A long-awaited update to the EU’s train passenger rights codex was finally brokered on Thursday (1 October) but the agreement has left consumer groups and rail advocates more than disappointed.
Negotiators from the European Commission, Council and Parliament hammered out a provisional deal yesterday, after unsuccessfully trying to get an agreement in place before the summer break.
The updated rules aim to grant rail passengers stronger claims to compensation in case of delays, easier access for disabled travellers, guaranteed spots to transport bicycles and a host of other perks.
Polish MEP Bogusław Liberadzki (S&D group), who was rapporteur for the legislation, called the agreement “important improvements in making rail travel more convenient and passenger-friendly”.
European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean said the deal “means more trust in the rail companies” and the talks, which lasted three years, bring much needed legal clarity to the sector.
One of the most significant compromises is the inclusion of a ‘force majeure’ clause that will exempt rail companies from certain liabilities in case of “extreme weather conditions, major natural disasters or major public health crises”.
The Commission ruled earlier this year that the coronavirus outbreak, for example, counted as “exceptional circumstances” for airlines, meaning that carriers were not on the hook for compensation claims. Rail firms now have the same safety net.
When delays are avoidable, passengers will be entitled to refunds. For 60-119 minutes, companies will be on the hook for 25% of the ticket’s value, while a 120-minute delay increases the refund to 50%.
Leaves on the line
But consumer groups were not happy with the agreement and denounced it as a “real missed opportunity to promote trains” as a sustainable transport option.
The head of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), Monique Goyens, said that “EU decision-makers should have seized this moment to send a strong positive signal to rail passengers. Instead, they’ve missed a golden opportunity to boost the shift to rail.”
BEUC contended that the ‘force majeure’ clause makes the likelihood of disputes between passengers and operators more likely, warning that it is too broad and includes factors like damaged infrastructure, which should not be classed as an ‘exceptional circumstance’.
National exemptions already in place can be extended for up to five years once the rules become law, in what has been criticised as an overly-long transition period. International services will at least have to come in line by 2024 at the latest.
Rail companies will also have to guarantee passage for travellers who are disabled. Until 2026, passengers will have to give 36 hours notice, after that it will drop to 24 hours. The current pre-notification requirement is 48 hours.
Negotiators also wanted to push for guaranteed rights for ‘through-tickets’ or journeys made up of more than one leg, involving different companies and countries, which often leave passengers out of pocket or stranded when significant delays occur.
The agreement says that through-tickets are only protected when the entire trip is operated by one company or by its fully-owned subsidiaries, in what BEUC called a “false victory”.
In practice, it means that travelling from Paris to Cologne via Brussels would not be protected, as the two legs are run by two different firms, SNCF and Thalys.
Mark Smith, a former rail executive and founder of travel website seat61.com, said “this is unfinished business” and warned that strong guarantees become “more and more necessary every year as the network fragments”.
Germany announced in September that it plans to resurrect the long-defunct Trans-Europ Express high-speed network, by building alliances between rail operators and sharing rolling stock. Without through-tickets, that quest becomes more difficult.
Cyclists were left happier by the agreement, which aims to have a guaranteed four spots for bikes per train by obligating companies to reconfigure carriages when scheduled refurbishment works occur and order new wagons with enough space.
Countries will be free to include more spaces if they find that demand is high enough – or fewer if thorough assessments prove there is not enough demand. Exemptions will be granted, for example, in Scandinavia, where some trains prioritise skis over bikes.
The final agreement now needs the formal approval of both the Parliament and Council. It will enter into force two years after the text is published in the EU’s official journal.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]