Delay-Ridden D.C. Metro Stops Charging Customers Who Bail

Riding costs money; changing your mind is free.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On the Washington, D.C., Metro system, the fare is collected at the end of your trip—even if your trip goes nowhere because the station is smokier than a wet-wood fire at Bonnaroo.

Starting Friday, Metro is adopting a small, customer-friendly change to its operating procedure: If you leave a station within 15 minutes of entering it, you won’t be charged.

In a perfect world, of course, no one would ever do such a thing. But over the past two years, the Metro has been so blighted with service problems that many commuters arrive at the platform and wish they never had. About 1 in 200 SmarTrip charges consists of people who enter and immediately leave a station, and on days with bad delays—and there are of lot of those right now—10,000 riders might double back, each incurring a charge of about $2.00 for his or her nonvoyage.

It’s a bit like paying the bill at a restaurant for a meal that never arrived.

The agency that runs the subway system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (or WMATA), is a few months into a yearlong “SafeTrack” program to address the network’s safety and service problems. Often, though, even planned delays take riders by surprise.

Eliminating the double-back fare will cost WMATA $2 million a year but may begin to repair the troubled agency’s relationship with its customers, who have been leaving in droves. Of course, nothing would restore confidence in the subway system like, uh, running the trains on time. And, since WMATA has countdown clocks, a superior solution might be to post train times outside the station so that commuters could more quickly decide what kind of day Metro is having.

But if nothing else, this seems eminently fair—and should be de rigueur all year, in every system, not just one undergoing an unprecedented repair effort. What are you paying for if not riding on the actual train?

London, like Washington, charges fares by journey distance, requiring commuters to “touch in and out.” In London, doubling back is free if you choose another mode of transport within 45 minutes, or if you only do it once every seven days. Fooled once a week, shame on the Tube. Fooled twice a week, shame on you.