Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

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.

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 blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.