Thursday, July 23, 2009

Of Refunds and Photos

More on Monday's Orange Line meltdown from the folks at State of Protest, who, armed with a video camera and a little chutzpah, got more than your average "I hate Metro" story. We still like those, too!

It was a long day at work, and I climbed aboard the Orange line Metro train at about 8 p.m., thankful to get a seat. And then the torture began.

The train started up and headed into the tunnel, momentarily coming to a complete halt. We’re used to this in DC. Despite what should be a smooth operation, Metro trains here run as if they’re all stuck in bumper to bumper traffic full of aggressive drivers who hit the gas as hard as they can for one tenth of a second and then slam on the brakes as hard as they can so that your net progress is about three feet of track and a chronic case of whiplash. My train was stopped because of a train that was unloading at Foggy Bottom (two stops ahead) because it was in need of maintenance. (Note that the down train might have been at Court House, but the announcements varied).

We finally got to the next station, Farragut West, where we dawdled with the doors open. Waiting. The train operator was courteous and humorous, trying to make the best of a typical Metro situation — hurry up and wait. He informed us that Metro was moving the broken train out of Foggy Bottom since it had just finished unloading its miserable passengers who would be anxious to fill up my train. Again, this is typical.

Then our driver announced that not only was there a broken train trying to move off the tracks, but that there was also another problem at Foggy Bottom. A bad switch! Uh oh. That sounds similar to the same problem that killed nine people on the Red Line not too long ago. Metro is obviously going to handle this with care (i.e., worrying about liability), and that meant handling it for possibly hours. The Red Line, since the accident there, has been notoriously slow, and some trains have been stalled between stations for long periods. I didn’t want my train to nudge up into the tunnel and get stuck there. I wanted to go home.

As soon as the driver announced the issue, half of the people on my train stood up and left. It was then that I started contemplating my options. My only real option was to cab it home, and that’s rather expensive. After our driver informed us that maintenance personnel had been contacted and were on the way, I thought maybe I could just sleep through it all. After about five more minutes, he updated us, letting us know that the maintenance people were still on their way. I figured this could literally take all night, and I sighed as I grabbed my bag and made my way to the turnstiles.

As I approached, I saw a young lady with her bicycle who had been in my car on the train, arguing with the station operator regarding how to get out of the station. There were other disgruntled passengers there, as well, and the gist was that there were to be no refunds given at the station, we’d have to use our cards (i.e., “pay”) to leave the station, and that we could ask about refunds after contacting metro directly.

It was then I decided to cover my ass by filming the train situation. I figured that it was logical that I’d bear the burden of proof that I was at the station, on that train when the incident occurred, since there are no “tickets” (although I believe that the SmartTrip card that I use does record station entrances and exits). I used my Blackberry Storm to show the train just sitting at the station (and if you look to the opposite side, you can see the crowds of people standing on the platform that would be typical for rush hour, but not 8pm — there were no trains coming or going).

Then I walked back to the station operator, and I was intending to have her tell me (i.e., “the camera”) what the train situation was so that I’d have further proof (they were announcing it on the intercom, but it was weak and I wasn’t sure the audio would pick it up; I really should have thought to record everything starting when I was in the train, but … hindsight), and that is when she accosted me, spouting out gibberish that reminded me of many stories I had read on BoingBoing and the like regarding entirely made-up camera and video “policy,” especially coming from security guards, police and other types of people who supposedly work “for” the people (while, of course, feeling free to monitor us with constant surveillance). I didn’t want to push the issue and get arrested for asserting my rights. Again, I wanted to go home, damnit. So, I left the station, paying my way out, and then I took the only alternate transportation I had available, a cab. For $25. Sucks!

Here’s the relevant part of the video I took:

Here’s the brief conversation:

Station Operator: “Excuse me sir, are you taking my picture?”

Me: “No.” (I wasn’t really lying. I was taking video. I consider it an important distinction, especially since Metro deems it important to have constant camera monitoring all over its stations, and also since I was pretty sure there was no policy against taking pictures of Metro employees)

Station Operator: “Okay, because I was going to say you can’t take my picture without asking me first — ’cause I don’t know what you’re going to do with my image.”

Then she snubbed me, as she had everyone else there trying to get answers.

This morning, I went to the Metro Web site at to look for two things. First, to find some way to get a refund — no luck on that, so I merely sent a complaint form asking how I can get a refund without spending more money (my guess is that they’ll want me to travel (via Metro, of course) to the Metro Center office where I’ll get a refund that will equal the amount of money it costs for me to go to the Metro Center office to get a refund. I could do that all day!).

Second, to find Metro’s policy on photography. Is it in Metro’s FAQ? No. Any other logical location? Hell, any location reasonably accessed via Metro’s internal linkings? No. Of course not.

