Europe Enforces New Rail Passenger Rights

» If a similar law existed in the United States, Amtrak would suffer.

Two years after approving the measure, the European Union has a series of new regulations in effect today that will dramatically increase the rights of travelers on the continent’s huge rail system. Immediately affecting all cross-border travel, the rules will be enforced as desired by each separate nation until they become mandatory in fifteen years.

The rules make railway companies liable in many of the same ways that airlines already are in the E.U. Railroads will be forced to compensate deaths caused by accidents at a minimum rate of €310,000 per person and they will now be required to refund personal property losses at up to €1,800 per person. Most importantly, though, the rules require companies to refund 25% of the ticket price — in cash — if a train experiences a 60-119 minutes delay and a full 50% if a train is delayed by more than 120 minutes. If a train is delayed by more than 60 minutes and a passenger does not want to start or continue the trip, he or she has the right to ask for a full reimbursement or a ticket to take the trip another day. Like airlines, railroad companies will have to provide free meals and refreshments “in reasonable relation to the waiting time,” in addition to offering a free hotel room if an overnight stay is necessary.

Though Europe’s rail users benefit from a well-maintained and efficient network, these new regulations will put in place a number of rights that should dramatically improve the usability of lines, especially for customers who are delayed. It should be noted that several European countries already have similar, albeit less stringent, rules in effect.

The decision by E.U. officials to liberalize the continent’s rail systems by opening up local, regional, and international services to competition provided the primary motivation for the move, which is intended to assuage fears that privately run companies will be unresponsive to customer demands. Though most countries in the E.U. adopted the rules for their intercity lines today, the U.K. has pointedly refused not to make a decision on the rules until early next year, claiming that the country’s system is not yet ready for the rules. The opposition Tory party has taken advantage of the Labour government’s delay, arguing that if they are to come to power, they will offer the rights to the country’s citizens as quickly as possible.

And indeed, the Tories have a point, since providing such advantages to rail passengers makes for a better and more usable system for everyone; a traveler has the right to assume that her train will depart and arrive on time and that if it does not, she will be compensated for her loss. Such rights build ridership and confidence in the transportation system.

Of course, the E.U. is only able to enforce this legislation because of the strength of the European rail passenger network. If faced with a situation similar to that of Amtrak, which is plagued by constant delays, legislators may not have been willing to move forward with the law.

Amtrak faces huge performance issues that would make the European rules laughable if enforced in the United States. According to the public company’s August monthly performance report, the most recent available online, Amtrak’s on-time ridership numbers would make compensation so frequent with such legislation that Amtrak would lose a massive portion of its already minimal revenue.

Today, all fifteen of Amtrak’s long-distance trains are designed with “scheduled recovery minutes” ranging from 51 to 307 minutes — essentially padding on the schedule that is supposed to compensate for the fact that passenger trains are frequently delayed by freight trains, broken-down material, or track problems. Eleven of the lines have scheduled recovery times of more than two hours, meaning that a standard trip, from end to end, could take literally two hours less than scheduled if everything went right.

Yet, even with this recovery time, nine of the fifteen trains were usually delayed significantly. On average, the Cardinal and Lake Shore Limited trains were both delayed by 90 minutes or more — meaning that virtually all customers, every day, would be able to receive a 25% refund (at least) if the E.U. rules were in effect. The Empire Builder, Palmetto, Silver Star, and Sunset Limited Trains all had average delays of between 30 to 60 minutes, meaning a large percentage of their passengers would also likely qualify for refunds. Moreover, the number of Amtrak trains running late by two hours or more isn’t so rare, and those customers affected probably deserve a refund, but the U.S. rail system is so broken that doing so might force the shut down of the already money-losing company.

Amtrak’s situation is clearly at the extreme and no segment of the European rail system has problems of its magnitude, but one wonders if companies there will begin to pad their schedules as the American company does to ensure that passengers arrive “on time.” Of course, doing so would increase trip times and consequently push more people to the airlines and the roadways. Yet the benefits of the new passenger rights will outweigh the problems caused by the system’s implementation. One hopes that one day we’ll be able to enforce similar rules in the U.S.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Max Wyss

    Comparing the European network with Amtrak is a little bit unfair for Amtrak. Most Euripean trains have a end-to-end point travel time of less than 6 hours, some get to 8 hours, and there are some getting into the 12 hours range. Beyond that, we end up with very few trains at all, and some of them (night trains to Italy almost all stop operating with the timetable change on December 13). Now, compare these times with Amtrak’s average transit times.

