Jul
23

For MNR and LIRR, an almost-better refund policy

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When the MTA raised last year, one of the more outrageous money-grabs involved the validity period for Metro-North and LIRR tickets. The MTA shortened the time period for pre-purchased ticket use down to two weeks, instituted a $10-refund fee and generally angered everyone. As part of the service investments set to roll out over the next year, the authority has rolled back some of these more stringent measures, but a key barrier to any refund remains in place.

Beginning September 4, one-way and round-trip tickets will be valid for a period of two months, and the refund period will last the same amount of time. A ten-trip ticket will remain valid for six month, and its refund will be lengthened to six months as well. The $10 prcoessing fee for all refunds, however, will remain in place to help, as the MTA said, “recoup some of the administrative expenses of issuing and mailing checks.”

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota made this out to be a win for customer relations, and it certainly is. “We’re pleased that the cost containment efforts of our commuter railroads, combined with increased ridership, make it possible to broaden our ticket validity and refund policies to further benefit Long Island Rail Road and Metro North customers,” he said in a statement. “This benefit will cost the railroads $6 million, but combined with the expanded service investments announced last week, shows the MTA’s commitment to customer service.”

The truth remains, however, that many railroad tickets cost less than the $10 processing fee. Thus, customer still will not enjoy the benefits of a longer refund period if the economics don’t make sense. It’s an effort to avoid allowing riders whose tickets aren’t punched from cashing it, but $10 seems like a steep price to pay for processing.



Categories : Asides, LIRR, Metro-North

21 Responses to “For MNR and LIRR, an almost-better refund policy”

  1. Quinn says:

    Just sell them on craigslist.

  2. John says:

    I have no real issue with this. Don’t buy a ticket if you don’t plan to use it. Sure stuff happens, but that should be very rare in my opinion.

  3. DingDong says:

    On a related topic: wouldn’t instituting a European system of self-punching tickets (composter in French or entgültigen in German) and with periodic checks of tickets save a lot of money? You would only need half the amount of staffing on each train. What’s the obstacle? The union?

    • DingDong says:

      My German is not that good. I guess the word is “entwerten.”

    • Bolwerk says:

      It’s simply proof-of-payment (the shorthand is POP) in English. Since fines could probably more than recover collection costs (losses + enforcement), I think it makes the most sense on buses and the commuter rail services. Maybe not so much on the subways due to volumes.

  4. DingDong says:

    Also, as to the refund fee, this seems totally reasonable to me. When I buy a plane ticket, it is has a $150 refund fee. It would seem totally reasonable to me if there was no refund available for Metro North Tickets at all.

    • Ben says:

      I feel like by the time you’re arguing “that’s totally not any worse customer relations than USAir has,” you’ve sort of conceded our host’s point about how customer-friendly it is… ;-)

      • DingDong says:

        I guess the question is “is the good will that allowing free refunds buys worth the revenue lost?” Hard question to answer in the abstract, especially as I don’t even know what the cost is (i.e. how many refunds are or were issued).

        But it seems that my intuition that people don’t expect tickets to be refundable is not shared by a number of you, so perhaps it is worth the cost (whatever that is).

    • Alon Levy says:

      For what it’s worth, on both Amtrak and JR East, tickets are 90% refundable. Amtrak’s not the model to follow here, but JR East is.

      • DingDong says:

        And suburban trains in France don’t grant any refunds. Link here. Apparently, the same in Berlin. Link here.

        I really don’t know how important foreign models are because the only reason to allow refunds is because it buys good will and avoids ill will; how much it does so depends on the public’s expectations, which will vary from country to country.

  5. Andrew says:

    To explain the rationale for this policy:

    Every regular LIRR and Metro-North rider knows that sometimes, especially on crowded trains, the conductor never gets around to collecting the tickets. That doesn’t matter for regular commuters, who have monthly tickets, but it gives infrequent riders the opportunity to reuse the same ticket for two (or three or four) rides. And when the ticket neared expiration, if it still hadn’t been collected, the infrequent rider could turn it in for a full refund.