So, I did a search for “photography” on their Web site and got a bunch of stuff about media photography requests, and this:

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn will respond directly to questions about Metro-related security and policing issues during an online chat this Friday, Sept. 12, when he hosts “Metro LunchTalk Online” — a live chat from noon to 1 p.m. Taborn welcomes questions about security and policing the Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess systems during this special online chat for National Preparedness Month….

Washington, DC: Mr. Taborn, there has been recent Congressional scrutiny of Union Station security targeting non-commercial photographers in public areas. While Section 100.8(a)(2) of WMATA’s use regulations affirms the legal rights of photographers on WMATA property, I have heard many anecdotes of WMATA employees incorrectly telling photographers that their activity is not allowed. Would you consider communicating to your staff that individual photography conducted in a safe manner is legal in public areas, and that photographers can actually be a security asset to the agency? Other transit agencies that have attempted to stifle photography (either by regulation or arbitrary enforcement) have found themselves on the wrong side of First Amendment-based legal precedent, and I would hate for WMATA to be in such a position.

Reply: Hello photography fan. People are permitted to take photos in our rail system. We do not “own” Union Station. That’s Amtrak.

We see our rail system as a tourist destination, and I’ve seen some beautiful photos of our stations, especially the ceilings.

The main restriction we have on photographers is that they are not permitted to use tripods. Why? It’s a tripping hazard. Someone else may not realize they are standing so close to your tripod and we can’t have people tripping–especially in a station environment where there is a lot of danger with trains and high voltage electricity.

We have no intention to regulate photography other than by restricting tripod use.1
Did Metro employees not get this message?

Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to print out Mr. Taborn’s comments as well as the applicable section of Metro’s policy (which can be downloaded here) on some handy sheets of paper, and I’m going to carry them with me. The next time I find some Metro employee trying to assert some false authority, I’m going to hand over a copy.

Also, just to see, I Googled “100.8(a)(2) Metro” to figure out where Metro had hidden its policies. To get there on Metro’s Web site, one must click “About Metro” (note that the About Metro button is also a drop-down, which doesn’t have the next link, which is why I couldn’t find it in the first search), then click “Data Use and Privacy Policy” and then click “systems of records notices” … uhm. Okay, that backtracking didn’t work. Actually, I couldn’t find any backtracking that worked. Is Metro’s policy inaccessible outside of Google?

Meh, I give up. I also don’t foresee getting a refund.

Other items:
Metro Says It Plans to Work With Md. Firm on Backup (WaPo)
House to vote on Metro funding today (WJLA)

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Brian said...

Maybe this has a silver lining, at the end of the day... think about it. GM was a corrupt, broken down failure of a company, so the government bought it out and are reworking it themselves. Same for AIG, Freddie Mac, Fannie May, etc.

...well, what company out there is more full of fail and stupidity at this point than WMATA?

Get on it, feds! Fix this mess!

Anonymous said...

Uhm there's a difference between taking a photograph of a person and taking a photograph of a 'transit system'

You can take photos all you want of the Metro, but I'm pretty sure normal rules apply to taking pictures of people... you need to ask their permission.

It's not my "right" to walk up to you and take a photograph of you without your knowledge or permission. I think you'd be pretty pissed if I just came up and started snapping photos of you.

I could be wrong about this, but I think even in a public place if you are taking a photograph of someone (and they are identifiable) you are technically supposed to have them sign a release.

In any event, also, it was not a switch malfunction that caused the accident on the red line.

Jesus, if you want this site to have any credibility you should think about editing/fact checking these sorts of posts.

brh said...

If she had said 'are you taking a still photo of me?' then there might be a distinction. But you were taking pictures, many many pictures all joined together with the added bonus of sound. Regardless, unless specifically restricted (as you discovered, Metro is not), there's nothing illegal about taking pictures of people. It's what you do afterward that can get you into trouble. Metro employees need to understand that, and stop acting like they have some force field of photographic protection. Keeping copies of the official policy on hand is a good start, but I doubt it'll mean anything to them.

I wish you luck on the refund… This seems to be their normal way of handling refunds, which doesn't seem right at all… 

Anonymous said...

@anon 9:44
the post doesnt say a switch problem caused the red line crash. take a reading class.

Don said...

Actually, anonymous, it is entirely legal for someone to take your picture whether you like it or not. There's civil limitations on their ability to use that photo for commercial purposes without your approval (thus the existance of model releases) but there's a huge exception carved out for news purposes, which this definately qualifies for.

The fact that you'd be pissed? Not remotely relevant as far as the law goes.

Erin said...

