the fact that other major transit systems claim on-time performance of 96 percent or better — including those in Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto.
Yes, Metro's money-back guarantee, if approved, does come with some asterisks. It will apply only to riders who have registered their SmarTrip cards, meaning just over a third of rush-hour passengers — mainly visitors or those who don't use Metro regularly — won't receive the credits. Bus riders with registered cards will be eligible, but they'll have to fill out an online form to receive credits for delayed trips.
Still, there are nearly 1.3 million registered SmarTrip cards in circulation, representing most of Metro's regular passengers. Those are the users the system can't afford to lose. And by its goodwill gesture, Metro is making welcome headlines whose message to those who have abandoned the system is loud and clear: Come back. We love you.