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Metro policy for refunds after delays falls short, riders say

Many major transit systems offer a "service guarantee" policy where riders get a free trip or a refund if there are severe delays, but WMATA's policy is much more limited. After repeated rail delays, some riders are demanding a better deal.

Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

Rockville resident Dave Tucker recently complained to WMATA on Twitter after his train was evacuated due to brake problems. Officials replied that they were "prohibited from providing fare adjustments for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control," Tucker reported, but as a "gesture of goodwill," they gave Tucker two free one-way passes.

WMATA's current "service guarantee" policy falls short of best practices in other cities. During major delays, you can leave from your original station without paying, but only if station agents allow it. Metro should make its policy more flexible.

If you get trapped behind a stalled train for an hour halfway to your destination, you have two options. One is to stay put and hope you get there, all while paying full price. The other is to try and return to your origin, maybe be able to exit without paying, and then try to get to your destination another way.

Plus, are mechanical problems really beyond Metro's control? Only if they're caused by "acts of God" or by customers jamming the doors. More often than not, mechanical failure happens because of insufficient maintenance or sloppy inspections. Those are WMATA's fault, and when they result in delays, customers deserve refunds.

Other major transit systems offer customers a free future trip if they are delayed for a certain length of time. Philadelphia's SEPTA offers a free trip to riders after 50 minutes, while Boston's MBTA will give you a free trip after just 30 minutes.

Transport for London's service guarantee program goes even further, giving refunds to any customer after a 15-minute delay. Arlington resident Samer Farha explained his experiences during a recent trip to London, where he used Oyster card, their equivalent of SmarTrip. According to Farha, when his trip was delayed, Transport for London (TfL) emailed him to apologize. TfL told him the refund would go back on his card the next time he entered the system. Farha could even log in to TfL's website and choose which station he wanted to credit to go to.

With Metro's current state of repair, a 15-minute window might be a little aggressive, but the agency could at least allow customers to request a refund for delays of 30 minutes or more.

Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes. If you bail out because the train is taking too long, what does it matter how long the delay is? You haven't used Metro for transportation, and shouldn't pay anything.

If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable. The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.

Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver. A service guarantee would acknowledge that they make mistakes and respect their customers' time and money.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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Beter is spelled wrong in the title but WMATA wouldnt be making anymore because there trains spend a lot of time sitting in Tunnels and on the platforms so i can see why they wouldnt want to have a better policy

by Jerome on May 20, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

Maybe I read this too fast but I'm missing where riders are asking for a better refund policy. You mentioned a couple examples of people who complained about the existing one but didn't mention who's pushing for a change.

Oh, right - because that someone is me.

I'm pushing for a Riders' Bill of Rights at RAC meetings and this would include an updated refund policy. I guess you forgot that?

by FixWMATA on May 20, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes.

Yes yes yes yes yes, a thousand times yes. It's downright criminal that this isn't already a policy and that I get charged to have done...absolutely nothing, except take up space on the platform for five minutes.

(And if WMATA wants to offer up yet another milquetoast excuse about the faregates being too much the flower of 1970s technology to allow this, perhaps it's time we replaced them. There aren't enough at stations anyways.)

by MetroDerp on May 20, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

"Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver"

I'd say often doesnt/rarely delivers. If you want to get people out of cars, you need a metro service far more reliable than WMATA.

by SJE on May 20, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

The RAC has started a discussion on this.

by Ben on May 20, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Sorry, Ben, GGWash doesn't give the RAC any credit apparently.

by FixWMATA on May 20, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

FixWMATA: Good point on the title. Michael was combining some of his own comments with some info he got from other riders' experiences and comments. The headline is my responsibility (in most media outlets, expect the reporter did not write the headline) and I tweaked it to try to better reflect the situation.

by David Alpert on May 20, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the tweak, David. Still, how can you write any article on this subject and not mention the headway the RAC is trying to make here? This is half an article at best.

by FixWMATA on May 20, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

Also, we'd love to have contributors who want to write about what is happening at the RAC. Remember that all our contributors are volunteers and we depend on what info/meetings they are able to go to. Having more posts about the issues the RAC is taking up would be great.

by David Alpert on May 20, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

I'd certainly love to see more credit to the RAC since they're FINALLY doing good things for riders. (Thanks, Ben!)

