The great train (ticket) robbery

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FI-Talking-Transportation-Jim-CameronIf you had a contract with someone and paid them in advance to do a job, only to find they never provided that service, you should get your money back, right? Otherwise, by keeping the money and not delivering on the bargain, that person would be committing fraud.

Well, that’s exactly what Metro-North does to weekly and monthly ticket holders when it sells those tickets but cancels train service. The railroad refuses to give those riders a refund, and that’s wrong.

For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has asked Metro-North (and its boss, the Connecticut Department of Transportation) to rethink that policy, but they have refused. We even approached Attorney General George Jepsen and made a consumerist’s argument, but he wasn’t interested in helping.

Clearly, it’s not Metro-North’s fault when Hurricane Sandy or winter storm Nemo leave the tracks buried. In some cases they can attempt substitute bus service, in which case refunds shouldn’t be required.

When the Commuter Council last year pushed for a “Passenger Bill of Rights,” we asked for refunds when service was out, but the railroad said it was “impossible.” Though they did allow refunds on one-way tickets, which is not the problem at all.

One-way tickets are good for 60 days. If the train’s not running, you can use them next week. But weekly tickets are good for only seven specific days, Saturday through Friday. If the train doesn’t run, that means you’re out of luck.

Look at the Waterbury line during Nemo. Train service was halted Friday night and wasn’t resumed until the following Wednesday, a space of four days. A commuter who’d bought a weekly ticket from Waterbury to Grand Central Terminal paid $125 but lost four-sevenths of the ticket’s value and was denied a refund.

This year we’re pleading our case for fairness to the state legislature with the help of state Rep. Gail Lavielle of Wilton. At our behest she introduced HB 5127, which would require Metro-North and CDOT to offer credit for unusable tickets when service is canceled for more than 48 hours. That credit could be made by extending the validity of a ticket, offering replacement tickets or maybe even giving a refund.

As part of this, 15 commuters submitted testimony in support of the bill, making a very simple argument: If the railroad can’t provide train service or buses, ticket holders should be made whole.

When the airlines canceled thousands of flights due to the blizzard, they honored passengers’ tickets on later flights. When Metro-North canceled trains, they just kept the money.

In his testimony on the bill, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation said the refund plan wasn’t feasible. And since weekly/monthly commuters already get a discount, why are they complaining?

And Metro-North, in one of its more arrogant moves of late, thumbed its nose at the Connecticut legislature, saying that as a New York state agency it was immune from Connecticut law. That, in New York, is what they call chutzpah.

It’s not too late for commuters to support this bill by calling their elected officials. Because while Metro-North deserves credit for much improved, usually on-time service, it should not be allowed to pick our pockets by selling us tickets when it cannot run trains, for whatever reason, but then keeping our money. That’s just unfair.

 

Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 22 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.

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  • Peter

    Excellent argument and I certainly agree. But does it not become a “slippery slope”? What do you tell monthly commuters who would then demand credit for lost days on their pre-paid monthly passes?

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