European governments are holding back on railway passenger rights

Credit: Alexia Barakou

When travelling from Copenhagen to Warsaw, Hamburg to Brussels, or Lisbon to Marseilles, many choose the plane over train. The ticket price is a major factor, and so is the time spent travelling. But there is another big deterrent for choosing the train: the sheer hassle of piecing together a cross-border trip that involves dealing with several train operators on different websites and in several different languages.

The air plane business — international in nature — has, over time (and without EU regulation), opened up ticket and route data allowing third-party companies like Skyscanner or Momondo to compare fares and sell tickets. But the same can’t be said for train operators. Even today, most train tickets are sold only on the companies’ own websites.

This situation could have changed last year, thanks to an EU law that upgraded the common minimum standards for rail passenger rights. But it didn’t. 

In the European Parliament, the rapporteur for the file, Polish social democrat Bogusław Liberadzki, put forward and gained support for an amendment of the revised train passenger rights regulation, which would require train companies to open up their data. The amendment reads: “Railway undertakings shall provide non-discriminatory access to all travel information, including real-time operational information on timetables and tariffs data…”

A video by the European Parliament about passenger rights for train travellers

Swedish green MEP Jakop Dalunde was one of the main proponents for the amendment. He says that in the beginning, he had felt alone in thinking that open ticket data was crucial if Europe wanted to increase cross-border train travelling.

“But once I talked to different MEPs and explained, almost all of them thought it was good,” he says. “Politicians to the left [agreed] because it would make it easier for people to choose the train; people to the right because it meant more competition.”

Bogusław Liberadzki at the Parliament’s press conference on rail passengers’ rights and obligations (2018) | Photo: CUGNOT/EU

The amendment found its way to the transport committee’s report, adopted in October 2018. A month later, it was adopted in plenary with massive support — 533 votes in favour, 37 against, and 47 abstentions.

Council resistance

But in the other legislative body of the EU — the Council of Ministers, comprised of member state governments — the parliament’s proposal on open ticketing data was a non-starter. In the working party on land transport, where national diplomats negotiate the technical aspects of EU law, it was immediately cast aside.

Sweden brought up the proposal, but received no support from the other member states, according to the government’s legal expert, Alexander Nilsson. 

“In the Council working group we have pursued that proposal, inspired by Parliament’s proposals, and we have been alone in doing so,” he said to the Swedish parliament’s European Affairs Committee.

In the Council’s position on the law, which was adopted on December 2, 2019, there was no obligation on open ticketing data.

The final EU law — hammered out in three-party negotiations between the Parliament, Council, and the European Commission  (called trilogues) — states that “infrastructure managers shall distribute real-time data relating to the arrival and the departure of trains to railway undertakings, ticket vendors, tour operators, and station managers”. 

The obligation is however not to provide the data in a non-discriminatory way, only through contracts. Moreover, this requirement doesn’t have to be enforced till 2030 if it is “not technically feasible”.

Fragmented Europe

Mark Smith, known to train enthusiasts as the Man in Seat 61, which is also the name of the travel site that he has created, says that in Europe today, there are 30 countries with their own national railway and ticketing and fare systems. On top of that, there are a dozen independent train operators, with their stand-alone ticketing systems.

“It’s a very fragmented business,” he shares. “And a lot of journeys involve multiple tickets or multiple websites.”

A couple of companies have tried to plug this gap in the market, including Raileurope and Trainline. But they are virtually unknown to consumers. And they only connect to train operators in some West European countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland. Neither Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Sweden, Finland nor Norway are participants, says Mark Smith.

“So the only place you will get a €19 euro ticket from Budapest to Zagreb is the Hungarian railways website,” he explains. “It rolls off everyone’s tongue of course. A household name… not.”

This market failure means that consumers have to turn to either niche travel agencies or ask for help from train nerds such as Mark Smith, who shares the best routes and tips on his website for free. 

In Sweden, the Facebook group “Train vacation” has over 100,000 members who help each other navigate different train options. One of them is Green MEP Jakop Dalunde.

“I sit there daily and answer questions,” he says. “You can book this route with that operator, and the other route with this operator. Unfortunately, there is rarely a salesperson that you can then turn to and book the entire trip. For me, who started going on Inter-rails when I was a teenager, I think it’s fun to sit there and book and organise, like others solve Sudoku. But for parents with small children who feel climate anxiety and want to take the train to Genoa, it is just a too high threshold.”