The meetings are live-broadcast, live-tweeted, and one of your contributors, Kirk, is always there. I'd find it hard to understand how anyone at GGWash could miss the action from there.

Give these men and women some credit. They're meeting nearly every Wednesday now trying to make change happen. Articles like this one are a missed opportunity to help them do that.

by FixWMATA on May 20, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

This should be a non-issue. Focus on getting there on time as opposed to creating a complex set of rules that determines of you get your $2.65 back.

Let it slide people. Drivers don't get their gas tax back after they get stuck on I-395.

by Jasper on May 20, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

How about not charging rush hour fares after midnight when there's track work?

by Mike on May 20, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

There is no contributor named Kirk. Kurt Raschke occasionally has cross-posted things from his own blog. He hasn't posted there or here since November 2012. I assume he has other priorities. That's his call. I'd love to have more posts from Kurt in the future.

I don't get to control what people do. Everyone who contributes to GGW is pretty busy. Michael has kids. It's pretty hard to find time to listen to a 2-hour meeting online.

I work really hard to try to urge people to write posts. One part of getting busy people to write posts is saying that it's okay to write a post based on some stuff happening, and you don't have to make it a complete research paper that hits every aspect of the matter.

There was a discussion on Twitter about a refund policy. Michael used that as a jumping off point to talk about a) what happened there, b) some context with other systems, and c) what he thinks should happen. That seems like more than enough for a discussion to me.

It would be great to have a follow-up post about what the RAC is doing. I hope someone will submit one.

Ben Ball, the RAC chair (and the person I assume commented as Ben here) submitted some posts on other issues the RAC was looking at a while back, which I had thought were just by him as an individual but which he thought were maybe going to be from the whole RAC. That turned into a debate at the RAC about whether to have any posts on blogs at all, official or from individuals, and as a result those posts have been in limbo for months.

Michael worked to get extra info for this post as far as his time permitted. Any claim that a post shouldn't run unless the author has done even more extensive research than he already did is just a recipe for no posts. I don't think any of us want no discussion of this important issue.

The answer to a post that doesn't cover all possible bases is to be glad that one post is there and find a way to get more posts that cover those, not to attack the original post.

We are a volunteer blog. That means we do what we can with what we have. I absolutely welcome more readers helping make our coverage even better.

by David Alpert on May 20, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

Commuter Rail Virginia Railway Express guarantees its on time performance. If trains are 30 minutes late or more they will give you a Free Ride Certificate.

They will also refund tickets on case by case basis.

by Davin Peterson on May 20, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the reply. I realize it's Kurt and not Kirk - I apologized to him the instant I hit Post Comment realizing there's no way to edit once posted. (I must have Star Trek on the brain, Kurt and I are actually very good friends.)

I hope you do see my concern here. How someone can monitor the WMATA conversation on Twitter, as I know Michael does, and see these complaints but not see the MONTHS of live-tweeting from the RAC meetings about the same topic is interesting. If it was just tweets from me I'd say he has me blocked - it seems to be a trend. But information about the RAC working on a Riders' Bill of Rights has come from multiple sources now for 2 months (if not more).

I'd love it if you or Michael or anyone else with interest in the Riders' Bill of Rights or refund issues would come to a RAC meeting and get involved. Heck, just listen live online and you'll learn what's going on.

I'll save you a seat or 2 for June 5th.


by FixWMATA on May 20, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

Having lived in Boston, I can honestly say that the MBTA's refund policy makes no difference. First, IIRC they got rid of it anyway. Second, if you had a monthly pass, it didn't do you any good anyway. Third, while it's hard to assign a value to time, if you're riding the subway for business purposes, 30 minutes probably costs you a lot more than $2.00.

If you want WMATA to have a "bill of rights" and refund policy, well, go right ahead. But the MBTA has (or had) both of those things and experience suggests you shouldn't expect much real improvement from these symbolic gestures. (The idea that refunds would motivate employees doesn't hold water. It's OPM, dude.)

by Matt on May 20, 2013 12:47 pm • linkreport

Well, I hope some people do go. I can't go to all the meetings for everything that's worthwhile and neither can Michael. We used to have a lot more posts on WMATA issues back when I was on the RAC and when Michael didn't have 2 kids.

