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Europe

EU Rail Reform Plans Give Customers Priority

The European Commission wants more competition on international rail services and regulated compensation rights for customers, as part of its plan to liberalize the rail sector.

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The EU hopes to take the frustration out of train travel.

It's good news for travelers, but could mean extra bureaucratic hurdles for European railway operators. EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio's new proposals for the future of European train travel stress customer service, enshrined by EU-wide regulations on compensation for delays and poor service. According to de Palacio, voluntary passenger rights agreements don't work.

"These companies are hundreds of years old and they have to be brought into line with the new market demand," de Palacio told a news conference this week. "Losses are not incurred because railways are biblically cursed, it's because they're poorly managed."

Refunds for delays

Under the proposals in her draft bill, if a passenger on a two-hour cross-border train journey is delayed for more than an hour, he or she would be entitled to full compensation of the ticket price. The proposals also include laws on how freight operators should compensate customers for delays or damaged goods.

The Community of European Railways (CER) heaped criticism on the draft bill. "Creating a uniform, EU-wide legislative approach to define quality could create an extra administrative burden on the rail system, further threatening the competitiveness of rail," said CER chairman Giancarlo Cimoli in a statement.

The trans-national rail cooperative Thalys -- which offers services in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands -- already has the kind of compensation rights the EC says are needed for more competitive service. Refunds for delays range from 20 percent of the ticket price for a half-hour delay, to a full refund for a delay of two hours. The company also has policies to pick up the costs of onward travel or overnight stays should no connecting trains be available.

Such customer service policies should be voluntary for rail operators because they're effective, Andreas Leisdon, spokesman for Thalys International in Germany told DW-WORLD. "I don't think it's necessary to have laws to regulate passenger rights, it should be a self-obligation of the companies to offer these rights," he said. "What de Palacio is asking for is what we've been offering since 1996, and we get very positive customer feedback."

More private competition

The Commission's compensation proposals are part of a greater reform aimed at liberalizing the operation of Europe's railways to make train travel a more attractive alternative to driving or using Europe's low budget airlines.

"In 2010, the high-speed trans-European network will be connected and new services will be able to develop on the basis of competition," said de Palacio. "Pressure from low-cost airlines is already a reality for international rail passenger services. They will have to evolve into new models…this is the right time to free up initiatives."

Euro Star, Model

The Eurostar train.

The Commission anticipates the arrival of more private companies to compete with existing trans-national services such as Thalys and Eurostar, which links the U.K. with destinations on the continent. Thalys admits that while budget airlines are competition, the use of private cars is a factor of equal importance.

"Rail companies don't have to be afraid of more competition because the market is big enough," said Leisdon. "Our main objective is to get more people out of their cars and onto trains."

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