» 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.