Trains vital to virus recovery, passenger rights shouldn’t be left at the station

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Rail passenger rights do not instil consumer confidence in train travel the way things stand. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Europe’s railways are due a resurgence thanks to a combination of increased climate and health awareness. But the rules governing train travel need serious review in order to convince people to ride the rail instead of choosing the car or to fly, writes Ursula Pachl.

Ursula Pachl is Deputy Director General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

One of the unexpected side effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns has been improved air quality. As lockdowns started and cars across Europe were left in the garage, the improvement in air quality was palpable, particularly for those in urban areas.

If we want to maintain the benefits of cleaner air post-COVID-19 and fight climate change, sustainable transport modes like rail will play a vital role. 

Achieving the European Green Deal’s objective to cut transport emissions by 90% by 2050 will mean getting many more people on board trains. That is why the European Commission has plans to make 2021 the ‘European Year of Rail’ and is working on numerous initiatives to promote train travel.

But we can only encourage a real shift to rail by making train travel more attractive. This means giving passengers strong, simple and easily applicable rights. Unfortunately, the current rules fall short in protecting consumers in several areas, undermining people’s confidence in rail.

Difficulties can start when purchasing tickets.

Indeed, when you buy a ticket, you expect to be protected for your whole journey if something goes wrong. However, so called ‘through tickets’ – which cover journeys with more than one connection or operator – remain very limited or even non-existent in the EU, with operators preferring to split journeys into different segments.

This lets rail operators off the hook for providing alternative journey options or compensation for when things go wrong.

The current legislation allows EU countries to exempt their national railway operators from applying the European passenger rights Regulation. As a result, it’s a passenger rights lottery: only one in three train journeys in the EU today enjoy full passenger rights protection, with regional or suburban trains barely covered.

Is your train delayed or cancelled? Well, good luck, because there is a good chance you will be relying on the train operator’s good will. How can we convince people to get onboard trains instead of cars or planes if there is so little passenger protection for when things go wrong?

Once you are safely home, you might consider making a complaint for reimbursement or compensation. Again, passengers are running into problems. COVID-19 has served to highlight the difficulties consumers face getting their rights enforced particularly for cancelled travel, but this was a recurrent issue well before the pandemic.

There is now not only a golden opportunity but a critical need for the EU to put this right. The European Regulation on Rail Passenger Rights is back on the discussion table in Brussels. MEPs and the Council of ministers are going to try and thrash out a deal to put this issue safely back in the train shed.

But the two are at loggerheads, as talks kick off this week.

The Parliament has been progressive and made tangible proposals to reinforce passenger rights. Meanwhile the Council – taking a protectionist approach for the incumbent operators -is trying to water down passenger rights even further, potentially letting rail operators off the hook when journeys are disrupted due to extraordinary circumstances, or ‘force majeure’.

That is why we are fully behind Parliament’s efforts not only to reduce the number of exemptions to passenger rights but also to completely get rid of the force majeure clause.

Passengers need to have the confidence that when they book a train ticket, their rights will apply as a matter of principle and not be subject to numerous exemptions.

Strengthening passenger rights is good but giving consumers the tools to enforce those rights is better. The Parliament is proposing that rail operators must have clear complaint handling policies and that all EU countries should set up a national enforcement body to uphold passenger rights.

These proposals are a step in the right direction for consumers who are often empty-handed in the face of long, frustrating, and unclear complaints procedures.

Knowing that their rights are clear, strong and easily enforceable may give them the confidence to do that, instead of jumping back into their cars.

Rail will need to play an increasingly important role not just getting Europe moving again post-COVID-19, but also if we are to deliver on the Green Deal and fight climate change. Giving passengers the confidence to get back on board will be vital to achieving that.

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