Passenger rights: Playing by the rules harms railways

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

The EU should make the right conditions for rail to become the preferred means of middle-range transport, if emissions targets are to be met. [kuknauf/Flickr]

Passenger rights in Europe need to improve in order for railways to compete in inter-modal transport and deliver on the EU’s decarbonisation strategy, writes Oliver Wolff.

Oliver Wolff is the general manager of Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen (VDV), the association of German transport companies. 

Decarbonisation is one of the biggest challenges of our times and requires serious effort from governments and stakeholders. In light of the recent COP21 agreement, almost all G20 countries – including the European Union – have submitted new climate change plans (INDCs). But despite this positive signal, more and stronger measures, including from the transport sector, are needed to keep global warming below a 2 degrees Celsius increase.

As part of its transport strategy towards a reduction of GHGs and recognising that railways offer low-carbon mobility, the European Commission pursues the aim that, by 2050, the majority of medium-distance passenger transport goes by rail. In practice, this will require that people choose the train over their private car and over an airplane, hence that the train becomes more attractive and competitive than other modes of transport.

However, contrary to this visionary aim, the current regulatory framework in a number of policy areas and the unequal implementation of EU law, notably in the field of passenger rights, make it difficult for railway companies to offer tickets at competitive prices and to become competitive enough vis-à-vis the airlines.

The EU passenger rights legislation that is currently in place has been developed individually for each mode of transport, owing to the structural differences between modes, yet was originally relatively balanced, not favouring or placing an excessive burden on any particular mode. Despite this, certain elements have led to a competitive disadvantage of railways.

The first issue is that amongst all transport modes only railways have to pay compensation to their customers in case of force majeure. This situation – which neither the European Commission nor the co-legislators in the Parliament and Council had intended – is the result of a single decision by the European Court of Justice in 2013 (C-509/11), which has become applicable to all railways.

Even in cases of force majeure, railway companies are now obliged not only to refund the passenger’s ticket, but also to compensate any costs incurred to passengers due to the delay or cancellation. These amounts can quickly get very high, if you imagine how easily one or several trains can be affected, for example, by a storm or by metal theft.

It is a scandalous injustice that railway companies need to bear these additional expenses in situations beyond their control, whilst other transport modes don‘t. The EU institutions should rectify this inequality as soon as possible.

The second issue touches upon the (non-)compliance with EU passenger rights legislation. It is my personal impression as a frequent flier, but also confirmed by institutions such as the European Consumer Centres Net, that some airlines don’t apply the law as they don‘t inform consumers about their rights or try to avoid paying the due compensation fee, which leads to a high number of customers abandoning their claims for compensation or not even attempting to get any.

Railways, on the contrary, have an excellent track record of handing out information to their customers and paying any justified refund. In Germany, more than 40 railway companies have joined up to establish the “Servicecenter Fahrgastrechte“, a one stop shop handling the refund process in a fast and customer-friendly way, in particular in complex situations when more than one train company is involved in a trip affected by a delay or cancellation. Again, railway companies play by the rules, while others don’t, and are experiencing a competitive disadvantage.

With this in mind, it is high time that the Commission ensured more fairness in the field of passenger rights, by clarifying that railways – like all other modes of transport – should not be held responsible for force majeure, and by working together with member states to fully enforce air passenger rights.

In this and many other policy areas, the EU needs to set the right framework conditions enabling rail to become the preferred means of middle-range transportation in Europe. This, in turn, will help to tackle climate change and foster decarbonisation, which we need to get serious about. Our planet cannot afford to wait much longer.

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