Outlook on new EU rail passenger rights
The EU is pursuing the goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050 and a shift to more rail transport is crucial for these climate goals. Rail travel must therefore become more attractive for all travellers.
After negotiations in October 2020, the EU Parliament and the Council of the EU - i.e. the governments and transport ministers of the member states - confirmed the reform of passenger rights at the beginning of 2021. Most of the regulation will therefore come into force in 2023 in the form of national laws. Until then, EU Regulation 1371/2007 will continue to apply. In phases, existing exceptions to the rules that railway companies have been able to invoke since 2009 will lose their validity. The biggest changes to the existing requirements concern the compensation obligation by railway companies in case of force majeure, rights of passengers with reduced mobility, the carriage of bicycles and the rule for through tickets, i.e. when the rail journey is undertaken with several sections and tickets.
No more compensation for force majeure
Unlike in November 2018, when the EU Parliament wanted to anchor force majeure as a reason for compensation in the regulation with 533 votes in favour and 37 votes against, it was dropped from the legal text in the latest Council decision in January 2021 and was thus confirmed by the Transport Committee of the European Parliament. It is clear that the experience with the economic consequences of the Cov pandemic in the passenger transport sector influenced the Council decision, but the Commission already proposed a clause to the Parliament in 2018 to overturn force majeure as a reason for compensation. When weakening passenger rights, it was argued that other means of transport (air, sea and bus transport) do not have to compensate in the event of force majeure and thus the railways should not be in a worse position in competition with other providers.
From the passengers' point of view, this change is not an improvement. In the event of delays or cancellations due to force majeure, from 2023 onwards there will no longer be any obligation on the part of the railway company to pay compensation if it could not have avoided the delays or cancellations despite taking the greatest care. It remains to be seen how often railway companies will use this to refuse reimbursement to affected passengers, as was often done in air travel, for example, to the annoyance of passengers. At least it is comforting to know that in the case of railways, extraordinary circumstances are usually only a very small part of the reasons that cause delays or even cause trains to be cancelled.
So what are these extraordinary and provable reasons that are not related to the operation of the railway and exempt the company from reimbursement obligations?
Definition of force majeure
- According to the text of the law (Chapter IV, Art. 17), these are "extreme weather conditions, major natural disasters or major public health crises which the railway undertaking, despite exercising the care required in the circumstances of the case, was unable to avoid and the consequences of which it was unable to prevent".
- Furthermore, the "behaviour of a third party which the railway undertaking, despite exercising the care required in the particular circumstances of the case, could not avoid and the consequences of which it was unable to prevent, such as persons on the track, cable theft, emergencies on board, law enforcement measures, sabotage or terrorism".
Strikes by railway employees or by licensed third-party companies are decidedly not force majeure.
Rail companies are also obliged to reroute their passengers in the event of delays and train cancellations or, if possible, to transport them by alternative means of transport to their destination, to their point of departure or, if they so wish, on a later day.
Newly introduced is the obligation for railway undertakings to issue a uniform ticket for all legs of a longer connection with long-distance and regional trains if the legs are offered by themselves.
- Passengers must be clearly informed whether tickets purchased in a single transaction are through tickets. Otherwise, the railway undertaking is liable as if these tickets were through tickets.
- This significantly improves passengers' rights if they miss a connecting train en route. Their right to compensation is thus based on the duration of the delay in reaching the destination, even if the journey was completed in parts.
This part of the legal text is pleasing, but similar to the "force majeure" described above, it is a compromise of the transport ministers of the Member States. Further demands from interest groups primarily representing passengers went beyond this and wanted to oblige independent railway undertakings to offer joint tickets, even if they are independent undertakings, for example for cross-border journeys.
- So-called through tickets thus only become compulsory for a journey with a change from regional to long-distance transport if all trains are operated by the same company (or its wholly owned subsidiary).