Two french SNCF trains in the station of Nice Two french SNCF trains in the station of Nice  |  Image: christopher@seatse / unsplash

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.

 

Compensation level for regular delays remains the same

If no force majeure was involved, railways have to compensate as before. From one hour of delay, it is 25% of the ticket price as usual, from two hours, passengers receive 50% of the ticket price back. In its 2018 position, the Parliament had demanded the refund of the entire ticket price in the case of delays of more than two hours, but could not get its way.

Pictogram about "Train delay"

Train delay

Through tickets

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).

Rail replacement transport

The new rules will clarify and extend protection in such cases where a train cannot depart or continue and passengers therefore need alternative transport to their final destination. The train operator must try to re-route the passenger in all circumstances, even in cases where alternative transport is required. If the operator has failed to communicate the available options to the passenger within 100 minutes, a stranded passenger may take an alternative surface public transport on his or her own initiative and be entitled to reimbursement of the costs so incurred from the railway undertaking.

Piktogram about "Cancelled train"

Cancelled train

Assistance for persons with physical disability

There are some improvements for people with disabilities and reduced mobility. People with physical disabilities often need help, and in future they will have the right to assistance on all trains in the EU, for example when boarding and alighting, but only "if trained staff are on duty". In future, this will apply throughout the EU not only to long-distance trains but also to regional trains. Another improvement is that, according to the future regulation, people with disabilities no longer have to register their need for assistance up to 48 hours before departure, but only up to 24 hours before the journey.

Pictogram about "Limited mobility"

Limited mobility

Bicycles

To promote environmentally friendly mobility, it will become easier for passengers to take bicycles along. In future, European railway companies will be obliged to provide bicycle transport spaces and to inform passengers about the available capacities. This also applies to trains subject to reservation, where the reservation of bicycle spaces also must be made possible in future. The general rule is at least four bicycle spaces per train. After public consultation, railway undertakings may provide for a different number of spaces depending on the type of service, the size of the train and the foreseeable demand for the transport of bicycles. Member States may also set this number higher if there is a greater demand for the carriage of bicycles. The requirements for bicycle spaces apply when a railway undertaking orders new railcars or when it undertakes a major refit of older vehicles. Exceptions apply for the winter period, when there is seasonally less demand for bicycle transport. The bicycle rules will only come into force 2 years later (i.e. 2025) than the rest of the regulation (2023).

Pictogram about "Bicycle"

Bicycle

Real time info

The new regulation also stipulates that infrastructure and train managers should, among other things, provide ticket traders with information on trains in real time. This aims to promote new customer-friendly offers "from a single source", especially in cases where the trains of several railways or different means of transport are combined. This will enable, for example, the improvement of online purchase portals or mobile applications with more comprehensive information content about the entire passenger journey.

Pictogram about "Obligation to inform"

Obligation to inform

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