    I think somehow related to this new regulation is also the unfortunate airline-like system of tying a ticket to a specific train (just as Amtrak not having many non-reserved trains anymore). This system inherently reduces the passengers rights, and therefore, these rights have to be strengthened by those regulations.

    Another not so fortune consequence may also be that regional trains will be delayed because a delayed intercity train falling under the regulation will be given priority over everything. Current practice is to let the delay of a seriously delayed train increase and give priority to any other on time trains. Of course, that applies essentially for denser traffic and highly loaded lines.

  • Actually, I think those rules would do a lot to improve Amtrak’s performance. Right now, there’s nothing that forces Amtrak to be on time, and, as a result, OTP is abysmal even on Amtrak-owned segments like the Northeast Corridor. A similar regulation in the US would force Amtrak to bring itself up to date with the punctuality of trains in Germany and Japan rather than with this of trains in Italy. It would require it to spend money to make sure the tracks are in good condition, and to negotiate agreements with its freight hosts that reduce its liability in cases of a freight problem.

  • 1. Amtrak’s on-time performance has got radically better over the past year. Less freight congestion due to the economy has helped, but really the reason is that Amtrak worked with the freight railroads and made deals. Still, less delay still leaves a lot.

    2. It’s easy blaming the freight railroads, but many (not the majority but perhaps as much as 20-30%) delays were Amtrak’s fault, either lack of hustle by the crews, which is endemic, or more seriously, mechanical breakdowns contributed to by lack of maintenance. Look at the on-time performance of the northeast corridor with almost no freights – it’s not great.

    3. Freight railroads have an even bigger problem keeping their own trains running on time, although it’s better now than it was. The whole network needs more discipline. If everything is random then scheduled passenger trains are like fish trying to swim up a waterfall. A scheduled railroad uses all assets better and performs better for the customer, freight and passenger.

  • David

    I doubt the private railway companies could pad their schedules beyond the amount already allowed by the rail regulators – but you have a point and there is already an example of where this happens; in the UK.

    In the UK the train operating companies have published schedules and working schedules. The published schedules include extra minutes to account for delays caused by being held a a signal, or slowed by adverse signals. The working timetable is based on the expected performance given the path allotted, expected delays at junctions and the characteristics of the equipment.

    How much different the published schedule is from the working is watched closely; but the two schedules are for precisely the reason you state, to avoid penalty payments for running late. In the UK, the train operators have to meet on-time performance and late running trains can and do lead to penalties under their franchise agreements.

  • jon

    I suspect you’d have to do it based on how late the train is in relation to the overall trip time, measured as a percentage. In the US with our thousands of mile long train routes that last of days, these European rules would not work. I mean if youve been on a 48-72 hour long train ride, 30 minutes late isn’t much. But 30 minutes late on a typical 2 hour long train ride is a different story.

    As for Amtrak, yesterday I got off the northbound Coast Starlight which was surprisingly on time, we were so on time that we had to wait in Klamath Falls OR for about 1 hour then arrived into Portland 40 minutes ahead of schedule. The train would then continue on to Seattle over an hour later when it was scheduled to depart. Clearly there is some serious schedule padding on the CS schedule. When I took the NEC Regional about a week earlier, it was about an hour late out of NYC for a relatively short run to Boston.

    Amtrak is pretty good about compensating for delays through free food. Years ago while heading out on the Sunset Limited the train was hours late leaving LA to begin the journey, so they ordered boxes of KFC for everyone. I remember hundreds of individual KFC meal boxes piled up on a cart behind one of those station “tug” vehicles driving through Union Station.

    According to a dining car steward there is an unofficial Amtrak policy of a free snack box for a train later than 3 hours and a free dining car hot meal for a delay longer than 6 hours. Have an ulcer over that one, CBO bean counters and John McCain.

  • Jon, European and Japanese railroads are capable of staying within one minute of schedule, even on long-distance trains that take many hours.

  • jon

    …as are American railroads as I found out on my Coast Starlight journey.

  • Not consistently – in 2008, Amtrak’s LD trains were often delayed even by Amtrak’s 30-minute standards.

  • Spokker

    “…as are American railroads as I found out on my Coast Starlight journey.”

    On the Coast Starlight you could arrive 40 minutes before your scheduled arrival time in Los Angeles if there are no delays. That should give you a good idea of the kind of padding they put on these schedules.

  • jon

    Yeah I think it was the first long distance Amtrak train I’ve been on that wasnt late. And I know the CS is notorious for being very late.

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