I have no idea why someone might or might not know about the Riders' Bill of Rights but I know that while I follow many people who go to the RAC meetings or are on the RAC, and I had vaguely heard about this bill of rights, I didn't know it had anything about a refund from delays, so I had no way to think I should ask Michael about it.

Plus, where can I find this proposed bill of rights? Is it on the RAC webpage?

When I was on the RAC I asked John Pasek to put links to each DOCUMENT on that page, like presentations from staff or reports, not just link to each meeting agenda and force you to click into each one to see what was on that agenda. He did that a few times and then stopped.

I think one thing the RAC can do a lot more of is make it easier for people who don't listen to every meeting to get some sense of what they are doing. But I also recognize that they are also busy, and have a staff coordinator who doesn't report to them, and can only do so much, so I don't go around attacking the RAC.

But the bottom line is we are only going to have some more posts on important WMATA issues if someone wants to step up and write about them. Anyone interested can email Thanks!

by David Alpert on May 20, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable.

I can't see the connection here. The refunds aren't coming out of their pockets, why should they care?

The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.

They turn a blind eye to every other performance metric so I don't see what would make this one any different.

WMATA suffers from a major lack of competence at all levels of the hierarchy. This is not unusual in large government organizations, but what makes WMATA special is the arrogance and confidence among the staff. There is a deeply-entrenched culture of NEVER admitting that you don't know something. The SOP when confronted with a question you can't answer is to either make up a BS response, or tell the person asking that the information is not required for their job or is proprietary and cannot be disclosed. When presented with a challenging task that you can't handle, the size and structure of the organization is such that the buck can be easily passed and it becomes someone else's problem. In fact this system seems to work to WMATA's advantage, because as the performance metrics (and the passengers) continue to suffer, the management can use this data as proof they need bigger budgets to hire more (unqualified) people to pass on the problems to. And the cycle continues.

by dcmike on May 20, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

I may have overgeneralized in my previous post: There are certainly some top-notch and talented people within the WMATA organization, but they are the exception and not the rule.

by dcmike on May 20, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

Metro's strategy should be to become so punctual and reliable that no customer needs to worry about what the refund policy might be.

Looking at the May 2013 Metro Vital Signs report, the goal for Metrorail on-time performance in 2013 is a measly 90% (looks lie they were at about 92% in March), and they have the nerve to consider up to a 3-minute delay to be on-time. Ridiculous.

by Chris S. on May 20, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

@Chris S: It gets worse. They don't even count delays on the weekends, and the fewer trains you get the more they're allowed to be delayed before they're actually considered late. At the worst, you can have 30 minutes between trains and still consider it on time.

by Michael Perkins on May 20, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

@Chris: Yours is the position I had a couple of years ago. I was worried about the distration of a refund policy and the revenue loss, which would almost certainly lead to fare increases for everyone.

The thing that put me over the edge was Metro stating that mechanical problems were beyond Metro's control. That's when I knew Metro had a problem with respect to understanding how they see delays compared to how riders see delays.

I think this policy may start a mindset change at Metro from "things break, we all have to deal with it" to "we need to find out why these things are breaking and fix how we do things so we stop losing so much revenue to refunds"

by Michael Perkins on May 20, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

@Michael - Thanks for the background. I didn't realize Metro didn't count weekends toward on-time performance. That makes their performance goals look weaker still.

I agree that it is ludicrous for Metro to claim that mechanical problems are beyond their control (assuming they are not the result of freak weather). They chose the equipment, and are responsible for its maintenance. Unless DC has a gremlin infestation, the buck stops with Metro.

Hopefully if they have to shell out for more refunds they'll work harder to keep on time. But I fear it will just be an excuse to do less.

by Chris S. on May 20, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

To David's point, there's no draft yet (the link is to a Board presentation from 2009). The RAC is discussing the idea, the potential process for crafting such a document, and the forms it might take internally for now. It's premature to go into the details at this point - we are at the very beginning of this discussion. It's also too early to assign any credit or blame - we haven't done anything yet to merit either.

by Ben on May 20, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

Sure refunds would be nice, but they don't make much sense to me.