If they don't let me out when that happens I just walk out. Although most station manages I've encountered in that situation are usually very understanding. No way I'm paying to sit on a train for a few hours. What are they going to do, chase me?

State of Protest said...


There is no law against taking photos of people. (As noted by Don). You generally don't have the right not to be photographed in public unless you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There's no requirement to ask permission otherwise. At least not in the U.S.

As for the cause of the Red Line accident, aren't they still investigating? In any event, Unsuck DC Metro did a good job of editing the article to indicate personal opinionated speculation regarding the Red Line accident rather than keeping my (recently corrected) original language of a mistaken statement of fact.

brh, I am well aware that my distinction was not logically sound, but more of a retaliatory distinction made against those who feel as if they are free to document my every move, but avoid their own accountability.

Also, I probably won't get a refund, since I actually moved from one station to the next (therefore, I "paid" for that transit). If I had, instead, left the same station I entered and still ended up paying, then I would have paid for nothing, and might have gotten a refund. (Thanks to M. for making that distinction). I still think the whole thing stinks, and as I footnoted in the original article, the amount paid to travel one station as compared to traveling to my destination did not seem to adequately reflect its worth (but perhaps that's an argument about fees, not refunds).

In any event, my concern was less about getting my dollar and change back, and more about Metro employees trying to dodge responsibility while inventing policy.

Anonymous said...

@Erin: I'd imagine they would chase you, especially if transit police were there.

"A bad switch! Uh oh. That sounds similar to the same problem that killed nine people on the Red Line not too long ago."

Anonymous said...

If you just leave and don't swipe your card, won't they notice when you try to use metro again?

Tom A. said...

What about WMATA's infamous "Guaranteed Ride Home" program. is it just BS or does anyone really get a free ride home when metro messes up?

brh said...

Yeah, understood re: being monitored but not allowed to do any monitoring of your own. That is a pretty big slap in the face.

I still wish you luck getting a refund… In a perfect world, it wouldn't matter what you did after they screwed you, only -that- they screwed you, and that they really shouldn't charge you for the painful screwing they just screwed you with.

Erin said...

@Anonymous I've honestly never had that experience. When stuck I usually tell them I'm leaving and they are pretty sympathetic. There also aren't a lot of transit police in the boonies where my office happens to be.

Anonymous said...

@ Erin - Good lucking getting on the Metro next time. It will show you never exited the day before. Have fun with that! :-)

State of Protest said...

Amazing news. I got an apology email from Metro saying that although I could not get a refund (due to Metro's tariff), they would send me two free ride tickets to the address listed in my complaint, for the inconvenience. I'm surprised, delighted, and impressed.

I am going to write a thank you note to Metro.

Thanks again, Unsuck DC Metro, for bringing this and other issues to light.

Anonymous said...

Ah, and for any of you wondering - the WMATA "use regulations" are on the Metro website, but because Metro is operates a terribly opaque bureacracy, you'd think they want to make the information as hard as possible to find. S.O.P. was actually very close. From Metro's website, go to About Metro, scroll down to Legal Affairs, and click on "Regulation Concerning the Use by Others of WMATA Property and Related Board Resolutions"

Y'know what? Here's the damn link so no one has to hunt for it any longer.

Think maybe hey coulda called it something like "Metro Rules of Use and Ridership" instead?

BTW, who the hell are the "others" referred to in the regulations? To read the applicability section, "Others" is any *Non-WMATA* personnel and... the public???? WTF?! See section 100.1

So okay, are there regulations for use of WMATA property by WMATA employees?? Otherwise, is it any wonder many Metro employees are in dire need of unSucking? Maybe they think the system is for them, and that we're just allowed to be in there world by some inconvenient regulation?

Anyway, so scroll through to the bits about filming/photography. Under 100.8(A)(1), apparently only television and newspaper crews are exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit to film motion pictures (yes, using our phone as a video camera counts as a motion picture). WTF? Sorry Jane Tourist. Put your camcorder away or have it confiscated if you can't produce a permit. And if you refuse? Well, 100.6(b) calls that a trespassing incident and you shall be arrested. WTF?! Arrest me for trespassing when I just wanna get you on the record as being a complete douche when i just want some info??? When my sister-in-law just wants to make a permitless home movie of her kids trasping through the station??? Unsuck this, Metro!

Under 100.8(a)(2), still photography using camera phones by Joe Schmoe is NOT regulated. So YES, you CAN take that employees picture.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone explain why Metro is allowed [legally?] to charge patrons who enter a station and then leave the same station?

On more than one occasion, and recently because of red lines delays or failures, I've left the same station after realizing the train will take 45 minutes longer than it should. Simply having entered and exited, I am charged, yet I have not received any service more than standing in a public place.


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