Replacement for SEPTA refund program at least a year away

<p>Regional rail passengers pack the platforms at Suburban Station at rush hour. (Emma Lee/WHYY)</p>

Regional rail passengers pack the platforms at Suburban Station at rush hour. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When an electrical problem disabled a SEPTA Paoli-Thorndale line train, passengers heard a loud “boom” and evacuated onto the tracks. All Regional Rail service was completely shut down, prompting hours-long delays. It wasn’t long before frustrated passengers took to social media to air their complaints — and ask SEPTA for refunds.

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But what most riders did not realize is that the transit agency had discontinued its “Service Guarantee” program for Regional Rail and its replacement won’t be here for more than a year. That’s because they won’t roll it out until the new electronic farecard system, SEPTA Key is working on all trains, subways, buses and trolleys.

The guarantee program, which allowed passengers to file a claim for for a full refund on Regional Rail train tickets within certain conditions, was first discontinued when more than 100 of SEPTA’s Silverliner V trains were taken out of service in 2016 for emergency repairs. Once the cars were all back on the rails, the agency announced it would not bring back the guarantee, but would instead replace it with a customer loyalty program.

Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager for customer service and advocacy at SEPTA, understands there is something of a void left behind, but says the old system wasn’t perfect either. In fact, according to Heinle, roughly two-thirds of all claims filed were denied, adding insult to injury for customers who’d already gone through an unpleasant experience.

“They put a claim in thinking they were going to get something back and voila — two months later they get hit again with an answer, ‘No,’ ” Heinle said. “So I’m trying to create goodwill and I have a program that’s supposed to be a service guarantee with all kinds of exceptions and loopholes that’s creating bad will.”

Heinle hopes to move toward an alternative system that gives travel benefits, discounts or rewards to loyal SEPTA customers. A system like this would be available to all riders, including those who take the bus or subway — not just Regional Rail passengers.

“Whereas the old program basically compensated people for mistakes, we want to focus on longevity, sticking with us through thick and thin,” Heinle said. “Being a loyal customer will earn the benefits. We’re not going to reward people whenever a bus or train is late.”

While many passengers would likely welcome the service guarantee policy’s replacement, the execution of such a program is likely still years away. Heinle estimates the new rewards program will be conceptualized by the end of next year with implementation to follow sometime in 2019.

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