    The idea behind tightening the expiration and refund policies had nothing to do with trying to scam riders out of legitimate refunds and everything to do with reducing the ability to reuse used tickets.

    Of course, a better policy would have been to install simple validation machines at each station that would stamp the date and time on a ticket. All riders with single tickets would be required to validate before boarding; an unvalidated ticket, or a ticket validated more than a few hours ago, would be as good as no ticket at all. But can you imagine the howls from the first wave of riders who didn’t know about the new policy?

    • Aaron says:

      But can you imagine the howls from the first wave of riders who didn’t know about the new policy?

      I’ve tended to see (but don’t recall where) systems where the first two weeks or first month of fare enforcement landed you not a summons but instead a brief brochure/flyer describing the fare system. Maybe that happened in Phoenix when Valley Metro opened?

      POP can’t work on the subways due to the volume, as has been noted. Won’t speak for the commuter lines but the current system, whereby conductors don’t always get tickets, is informal POP already. When I had a reverse commute on the MBCR in Boston they only punched my ticket (a disability discount 10-ride ticket), oh, what felt like 4 days out of 5 each week. I was actually kind of frustrated at first, began wondering, “what on earth am I going to do, punch the blasted thing myself?”

      • Eric says:

        “Won’t speak for the commuter lines but the current system, whereby conductors don’t always get tickets, is informal POP already.”

        POP means that tickets are rarely checked, but there’s a big fine if you are checked and haven’t bought a ticket. You are describing a situation where there’s no fine for being discovered without a paid ticket, so there’s no incentive for people to buy ahead of time. So you lose all the advantages (i.e. labor costs) of the POP system.

  6. BoerumHillScott says:

    By the time you factor in all the overhead of a human processing a transaction, $10 does not seem that outrageous. I’m sure the MTA is still making a bit of profit on the transaction, but probably less than what they lose on situations like Andrew describes.

  7. Kevin Walsh says:

    Sometimes you purchase a ticket you don’t want because of a ticket machine malfunction.

  8. Billy G says:

    There’s another way to handle this.

    At a TVM, when someone is buying a ticket, they can opt for an immediate-use ticket that has a 2 hour validity or a voucher that’s valid for up to 6 months. If they want to ride, they have to go to the TVM to quick-redeem the voucher for a ticket with 2 hour validity. The voucher will end up serving no real purposes other than to permit transferability of the fare to another party and provide the MTA with the ability to claim that tickets are valid up to 6 months. From a UX perspective, it’s easier to explain in all languages than the entwerters. The entwerters have the advantage of being relatively cheaper than TVMs, though.

    • Ben says:

      I can see that working, though it’s basically POP with ticket validation built into the purchase—the problem is that, in that it’s basically POP, you’d have to put a ton of “quick voucher redemption” machines in at the heads of platforms in GCT, because the main reason to get a ticket ahead of time is to avoid the line at the TVM from walk-up traffic (and I don’t even want to start to think about what Thanksgiving Wednesday would be like). And at that point, you may as well make Alon happy and actually use POP (not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with either of those things).

      • Alon Levy says:

        For what it’s worth, here in Vancouver the subway stations I’ve been to have 1-2 TVMs and 1-2 validators each, and the buses have validators at the front. Those are, as Andrew says, machines that stamp an expiration time on magnetic farecards. The tickets you buy from the machines are pre-stamped, so they don’t need to be validated, and are valid for 90 minutes from when you buy them. The flip side is that you can’t have multi-use tickets this way – only books of tickets.

  9. Good god, please don’t remove any conductors! They are the last remnant of civility, and keep the New Haven line from complete chaos and insanity on a regular basis. Plus they help old/disabled people and retarded/lost/visiting people navigate what is a pretty complex system if you’re not used to it.

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  1. […] that aren’t made because Transit won’t hold local trains as an express pulls in to refund polices that just don’t go that extra mile, the MTA seems to have a love-hate relationship with its […]

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