How would Metro give out refunds? How would they prevent fraud?

Delays on metro are kind of the same as getting stuck in traffic or having a flat tire. I want my Metro dollars focused on getting me where I want to be ASAP not administering a refund system.

by turtleshell on May 20, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

30 minutes or more? So free rides every weekend?

by Redline SOS on May 20, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

Although refunds would not come directly out of workers pockets, it would ram home the idea that WMATA needs to do a better job.

I just came back from Munich, and they manage to have escalators that get exposed to the rain and snow, and still work. I didnt see a single escalator down for service. There was one delay in one train in the week I was there-otherwise everything was on time to the minute.

by SJE on May 20, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

You're proposing making Metro virtually free 25-30% of the time.

by James on May 20, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

The intent would be that the free rides are only for delays in excess of what the announced schedule was. So if there's track work and Metro says you should plan for an additional 30 minutes of travel time, you can't really complain if it takes 1 hour to take what is normally a half-hour trip.

by Michael Perkins on May 20, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

It's my understanding the right now there is no "announced schedule" for regular service. Which makes it impossible to know what is and isn't a delay. Just as an example, Green Line trains, during "normal" peak service, can be anywhere from 3 to 9 minutes apart. No consistency at all.

Or Metro can just avoid admitting there's any problem at all. Last Tuesday morning, it was clear that there were major delays on the red line towards Shady Grove. Platforms were dangerously overcrowded, trains were arriving every 10 minutes, and thos etrains were too packed for more than a handfull of people to shove their way on. Not once was there an announcement about delays, anything on the PIDs, or a notice about delays on the metro website. I heard plenty about the blue/orange delay, so I know the PA system was working. If they refuse to acknowledge a problem, they conviently get out of being on the hook for "delays in excess of what [was] announced."

In the end, I don't care about potential refunds. What I want is a system that is properly maintained, that doesn't have to be avoided on the weekends, that is adequately supported by the jurisdictions it serves.

by Birdie on May 20, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

I think this policy may start a mindset change at Metro from "things break, we all have to deal with it" to "we need to find out why these things are breaking and fix how we do things so we stop losing so much revenue to refunds"

Again, I don't think that type of culture shift happened at the MBTA. Agencies like WMATA and the MBTA don't "lose" money to refunds because it's other people's money. If refunds blow open a $10m hole in the budget, they can just cut service or, like the T, go hat in hand asking for more money. There's no mechanism for making agency management or employees feel the pain of issuing refunds.

by Matt on May 20, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Something else that would be nice is to update their website in a timely manner if there is any delay.

It should be on the homepage, removing the banner so that it is in large print so anyone who has perfect or vision problems can see it.

Currently when there is a delay you have a small box to the bottom left for rail and a box for bus that is hidden until you click something that should be totally unacceptable and it should be from and center.

WMATA should offer more than just refunds, sometimes free trips; there have been delays where I have missed express buses and or rush hours buses that only operate a few times in the evening and there is no other Metrobus service to these locations forcing me to take a $25 to $40 cab ride.

by kk on May 20, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

@ turtleshell

It would be very easy to figure out who to give it to via smartrip cards then there is only a minor amount of passengers who used paper farecards.

anyone whos trip would have taken them through X station at about X time gets the refund.

For buses it could be another thing since you have the possibility of paying via cash or tokens.

Another way to fix some issues would be to actually have bus service that travels between many rail stations. Such as 38B type route on every line.

by kk on May 20, 2013 4:42 pm • linkreport

@ kk:anyone whos trip would have taken them through X station at about X time gets the refund.

Which is an enormous amount of administrative work for pretty much nothing. Why would you ask WMATA to take their attention of more important issues to refund a few bucks to people. The few bucks do not get people their time back.

by Jasper on May 20, 2013 4:57 pm • linkreport

Because WMATA has made a promise that it takes X amount of time to get to Y station and it does not that promise has been broken. Other systems all over the globe provide refunds or some type of compensation when they don't run as expected why should WMATA get a free pass.

