Ten years ago, EU institutions adopted the Regulation on rail passengers’ rights. According to the Commission, the time has now come - based on its recommended amendments - to “strike a balance between strengthening rail passengers rights on the one hand and reducing the burden on railway undertakings” on the other. Hence, from a passenger point of view, the Commission proposal, which was published at the end of September 2017, contains both some improvements as well as critical points.
The main rights concerning compensation in long-distance passenger rail transport remain unchanged in the present amendment of the existing rail passengers' rights and obligations Regulation: the right to claim a refund of 25 % of the rail fare in case of a delay of more than an hour remains; in case of a delay of two hours, 50 % of the rail fare may be claimed. However, now the restriction has been proposed that in case of delays caused by force majeure, railway undertakings shall no longer be obliged to pay compensation. Definitions of force majeure include severe weather conditions or major natural disasters. However, technical faults do not represent an exemption.
In 2013, the European Court of Justice clarified in a ruling against the ÖBB (Austrian Railways) that railway undertakings also have to pay compensation in case of delays caused by force majeure. In contrast, the regulations on air, bus and ship passenger rights expressly exclude compensation payments with regard to exceptional circumstances. In the Commission’s opinion, the proposed amendment results in the equal treatment of all modes of transport. Nevertheless, this exemption means that compared to the status quo, rail passengers will be worse off. Apart from that, passengers in general regard the cause for a delay as irrelevant. Even the Regulation itself refers to the fact that only a fraction of compensation payments made by railway undertakings were the result of force majeure events. In any case, it would also be possible to achieve equal treatment of all modes of transport in respect of the passenger rights to be granted, by ensuring that force majeure never represents an exclusion criterion for compensations.
The proposal also includes measures to make travelling easier for people with disabilities. The claim to transport shall also be extended to personal assistants of people with disabilities, such as assistance dogs. In addition, assistance has to be given at railway stations, which provide rail services, at all time. The undertakings have to carry out regular training for personnel who provide assistance for people with disabilities.
Railway undertakings have also been asked to increasingly offer throughtickets. This Regulation is above all significant for cross-border regional transport, as according to the proposal they shall also fall within the scope of this Regulation. However, Member States will be able to continue to exempt urban transport and internal regional transport from this Regulation.
Finally the Regulation proposal also specifies the responsibilities of the national unforcement bodies, which have to be established by the Member States. In future, these enforcement bodies have to confirm a complaint made by a passenger within two weeks of receipt. The proceedings themselves may not exceed three months, whereby an extension to six months is possible in complicated cases. In Austria, the Agency for Passenger Rights has been set up as a national enforcement body for all modes of transport.