Passenger rights lost

If national train companies don’t want to open up their data so that others can compare and sell their tickets, shouldn’t they themselves provide this service? This too was up for discussion – and was eventually turned down.

In the revised rail passenger rights regulation, the European Commission proposed, in article 10, a requirement to “make all possible efforts to offer through-tickets, including for journeys across borders and with more than one railway undertaking.”

“Through tickets” means that a train ticket from Malmö to Cologne would be considered as one single ticket, although there are Swedish, Danish and German train companies operating different legs of the journey. 

Few train companies offer through tickets today, writes the European Commission in the passenger rights proposal. And when railway companies only sell tickets for journey segments (not the whole trip) it allows them “to bypass obligations relating to compensation, re-routing and assistance”, it writes.

If a train journey is delayed by an hour, the passenger has the right to get 25% of the ticket price back, according to EU rules. But if the delay is shorter than an hour, but means missing the connecting train run by another operator, and if the final delay is over an hour, the passenger has no right of compensation. Nor will they have the right to hop on the next available train for free. Therefore, long-distance train travel in Europe often means a considerable economic risk for the passenger.

In its position on the rail passenger rights law, the European Parliament strengthened the obligation to provide through tickets. The Council, on the other hand, watered it down. The final deal follows the Council’s wishes: train companies only have to provide through tickets for their fully-owned subsidiaries. For all other trips, the companies only have to make a “reasonable effort” to offer those. 

Jakop Dalunde | Photo: EU

The article in question was discussed in the Council working party in May 2019. One of the national officials in the meeting recorded that “Germany, France and Spain opposed the proposed unconditional obligation to offer through tickets. The Czech Republic and Great Britain were also sceptical, as this obligation would be difficult to fulfil, at least for smaller vendors”.

Other sources confirm that France, Germany and Spain were the main opponents of any obligation on railway companies to offer through tickets.

In an internal note, the German government justified its opposition by saying that ”that is a matter for the company.”

French diplomats argue that an obligation to provide through tickets will put rail companies at a disadvantage compared to airplanes. 

In a written reply to Investigate Europe, the French ministry of transport says that “the French authorities wanted to achieve a balanced and coherent text on passenger rights, reconciling the strengthening of these rights with the preservation of the competitiveness of rail transport compared to other modes of transport, which are often more polluting.”

Even Sweden, which had supported the open data requirement, resisted any through-ticket obligation. A Swedish government note from the Council negotiations states that “an obligation for train companies to provide through tickets should not go so far as to oblige companies to enter into agreements with all other train companies in the EU to provide each other’s tickets.”

Big barriers

Railway companies are national in nature and by history. The share of cross-border travelling is small; the income mainly comes from national rail.

But to many train experts and activists, this national thinking and the reluctance to cooperate with each other on ticketing and passenger rights is one of the major reasons why cross-border European rail just isn’t kicking off. 

“These soft issues could actually be solved without building any high-speed tracks, without even running an extra train,” says Mark Smith, the UK train enthusiast.

The trilogues, where the compromise on revised rail passenger rights was negotiated, took place in autumn 2019, two years after the parliament had adopted its position. José Ramón Bauzá, Spanish  MEP and shadow rapporteur for the Liberal group in the Parliament, says that through tickets were completely non-negotiable for the Council.

“The Council did not accept this under any circumstances, as they considered that the sector is not yet sufficiently prepared to issue through tickets between two or more companies with different shareholdings,” he says.

In the end, the Parliament had to accept the compromise, or risk getting nothing. At least the compromise brings in the concept of through tickets to the legal text, says Bauzá.

On the open-data, there was little real negotiation in the trilogue, he recalls. The Council argued that not all companies had the capacity to make all the information available online at the moment, and the parliament accepted it.

“That point was left a little more unguarded — that is true,” says Bauzá.  

Between the time the Parliament adopted its position and the start of the trilogues, the European Parliament held its 2019 elections.

The shadow rapporteur for the Greens, German Michael Cramer, had left the parliament, and the Swede Jakop Dalunde, who was thought to take Cramer’s place, wasn’t re-elected. He came back after the negotiations had been terminated, on a so called “Brexit mandate” (when some of the UK’s seats were shared among the member states).

According to Jakop Dalunde, the issue of open ticketing data got lost in the trilogue because the parliament delegation was not focused on the topic.

“The focus was more on delays and bicycles, which is also very important. But it’s not the same make-or-break issue to get European rail travel going,” says Dalunde.