As someone who has missed many buses due to WMATA error not an act of God, or passenger error costing me $35 I would like a damn refund

Personally for me when someone does something wrong I expected to be compensated or an apology neither or which WMATA provides.

I would even accept the employees who tell people what to do when there are issues to say im sorry for the inconvenience that we have caused instead of the impersonal press releases they put out.

by kk on May 20, 2013 5:53 pm • linkreport

All this system does is make explicit some of the costs, and shifts the costs to the party best able to remedy them. This is Econ 101 good policy.

by SJE on May 20, 2013 7:43 pm • linkreport

I ride Metro at least twice per day, 7 days a week, but often as much as 4x a day. Granted, I rarely ride the red line which is the worst, but I still encounter very few problems in the grand scheme of things. Even last week, when everything was going haywire, I only experienced minor delays on two of my 14 trips--that's a pretty good ratio all things considered! I'm not saying that Metro is blameless, or that they shouldn't offer a better reprieve to customers who've been delayed--but don't ask for miracles, and remember that it could always be worse!

by Matt S on May 21, 2013 7:45 am • linkreport

You shouldn't have to leave out of the same station to get a refund. You should also get them if you were on the delayed train.

They should automatically put refunds on cards that passed the gate going into one of the affected areas.

The Red Line would never make a dime.

by Jim L. Cunningham on May 21, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

In Stockholm, where I used to live (and was a train operator on the subway for a while), the refund policy is this: If, in your judgment, you risk being late to wherever you're going by 20 minutes or more due to a problem with the transit service [1], you can take a taxi to your destination, send the receipt to the transit agency, and they will reimburse you.

[1] This includes deficiencies in information that make it difficult or impossible for you to judge how long your delay is going to last!

by TimK on May 21, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

@ Matt S. - "it could always be worse"? Sure, but that's not exactly holding Metro to a high standard of professionalism, is it? That's part of why we have such crappy customer service in this country. Customers have dropped their expectations through the floor. I think "Why the heck isn't Metro better?" is a more constructive approach.

by Chris S. on May 21, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

@ Matt S

How the hell do you not encounter delays of some sort ? Everyday i work on weekends I always have to deal with a delay of single tracking, or a shutdown station

I ride the system everyday usually anywhere from 11am to closing and deal with delays on almost a delay basis; if not by Metrorail by Metrobus (not related to traffic). I have never had a day when my trip was perfect with no problems.

I ride the Red, Orange & occasionally the Blue (if the orange is having issues)lines 6 out of 7 days and when I ride the others I seem to encounter problems on them also.

The only thing worst happening to Metrorail would be a train accident, inferno in the tunnel or flooding of one of the tunnels under the rivers. Anything else that could happen has happen at least once over the past 30+ years

@ TimK

If WMATA accepted receipts for reimbursement they would owe me about $200 a month due to delays forcing me to take cabs when I miss the last bus of the night cause of a train issue.

by kk on May 22, 2013 12:20 am • linkreport

Metro is an utter disaster!!!!! I leave an hour early this morning and because they are single tracking at Faragut North I'm still late for work???? C'mon! Really? What were all the closing of the stations for during the weekends in which customers had to be inconvenienced (as always) to catch numerous shuttle buses to get to their destinations? Do the workers actually work or do they sit on the tracks to lolly gag around while texting on their phones drinking coffee? It's becoming a serious problem and as customers we all need to come together and get Metro back to the way it was 13 years ago. What if someone loses their job due to constant delays? Can they be sued or can a customer get compensation for lost wages? Any ideas?......

by Mark on Apr 3, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

I agree 100%. I wish I could sue for lost wages as well. I understand periodic breakdowns but this is getting ridiculous. The more they raise the fare, the more often the system breaks down: trains, escalators, elevators, and buses! I've been riding the metro regularly for 12 years and it is absolutely gone down hill.

by D locke on Jul 29, 2015 9:33 am • linkreport

"for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control,"
I have to agree with the author here...If WMATA took even the basic precautions to keep up with the maintenance of the system, most of the emergency delays would be gone.
And is it too much to ask that the *INSIDES* of the trains be cleaned more regularly?

by BowDowntoZod on Aug 10, 2015 2:03 pm • linkreport

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